The supplements women take while they are pregnant can make a difference in their children's lives as long as eight years later, due to the brain-building power of the essential fatty acid decosahexaenoic acid, also known as DHA. The most benefits of taking DHA during pregnancy are:
- Higher probability of carrying the baby to term.
- Lower probability of post-partum depression.
- Lower risk of attention deficit disorder at child's age 7.
- Enhanced speech and spatial abilities at child's age 7.
DHA Found in Food, Also Made in the Body
DHA is an essential fatty acid that is found in fish oil, krill oil, and supplements made from microalgae. The human body can also make it from the plant fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the essential fatty acid eicosahexaenoic acid (EPA), although 80 to 95% of the starting material is lost in the conversion process.
DHA Helps Brains and Eyes Connect
The importance of DHA to growing brains is that it helps them make connections, especially in the forebrain, which is the center for higher intellectual activity, and in the visual cortex. DHA also makes up about 35% of the total matter of the retina at the back of the eye. But one of the most important functions of DHA is helping mothers carry their babies to term.
DHA Helps Women Carry Babies to Term
Studies of women in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, where fish is a major part of the everyday diet, have found that the DHA in fish oil increases the production of prostacyclins in the smooth muscles lining the uterus. These hormone-like substances quell uterine contractions that initiate labor.
DHA also counteracts the hormones that "ripen" the cervix so it can be stretched for the birth of the child. Keeping the child in the womb as long as possible protects delicate nerves from the ill effects of overexposure to oxygen outside. Scientists have also observed that DHA seems to prevent post-partum depression. In women who get their DHA from fish or microalgae (that is, their bodies don't have to make it from the ALA in flaxseed oil and similar plant oil), there is a reduced risk of this devastating condition after giving birth, although research is still ongoing.
DHA Gives Children Better Brain Health
Babies who receive more DHA enjoy better brain health as soon as they are born. Five clinical studies have found that babies who get DHA in formula have greater visual acuity as early as age two months, although other babies tend to catch up by the age of four months.
Babies who are given formula fortified with DHA have higher intelligence scores at the age of nine months. But even if a child only receives more DHA while in the womb, the benefits can last for years. Dutch scientists took samples of umbilical cord blood from over 300 babies.
They measured the DHA content in the umbilical cord blood, and then followed the children for seven years. By the age of seven, the babies who had received the most DHA while still in the womb had more highly developed visual skills.
They were more likely to be able to catch a ball or tie their shoes. They were also more likely to be focused. They did not have higher IQs, but they communicated in longer sentences. They less likely to fidget or fuss or show signs of ADHD. DHA benefited children who had been born pre-term and children who had been born full-term, and both girls and boys.
Flaxseed Oil Not a Source of DHA
There is a misunderstanding that women can get DHA directly from flaxseed oil. Actually, the body has to convert the alpha-linolenic acid in flaxseed (hemp, or chia) oil into stearidonic acid (which is found in blackcurrant oil).
Then the body has to convert the stearidonic acid into eicosatetraenoic acid and the eicosatetraenoic acid into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the EPA into docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) and finally the docosapentaenoic acid into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
At every step there is some loss of the original material. Although this process is much more efficient during pregnancy than at any other time during a woman's life, still only about 20% of the original ALA becomes the needed DHA. The other 80% gets turned into other kinds of fat.
DHA supplements are much more readily used by a woman's body. And DHA-enriched fish oil is 5 to 10 times less expensive than DHA from marine algae or krill. Every woman should take DHA during pregnancy. The baby's brain will benefit for many years to come.
- Breslow JL. n-3 Fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006; 83: S1477-82.
- Denomme J, Stark KD, Holub BJ. Directly quantitated dietary (n-3) fatty acid intake of pregnant Canadian women are lower than current dietary recommendations. J Nutr. 2005; 135: 206-11 .
- Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases?Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 89: S1607-12.
- Innis SM, Elias SL. Intakes of essential n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids among pregnant Canadian women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003; 77: 473-8.
- Innis SM, Friesen RW. Essential n-3 fatty acids among pregnant women and early visual acuity maturation in term infants. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008; 87: 548-57.
- Innis SM, Hansen JW. Plasma fatty acid responses, metabolic effects, and safety of microalgal and fungal oils rich in arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acids in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 1996; 64: 159-67.
- Institute of Medicine. Seafood choices. Balancing benefits and risks. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2007.
- Key TJ, Appleby PN, Spencer EA, Travis RC, Roddam AW, Allen NE. Mortality in British vegetarians: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford). Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 89: S1613-9.
- Madden SM, Garrioch CF, Holub BJ. Direct diet quantification indicates low intakes of (n-3) fatty acids in children 4 to 8 years old. J Nutr. 2009; 139: 528-32.
- Mente A, de Koning L, Shannon HS, Anand SS. A systematic review of the evidence supporting a causal link between dietary factors and coronary heart disease. Arch Intern Med. 2009; 169: 659-69.
- Miyake Y, Saski S, Tanaka K, Ohfuji S, Hirota Y. Maternal fat consumption during pregnancy and risk of wheeze and eczema in Japanese infants aged 16-24 months: The Osaka Maternal and Child Health Study. Thorax. 2009; 64: 815-21..
- Novak EM, Dyer RA, Innis SM. High dietary omega-6 fatty acids contribute to reduced docosahexaenoic acid in the developing brain and inhibit secondary neurite growth. Brain Res. 2008; 1237: 136-45.
- Willett W. Lessons from dietary studies in Adventists and questions for the future. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003; 78: S539-43.