Developing infants cannot efficiently produce their own DHA and must obtain this vital nutrient through the placenta during pregnancy and from breast milk following birth. Increasing DHA in the diet during pregnancy and nursing significantly enhances the level of DHA available to the unborn baby and infant.
DHA omega-3 is found throughout the body, but is most abundant in the brain, eyes and heart. In fact, DHA represents about 97 percent of all omega-3 fats in the brain and 93 percent of all omega-3 fats in the retina in the eye. DHA accumulates both prenatally and postnatally in infant brain, eye and nervous system tissue.
What are the benefits of DHA in pregnancy?DHA is important for optimal infant brain and eye development. DHA is important throughout pregnancy, particularly in the third trimester when major brain growth occurs. Increasing DHA intake during pregnancy and nursing significantly enhances the level of DHA available to the fetus and infant. Some studies support that supplementation of DHA in the mother’s diet improves these infant developmental outcomes:
- eye-hand coordination
- motor skills
- attention span
How much DHA is needed in pregnancy?
A woman’s DHA levels are diet dependant. Women consuming the standard American diet of childbearing age are at risk of low stores of DHA. This is because the primary dietary sources of DHA are fatty fish and organ meats and pregnant and nursing women are advised to limit their fish consumption due to the potentially high levels of toxins such as mercury.
As awareness of the importance of DHA grows, more attention is being paid to the fact that pregnant and breastfeeding women may benefit from getting more DHA in their diets.
The EFSA Scientific Panel recommends "pregnant and nursing women should consume an additional 100-200 mg DHA daily in addition to the 250 mg omega-3 intake recommended by EFSA for adults".
I recommend that pregnant and nursing women consume 300mg of DHA per day all the way through their pregnancy as well as prenatally and postnatally especially if breast feeding. A growing understanding of the dietary sources of DHA and the inclusion of DHA into a growing number of prenatal supplements are making it easier for women of childbearing age to include this important nutrient in their diets every day.
What are dietary sources of DHA?
- Algae - Certain microalgae are natural sources of DHA. While most people believe that fish produce their own DHA, in fact, it’s the algae they feed on that make them a rich source of DHA. A natural vegetarian source of DHA can now be produced from microalgae and is currently available in dietary supplements, fortified foods, and a number of infant formulas sold worldwide.
- Fatty fish: anchovies, salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna and halibut
- Organ meat: liver
- Poultry and egg yolks contain small amounts
- There is a common misconception that flaxseed oil is a dietary source of DHA. However, flaxseed oil is a source of alpha-linolenic acid, ALA, a precursor of DHA. ALA has no known independent benefits on brain or eye development and function, compared to DHA. Although the human body can convert ALA to DHA, the process is inefficient and variable.