DHA For A Healthy Baby
Dietary advice abounds on the internet today! But with contradictions and wild headlines, how can you know what is right for your body? Going beyond the fads and unproven claims to look at the scientific research is important.
One thing that research has repeatedly shown is that the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is essential for healthy babies.
Is DHA important, though, when trying to conceive? Absolutely! Research shows that DHA is essential both when trying to conceive and throughout pregnancy. Women who consume higher amounts of DHA are more likely to get pregnant. And DHA helps increase male sperm count as well.
Let's dig into the science and genetics of omega-3 fatty acids.
This article will:
- explain the research on how DHA levels impact fertility
- show why a vegan diet may leave some people short of DHA
- describe why DHA during pregnancy has long term effects on your baby’s brain.
The different types of fats are defined by their chemical structure. Fats are made up mainly of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and the way that they are bonded together defines their structure.
Saturated fats have single bonds between all of the carbons and hydrogens. (see image below) Because it has the maximum number of hydrogens bonded to the carbons, it's "saturated" with hydrogen atoms. This makes them into a straight chain, and also allows them to pack together more tightly. Saturated fats tend to be solids at room temperature – like butter and coconut oil.
Unsaturated fats have at least one carbon-carbon double bond, which causes a bend in the molecule. The bent fatty acids can’t pack together as tightly, making them a liquid at room temperature.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) have one carbon-carbon double bond (thus the "mono") with all of the remainder carbon atoms being single-bonded. Examples of foods with high monounsaturated fats are avocados, olive oil, and nuts. They are liquid at room temperature, but will become solid when chilled.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) have 2 or more carbon-carbon double bonds in their structure. The more double bonds in a fat, the more unstable to heat and prone to rancidity/oxidation and therefore the generation of damaging free radicals it becomes.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats with several double bonds in the chemical structure.
Omega-3 fats have a double bond as their third bond. Omega-3 fats are called "essential" fatty acids because we can't make it on our own and must obtain it through our diet.
Examples of oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Chia seed
- Fish oil
Oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids include soybean, corn, sunflower, cottonseed, walnut, and peanut oil. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is important in your diet. Most people today get too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 fats in their diet. (study)
There are three main omega-3 fatty acids in the diet: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
DHA is the most important omega-3 fatty acid in the human body. It's found in fatty fish, fish oil, grass-fed meat, and pasture-raised eggs.
While your body can convert ALA and EPA to DHA, that conversion is severely limited in some people due to genetic variants. The conversion is also almost non-existent in babies and young children, making DHA an essential part of their diet.
DHA for fertility
While DHA is vital for a healthy baby, it is also extremely important when trying to conceive.
An animal study makes clear that supplementing with omega-3s helps with egg quality. The study found that supplementing omega-3 fatty acids helped to extend the age range for fertility as well as improving the quality of the oocyte. (study)
But what about humans? Studies show that women who have higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids are more likely to get pregnant than women with the lowest intake.
A study of 501 couples who were trying to conceive clearly shows the importance of DHA in the diet. When both the male and female partners consumed eight or more servings of seafood per month, they had a 61% greater rate of pregnancy – and shorter time to conception. (study)
For women undergoing in-vitro fertilization, higher levels of DHA are associated with a higher birth rate. (study)
Essential for development:
Looking beyond just trying to conceive, higher DHA levels are also important for the health of the baby. DHA is incorporated into the neurons of the brain and essential for the baby’s development. Animal studies make it clear that DHA is essential for normal embryonic development. (study)(study)
Low DHA levels have been linked in several studies to an increased risk of preterm births. A Danish study found that women with the lowest levels of DHA were at a 10-fold risk of having their baby prematurely. (study)
A US study found that women who supplemented with 600 mg DHA had babies with greater birth weight, larger head size, and more likely to be full term. (study)
The benefits of DHA go beyond just the pregnancy. Women who had higher DHA levels while they were pregnant ended up having babies with better problem-solving skills when they were 12 months old. (study)
Diabetics have a higher need for DHA
Women with diabetes need higher levels of DHA while they are pregnant. A study showed that diabetic moms-to-be had a reduction in the transfer of DHA to the baby. The researchers recommended that pregnant women with diabetes supplement with more DHA. (study)
Plant vs animal sources of DHA
You will often see flaxseed and chia seeds mentioned as good sources of DHA and EPA. These plant sources contain omega-3 fatty acids that need to be converted by the body into DHA and EPA. For a portion of the population, this conversion pathway doesn’t work well.
The FADS1 gene controls the conversion of omega-3s from plant sources into DHA and EPA. There is a common genetic variant that reduces that conversion for many people. Relying on flaxseed or chia seeds for DHA is not a good idea for people who carry the FADS1 variant.
If you have done genetic testing, you can check your raw data to see if you convert the plant-based omega-3s into the DHA that you need in pregnancy.
Check your genetic data for rs174546:
- T/T: low FADS1 enzyme activity and decreased conversion of plant-based omega-3s to DHA (study)
- C/T: low FADS1 enzyme activity and decreased conversion of plant-based omega-3s to DHA
- C/C: normal FADS1 activity
DHA is still important after pregnancy
Breastmilk is high in DHA, which is essential for continuing brain development. Women who are breastfeeding should still maintain higher DHA intake. This is especially important if you carry the FADS1 variant listed above. (study)
Adding more DHA into your diet
With 95% of people not consuming enough DHA, these tips for adding more DHA to your pre-pregnancy diet are important for almost everyone!
Eating fish and seafood is an excellent, whole-food way to increase your DHA. But women who are trying to conceive need to be careful about too much mercury. The FDA recommends that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding avoid eating swordfish, shark, king mackerel, or tilefish.(source)
The Environmental Working Group has an interactive calculator that gives fish recommendations based on age, gender, and whether you are trying to get pregnant. Their advice includes avoiding orange roughy, sole, flounder, and canned tuna due to mercury contamination. They recommend that women trying to get pregnant include the high omega-3 fish sources such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, oysters, mussels, rainbow trout, and pollock. (source)
Another great option is to take a supplement that is high in DHA. There are both fish oil and algal oil (vegetarian) options available. This gives you an easy way to ensure that you are getting enough DHA each day.
How much should you take? Many of the studies on pregnancy and fertility used 600 mg doses of DHA. There is no set RDA for DHA specifically in the US.
Fermented cod liver oil is also high in DHA, along with vitamin A and D, making it a superior option to most processed fish oil supplements.
The website Labdoor.com does independent testing of heavy metal levels and is a great resource for finding quality supplements.