Which fish should pregnant women avoid eating?

With attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on the rise, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) are on the path to discovering potential exposure or lifestyle factors that increase the risk of ADHD-related behavior. A new study points to a potential role for low levels of mercury exposure by women during pregnancy.

ADHD affects approximately 8-12 percent of children worldwide, yet its causes are not well understood. Now, a study led by BWH’s Susan Korrick, MD, MPH, and Sharon Sagiv, PhD, MPH, formerly of BWH and now at Boston University School of Public Health, links low-level prenatal mercury exposure with a greater risk of ADHD-related behaviors.

Conversely, the study also finds that eating fish during pregnancy can help to reduce the risk of ADHD-related behaviors in children.  This duality is possible because many types of fish have low levels of mercury, so it is possible for a pregnant woman to eat nutritionally beneficial fish without being exposed to too much mercury.

Dr. Korrick says, “These findings underscore the difficulties pregnant women face when trying to balance the nutritional benefits of fish intake with the potential detriments of low-level mercury exposure.”

So what’s a pregnant woman to do?

“Women need to know that nutrients in fish are good for the brain of a developing fetus, but women need to be aware that high mercury levels in some fish pose a risk,” says Dr. Sagiv, underscoring an important public health message for pregnant women.  Read more about the study on mercury, pregnancy, and ADHD, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine on October 8, 2012.

– JCL

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