Aug 22, 2022 | By Sophia Zou, medically reviewed by Dr. Patti Haebe, N.M.D
It is important to get the right amount of essential nutrients during pregnancy in order to support a developing baby. One important nutrient mothers should consume is DHA—a type of omega-3 fatty acid.
This essential fatty acid plays a key role in fetal brain and eye development and can even prevent preterm birth. It is recommended to consume at least 200 mg of DHA daily during pregnancy. Although DHA is found in many seafoods, many women still do not get an adequate amount of DHA during pregnancy, so DHA supplements are often highly recommended.
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3s are termed essential fatty acids (EFA), and are necessary for survival, however are not synthesized by the human body.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
ALA is primarily found in plant oils, nuts, and seeds such as flaxseed and canola oils, chia seeds, and walnuts. ALA is able to be converted by the liver into DHA and EPA, however the rate of conversion is minimal—less than 15%, to be exact. Because of this, increasing your levels of DHA and EPA by consuming omega-3 rich foods and/or dietary supplements is important.
DHA and EPA are found in fish and seafood, especially cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, tuna, mackerel, and trout. Omega-3 dietary supplements include fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, and algal oil (a vegetarian source made from algae). Doses of DHA and EPA may vary widely.
What are DHA and EPA?
DHA is an essential fatty acid that is mostly found in cold water fatty fish. It is found naturally in breast milk and is incorporated into some baby formulas as well. DHA is an essential structural fatty acid in the cell membranes of the central nervous system and the retina (in the eye). It has significant effects on cognitive and visual functions in early life and is related to other neurological benefits during later years.
The nutrient is found in the gray matter of the brain, which allows the control of movement, memory, and emotion. It also plays a role in rod and cone development in the eyes, which are important for light and color perception.
Studies have shown that infants of mothers that took DHA supplements while pregnant and breastfeeding experienced improved mental processing, hand-eye coordination development, and depth perception.
In addition, DHA consumption in early years has been associated with the prevention or improvement of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). DHA consumption also has beneficial effects in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
EPA is another essential fatty acid found in cold water fatty fish that provides a number of benefits. EPA gives rise to signaling molecules called eicosanoids and resolvins which have anti-inflammatory effects. Chronic inflammation is associated with a number of common diseases such as arthritis and hepatitis and is thought to be improved by the anti-inflammatory effects of EPA. Furthermore, EPA reduces triglyceride levels in the blood, which in turn can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
One study showed that stroke patients who took EPA had a reduction of stroke recurrence. It has also been shown that EPA can lower the mortality rate in stroke patients. Unlike DHA, which has benefits in neurodegenerative conditions, EPA may have benefits in mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Why is DHA important for fetal development?
Brain and eye development
Human brains are made up of almost 60% fat, so it’s important to consume EFAs during pregnancy, especially DHA, to develop the fetal brain, as well as the retina. Because EFAs are not able to be synthesized by the human body, DHA levels in the fetus are dependent on maternal consumption.
The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) investigated the children of over 11,000 women who consumed different amounts of DHA at 32 weeks of pregnancy and found that the children of mothers who consumed more DHA had a decreased risk of deficient social behavior and development, fine motor, and communication performances.
Preterm birth prevention
Another reason DHA is important to consume during pregnancy is because it decreases the risk for preterm birth. Preterm births are the primary cause of newborn mortality.
An analysis of the correlation between DHA and preterm birth funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that two specific proteins are affected by a higher level of DHA. Higher amounts of these proteins are associated with better pregnancy outcomes and fetal development.
DHA plays an essential role before and during pregnancy. Not sure about what product to purchase? Check out our Premom Prenatal DHA Fish Oil which is packed with essential nutrients for pregnancy, including Vitamin D. In addition to a balanced diet in pregnancy, you will want to consult your doctor for guidance on if DHA supplementation is right for you.
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