Many people today are more conscious about the food they eat. But nothing makes a woman question what she puts in her mouth more than pregnancy. While folic acid and calcium may be the first nutritional needs that come to mind, there is another that's just as important and sometimes overlooked : docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA.
DHA, an omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, is found in every cell of the body. It is critical for brain, eye, and central nervous system development and functioning.
During pregnancy, developing babies rely on their mothers to get needed DHA. Since DHA is derived from the foods we eat, the content of DHA in a mother's diet determines the amount of DHA passed on to her developing baby.
Unfortunately, many pregnant women fail to get the recommended amount of DHA in their diets and DHA is not found in most 'pre-natal' vitamins.
DHA in Breast Milk
A study performed at Texas Tech University showed a correlation between the amounts of DHA found in a mother's milk and a baby's cognitive function. Basically, the more DHA mum had, the smarter her baby was. Babies need DHA for optimal brain and eye development and they get the DHA from mum's breast milk.
This study, published in the Journal of Paediatrics Psychiatry, revealed a positive correlation between DHA levels in breast milk and newborn neuro-behavioural function. These findings support numerous clinical studies showing that DHA plays an important role in infant mental and visual development.
Developing infants cannot efficiently make their own DHA and must obtain it through their mothers' placentas during pregnancy, and from breast milk after birth. The amount of DHA in a mother's diet determines the amount of DHA in her breast milk.
Dietary Sources of DHA
The purest source of DHA is not the fish itself, but rather what fish consume : the ocean's vegetarian plant algae. Taking DHA supplements produced from marine algae is therefore a safe way for pregnant women to boost their fatty acid stores.
Studies show that DHA supplementation while breastfeeding effectively increases DHA levels in the mother's milk, as well as in the infant's blood.
One recent study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that infants of mothers who supplemented with DHA during the first 4 months of breastfeeding had better psychomotor skills at two-and-a-half years of age.
The American Heart Association, United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have all issued advisories on the consumption of fish.
These warnings come in response to findings that certain fish contain methylmercury, a contaminant that, when present at high levels, could harm the developing nervous system of foetuses, newborns, and toddlers.
This could lead to negative effects on attention span, language, visual-spatial skills, memory, and coordination. It is estimated that nearly 60,000 children each year are born at risk for neurological problems due to methylmercury exposure in the womb.
To minimise the risk of mercury exposure, the FDA recommends that pregnant, breastfeeding mothers and young children eat no more than 340g of cooked fish per week and choose a variety of fish rather than a single type. They are to avoid consuming big fish like shark, swordfish, tile fish, and king mackerel, which contain the highest levels of methylmercury.
DHA From Different Sources
Fish oil is derived from the tissues of oily fish and it contains both DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). However, ordinary fish oil supplements contain fairly large amounts of EPA and moderate amounts of DHA. In adults, both are digested and absorbed. However, in infants and foetuses, EPA might compete with DHA for a place in the nerve cell membranes and this may be detrimental to the developing brain, eye, and nervous system.
In human breast milk, the amount of DHA is 4 times higher than the amount of EPA – nature knows best!
Some manufacturers produce their fish oil via a process called 'molecular distillation' to eliminate methylmercury and other toxins found in fish. However, this process will not remove 100% of methylmercury because with the present day technique, there will still be traces of toxins – which maybe below detectable levels. It all depends on the sensitivity of the testing equipment.
DHA supplements derived from algae are now available. They provide a safer option for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers who want the benefits of DHA for their babies without having to worry about methylmercury toxicity or high EPA content.
Farmed algae located away from the sea means that there is no exposure to oceanic contaminants. DHA from algae source is also free from other long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, like EPA, that is found naturally in fish oil.
The experts from the National Institutes of Health and International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (NIH/ISSFAL) have recommended an intake of 300mg of DHA per day for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
Some studies have also found that adequate levels of DHA in the maternal diet may play a role in helping a mother's emotional well-being after birth.
DHA supplements packaged in enteric-coated vegetable capsules have an added advantage. The enteric coating protects the capsule from stomach acids, thus ensuring that the capsule is disintegrated in the intestines, and not in the stomach. The absorption of DHA is better in the intestines.
Furthermore, there will not be any after-taste when burping. This is an important point for a pregnant woman because she may be overly sensitive to certain smells.
In picking the right DHA supplement for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, make certain that the source is from plants (algae). They are a safer option because they do not contain any of the toxins, heavy metals, or EPA that are found in fish-sourced DHA supplements. Also, do not forget that enteric coated DHA supplements have their advantages!
A healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding is vital for both mother and baby. Apart from getting the daily dose of DHA, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should also consume prenatal supplements with higher amounts of calcium, iron, and folic acid to support the increased demands of this crucial developmental stage of her baby.
More info on DHA here.
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