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Look at that fatty acid

What women need to know about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

DHA – you might have seen those three letters on an increasing number of food products in the supermarket. They appear on egg cartons, supplements and, especially, on milk products. You may also have heard that DHA has something to do with the brains and eyes. Does it make us smarter or able to see better? As DHA is increasingly being added to the foods that women consume every day, it is important to know what it is and how it helps them.

What is DHA?

DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 essential fatty acid. DHA is one of several types of essential fatty acids that the body needs for important physiological processes (hence the term “essential”), such as maintaining the integrity of skin and cell membranes and synthesising prostaglandins and leukotrienes.

DHA is the most abundant fatty acid found in our brains and retinas (in our eyes). Hence, this fatty acid is very important for the proper functioning of our brains as adults. Scientists have also discovered that DHA is essential for the development of babies’ nervous systems and visual abilities during the first six months of life.

In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are part of a healthy diet that helps lower risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help to lower triglycerides (fats in the blood), lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of blood clots, improve the health of arteries and reduce the amount of arterial plaque (which narrows arteries and causes heart disease).

Why is DHA important during pregnancy?

A baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system develop while in the womb and during the early years of childhood. During these years, particularly during pregnancy and lactation, a woman needs to ensure that she consumes adequate amounts of DHA so that her baby will also have enough DHA for development. What does DHA do for the baby in the womb? DHA is important during pregnancy, especially during the last three months, when the baby’s brain grows at a rapid pace. DHA intake is also crucial when a mother is breastfeeding, particularly in the first three months of life, as the DHA content of a baby’s brain triples during this period.

There is a lot of research to suggest that sufficient amounts of DHA may help increase a baby’s cognitive functioning, such as learning ability and mental development, as he/she grows up. Some studies have tried to make a link between DHA and intelligence. One study in 2003, published in the journal Pediatrics, showed that children whose mothers took a DHA supplement during pregnancy scored higher on intelligence tests at four years of age than children of mothers not taking DHA supplements. Other studies suggest that breastfed babies have IQs of six to 10 points higher than formula-fed babies – making a link to DHA, as breast milk naturally contains essential fatty acids like DHA.

How to get more of it

As more and more people realise the importance of getting adequate amounts of DHA, they are starting to ask the question: how do I get more DHA in my diet? Our bodies naturally produce small amounts of DHA, but most of our DHA intake comes from our diet.

DHA is found in most abundance in cold water fatty fish, including salmon, tuna (bluefin tuna have up to five times more DHA than other types of tuna), mackerel, sardines, shellfish, and herring. Although some of these fish contain low levels of mercury, the US Food and Drug Administration has found that consuming several servings of fish each week poses no risk to healthy people and conveys many health benefits.

However, women who are pregnant or are planning to have a baby should avoid Atlantic Mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish, due to the mercury risk. Other foods that indirectly provide DHA are plant food sources rich in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), such as flax, canola oil and walnuts. The body will then convert ALA to DHA combined with another fatty acid called EPA. However, this metabolic conversion is very limited in the human body and does not result in high levels of DHA.

So how can mothers ensure that their babies get enough DHA for development? By breastfeeding, for one. Breast milk from a well-nourished mother contains just the right proportion of essential fatty acids for a baby’s growth and development. During pregnancy, a woman can get DHA intake from foods fortified with DHA or from DHA supplements, such as fish oil capsules and algae supplements. Fish oil capsules contain both DHA and EPA, while algae supplements only contain DHA.

Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice before taking DHA supplements, especially if you are pregnant or planning to be pregnant. Take only high-quality fish oil supplements made by manufacturers who test for mercury and other toxins, to prevent mercury contamination. Read the labels carefully and ask about the purity of the supplement. As you can see, some fats are good for us and our babies. So the next time you go shopping, read the labels to see which fortified foods suit your needs best.

The Star Newspaper, Sunday April 19, 2009

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