What image comes to mind when you hear Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)? Known as “gold of the brain” in Chinese, and more commonly known as omega-3 fatty acid or by its acronym DHA, Docosahexaenoic acid is found in fish and is added to many infant formulas. You probably have heard the saying “the more fish you eat, the smarter you get!” Why is DHA associated to infant growth? What is the recommended intake for expecting moms and what are the sources of DHA?
DHA During Pregnancy: Goodbye to allergies!
Docosahexaenoic acids (DHA) are unsaturated fatty acids usually found in the fats of cold-water fish like bluefish or tuna. DHA not only helps improve blood circulation, research has shown that it is highly likely that DHA has a good effect on atopic eczema and helps suppress allergies and cancer. DHA is found in the retina and the brain and is especially essential for children’s development.
DHA is not a nutrient that is created naturally in the body and so must be obtained through food. The modern man eats a bigger variety of meats and when compared to past diets of our ancestors, it isn’t wrong to say that we’re taking in less DHA through our meals. Make a conscious effort to eat some DHA-rich foods if you haven’t been including this in your diet, as this will contribute positively to the growth of your baby.
The relation between DHA during pregnancy and the baby’s brain?
DHA is found in the nerve cells of the brain and is recognized as the building block of the brain. The DHA found in nerve cells help to keep the membranes of the synapses fluid and facilitates a more efficient passage of electrical signals, thus improving brain function and memory. In short, DHA helps your brain work faster – the hippocampus contains DHA and is the part of the brain associated with memory power and concentration span, so DHA has a direct relation with your ability to think.
DHA isn’t just good for your brain; it’s good for your baby’s brain too! Your baby’s brain starts forming while they are in your belly and DHA starts appearing in your baby’s brain sometime around Week 20. The amount of DHA in your baby’s brain will continue to increase even after birth.
Even after birth, DHA has a direct influence on the development of your baby’s brain. DHA has an effect on your child’s memory power during infancy, concentration span in their primary school days, as well as their ability to learn in general. This goes to show how vital a role DHA plays in the growth and development of children. Michael A. Crawford, the director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition in London since 1990, suggested that children in Japan possessed a higher learning capability because they ate fish on a regular basis. In other words, fish is essential to the growth of children and it is recommended that, when and where possible, it should be included in their diet.
How much DHA should I take during pregnancy, and what are the sources?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration encourages pregnant women to eat more fish for DHA, but also warns them to watch mercury levels. According to the FDA and The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, the recommended allowance for pregnant women is at least 8 ounces and as many as 12 ounces of fish weekly – this translates into about 2 or 3 servings a week.1Each serving would be about 4 to 6 ounces.2
Although DHA is good for both you and your baby, eating it in moderation is also important. Too much DHA (eating more than 3 grams a day) has the effect of thinning the blood in your body.3This can lead to slower blood clotting and prolonged bleeding when you have a wound, or can cause loose stools or stomach upset. Remember it’s important for you to have a balanced diet!
Getting enough DHA from your diet!
Babies obtain DHA from their mothers through the placenta. Thus, there is a need for pregnant woman themselves to include DHA in their diets: Although fish is a good option, make sure you refrain from eating raw fish and opt for steamed or grilled fish instead. Even after your baby is born, your baby continues to get DHA from you through breastmilk. If you’re not up for breastfeeding, you might want to look into and consider getting infant formula that is rich in DHA.
When your baby weans and starts eating solid foods, your baby will be able to get DHA from food sources directly. However, typical weaning foods are not high in DHA, and you might have to consider adding oily fish like salmon or mackerel, or egg yolks (no whites!) into your baby’s diet.
When fish is steamed or fried, the actual amount of DHA your body absorbs is a relatively high amount of around 60% of the original amount of DHA present. DHA becomes oxidized easily, so add olive oil or cucumbers to your dish to slow down the oxidization and increase the DHA you get from your food!
DHA for a lifetime, starting from early pregnancy
DHA is not only the building block of the brain, it also fights allergies, decreases cholesterol levels, has the effect of calming you down, and helps you fight off lifestyle diseases. Recent research also suggests that DHA plays a vital role in fighting off Alzheimer’s in old age, so regardless of whether your baby is in utero or is an infant, remember that DHA can give you and your child a better quality life. Start getting more DHA through your diet, and start today!