If you’ve ever looked at the back of your favorite fish oil supplement, you may have noticed the ingredient DHA, but aside from that, DHA has maintained a relatively low radar in the nutrition world, despite its importance in your health at almost every stage of life. Instead, you’ve probably heard more about omega-3 fatty acids, of which DHA is one type.
More research is pointing to the significance that DHA plays in supporting a healthy pregnancy. As such, prenatal DHA and prenatal vitamins with DHA are becoming increasingly popular. But what is DHA in prenatal vitamins? Read on for more about this key ingredient, including the health benefits of DHA, sources, dosing, and more.
What is DHA in Prenatals?
DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. It’s a long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid.
About 40 years ago, researchers started investigating the wide range of DHA health benefits. The beginning research on DHA found its cardioprotective benefits to be promising. Since then, experts have uncovered more ways that it can promote healthier lives, including DHA for pregnancy.
Health Benefits of DHA
DHA can significantly support your overall health from the beginning stages of pregnancy—for you and your baby—into older adulthood.
DHA in Pregnancy
One of DHA’s most well-known functions is its important role during pregnancy.
This omega-3 actively supports the growth of baby’s brain in the womb. Specifically, DHA works by aiding neural cell growth, function, and signaling.
Although brain development is carried out through the first two years of life, the most vital development happens in the first weeks of pregnancy. Then in the last trimester, DHA will accumulate in baby’s brain.
Researchers believe that children with “DHA-rich frontal lobes” are more likely to exert high-level cognitive activities like planning and problem solving. For context, the frontal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for memory, focus, and information processing.
In addition to fostering cognitive function, DHA also supports visual development. In particular, DHA plays a big role in visual acuity which is a person’s ability to distinguish shapes and details from a given distance. A 2003 study found that prenatal supplementation of DHA has a strong influence on an infant’s visual acuity response.
DHA & Healthy Aging
You don’t have to be pregnant to reap the benefits of DHA, so it can also be a great supplement to continue postpartum and beyond. As with all omega-3s, DHA can help improve many areas of your overall health, especially as you age.
As mentioned earlier, DHA can help with brain development during pregnancy. However, it can also help keep your brain healthy in adulthood. In fact, a review found that supplementing fish oil can help preserve memory function as you get older. In addition, low DHA levels are associated with age-related cognitive disorders.
Researchers suspect that DHA may help lower the risk for different heart conditions by decreasing blood triglycerides. However, a meta-analysis of the effect of DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids did not find strong evidence to support this.
Despite the mixed evidence, DHA’s action on blood triglycerides can still help support your heart by maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. Plus, the American Heart Association (AHA) maintains the significant cardioprotective benefits that omega-3s can have.
Omega-3 fatty acids like DHA are effective at treating inflammatory conditions. As a result, DHA can be helpful for people with stiff or aching joints—a common discomfort that can come with age.
It’s suggested that omega-3s can reduce the amount of arachidonic acid in the joints which can provide significant relief and a reduction in inflammatory markers.
How Much DHA During Pregnancy is Needed?
For pregnant women, a daily minimum of 300 milligrams of DHA is recommended.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 8 ounces of seafood per week. This roughly amounts to two servings of fish. Two servings of fish should provide a daily average of 250 mg of EPA and DHA (combined).
If you have a known risk for coronary artery disease, the AHA recommends 1 g of EPA and DHA (combined) daily.
Sources of DHA
Because the body is unable to make DHA on its own, we must get DHA from dietary sources.
Animal vs Plant Sources of DHA
Seafood is a primary source for DHA. Oily fish are among the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids like DHA.
Here are the top food sources of DHA, based on a typical 3 ounce serving:
- Salmon: 1.24 grams
- Herring: 0.94 grams
- Sardines: 0.74 grams
- Trout: 0.44 grams
- Oysters: 0.23 grams
DHA can also be found in foods that are enriched with omega-3’s such as eggs. Some meats, like those that are 100 percent grass fed, may also contain small amounts of DHA.
Although there are plenty of plant-based sources of omegas, most, if not all, provide the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. Unfortunately, very few contain DHA. Nevertheless, there is one source that can make DHA suitable for people following vegan or plant-based diets.
Algal oil is notably the best plant-based source of DHA. Derived from microalgae, algal oil contains just as much DHA as some of the top DHA-containing foods. Plus, it has comparable absorption and bioavailability to other DHA sources.
Like most oil extracts, algal oil is usually found in supplement form. While the amount of DHA can vary between brands, a typical serving size of algal oil will pack between 120 and 390 mg of DHA. For reference, one serving of HUM Nutrition’s Womb Service Prenatal Step 2 formula provides 350 mg of DHA from algal oil.
Should You Take A Prenatal DHA Supplement?
In the US, most people don’t consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet. Mainly, it’s because traditional Western diets are lacking in seafood and foods that deliver healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds.
In fact, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that two thirds of Americans had low omega-3 serum levels, which includes DHA.
Naturally, it can be a good idea to try a DHA supplement if you suspect that your diet is lacking.
If you’re pregnant, taking additional DHA is highly encouraged. However, it can be difficult to get enough DHA through diet alone, especially if you are avoiding high-mercury fish.
As mentioned earlier, DHA plays a critical role in the healthy brain and eye development in babies. After pregnancy, DHA levels can remain low, so supplementing can help you meet your body’s requirements during the postpartum period.
The fishy odor and aftertaste can be a major downside to taking a DHA supplement – especially when dealing with morning sickness. During HUM’s research and development process, they found that taking DHA separate from a prenatal multivitamin can help prevent the fishy unpleasantries that can happen with algae-based supplements. Fortunately, HUM’s Womb Service Step 2 DHA supplement is odorless and flavorless.
DHA vs. EPA
Usually when you hear about DHA, it’s quickly followed by EPA. DHA and EPA are two of the most abundant and well known omega-3 fatty acids. Because they’re usually sourced from seafood, DHA and EPA are sometimes referred to as marine omegas.
DHA and EPA are typically a package deal. For instance, foods containing DHA almost always contain EPA too. Additionally, the body converts some EPA into DHA. So naturally, DHA and EPA offer many similar benefits.
Here are some examples of benefits that DHA and EPA share:
- Fight inflammation
- Promote immune function
- Support brain, eye, and heart health
Despite their similarities, DHA and EPA also have a few notable differences.
For instance, both target inflammation, but in different ways. EPA helps address inflammation by creating eicosanoids, a class of signaling molecules. On the other hand, a randomized comparison study found that DHA works by balancing common inflammation markers like CRP.
In addition, research suggests that DHA is better for supporting heart health compared to EPA. Similarly, studies have found that DHA is more effective at balancing cholesterol levels, compared to EPA, due to its ability to boost good cholesterol and decrease blood triglycerides.
When it comes to pregnancy, EPA is not as critical as DHA. Besides, the body will turn some EPA into DHA anyways to help support different biological processes.
As you can tell, DHA during pregnancy is an impactful omega-3 fatty acid that offers many benefits. It is especially important for pregnant women to consume adequate amounts of DHA to support baby’s brain and visual development both through their diet and with a prenatal DHA supplement.
HUM Nutrition’s Womb Service Prenatal Multi + DHA delivers 350 mg of vegan DHA sourced from algal oil without the fishy burps or taste.
**This information should not be used in lieu of professional medical advice. Always follow guidance from your OB-GYN and/or primary care physician.