When you’re pregnant, your body needs certain nutrients to promote the health of you and your developing baby. Docosahexaenoic acid (or DHA) is one of the nutrients that your body can’t make itself and is often recommended as a supplement during pregnancy. We’ll discuss what DHA is, why it’s important, and how it’s used most effectively.
DHA and pregnancy
DHA is a nutrient associated with fetal brain development. A growth spurt in brain development occurs in the third trimester and you need more DHA to help this process. Your body doesn’t make DHA, so your primary care provider may recommend a prenatal that includes this omega-3 if it’s not present in your diet. Cold-water fish, such as tuna or salmon, is the best food source. You can also get DHA from marine algae and marine oils.
What is DHA?
DHA is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that may be beneficial for the development of your baby. There are other types of omega-3 fatty acids, including EPA, that are often found working with DHA to help promote healthy brain development. These omega-3 fatty acids are thought to have an impact on certain traits such as emotional intelligence, problem-solving skills, and motor development. More research is necessary, but it seems like the most positive developmental results come from this combination of DHA and EPA. Of course, development is a complex issue. Other contributing factors include, but aren’t limited to:
Nutritional balance as a whole
Your activity levels
Why is DHA important?
Research still shows conflicting results, but there’s some evidence demonstrating the role DHA plays in brain development as well as general health. One study resulted in babies getting sick less frequently in their first six months of life when DHA was taken in pregnancy. Other studies focus on cognitive development in the first couple of years of your baby’s life. Results suggest that taking a prenatal vitamin with DHA can be beneficial. Keep in mind that factors in your life may be negatively impacting the proper development of your baby. These include:
Benefits of prenatal DHA
Studies show a positive correlation between your DHA intake and the development of your baby’s brain. It has a demonstrable impact on communication and problem-solving skills as well as motor and cognitive development. There’s also a correlation between DHA and your baby’s emotional development. Taking a prenatal with DHA seems to lower the risk of behavioral issues by improving communication skills. More research is necessary to support all of these claims, but taking a supplement with DHA may also have the potential to:
Decrease the severity of allergies in your infant
Lower the risk of preterm births
Make it easier for your child to get along with others (in cases of ADHD)
Impact birth weight
Improve your baby’s hand-eye coordination
Impact verbal skills
Help develop your baby’s immune system
Prenatal Multi with DHA
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How much DHA should you take when pregnant?
The majority of experts recommend 200-300mg of DHA daily (though there are some conflicting suggestions). When it’s taken appropriately, most experts consider DHA to be safe in pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Side effects are usually minor; these complaints are usually related to stomach and intestinal discomfort such as nausea and/or vomiting. However, too much DHA can slow blood clotting or lead to bleeding. Some medications, especially high blood pressure medications, may interact poorly with your DHA supplement. Chat with your OBGYN or primary care provider to make sure any vitamins or medications you take will not be affected by DHA.
Why do doctors recommend prenatal vitamins with DHA?
Studies suggest that DHA (and other omega-3 fatty acids including EPA) play a critical role in fetal brain development. Since your body doesn’t make DHA, you have to get it through your diet or a vitamin. It seems a large percentage of the population doesn’t get the right balance of DHA by diet alone. Since the major food source is fish, vegetarians (and vegans in particular) will have low DHA without a supplemental source.
What are current research studies missing?
Studies have mixed results and there are still gaps in the research. In other words, there’s a lot of room for gaining a better understanding of the role DHA plays in a healthy pregnancy. The outcomes of current research studies are impacted by the participants’ socioeconomic status, education level, and nutrition (among other factors). These factors can be challenging to control, but making minor changes can be beneficial. Dietary changes may be the easiest to influence.
Everybody has unique needs, so we suggest chatting with your OBGYN or primary care provider about whether a prenatal vitamin with DHA is right for you.
Pregnancy Prep Kit
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