DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid…try saying that five times fast!), is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid found in the body. It is one of those miracle fats that is extremely important to heart, eye, and brain function and is even believed to be one of the essential building blocks of the brain. But the body doesn’t make enough of it on its own, and depends on you to eat DHA-rich foods and, if necessary, take a DHA oil supplement.
DHA accounts for up to 93% of the total omega-3 fats in the retina of the eye, and 97% of the omega-3 fats found within the brain. This omega-3 is essential to optimal function and health of the brain at all stages of life, and in particular, the development of the brain and eyes in infants both within the womb and during the first year of a newborn’s life.
DHA has been so recognized as necessary to the development of healthy infant brains and eyes that many baby food and infant formula companies are rushing to incorporate DHA into their foods and formulas.
Simultaneously, adults who struggle with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even Alzheimer’s disease are becoming more aware of their DHA intake, oftentimes including a supplement such as fish oil or algal oil to increase the amount they receive daily.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Please do not confuse omega-3 fatty acids with saturated or even trans fats. A diet that is high in trans or saturated fats has been linked to an increase in LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, as well as an increase in the risk of heart disease. But foods that are high in omega-3 fats are essential to maintaining your health and wellness.
There are two types of omega-3 fatty acids: long chain and short chain. DHA is a long-chain fatty acid along with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). These are the omega-3s found in fatty fish and shellfish. DHA is often the only long-chain fatty acid found in algae though.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid commonly found in plant-based sources of omega-3 such as flaxseeds. ALA, while essential, promotes several health benefits but is slightly less potent than EPA and DHA. That is, to get the same effects of the DHA and EPA found in fatty fishes, you’d need to eat an awful lot of flaxseed.
Good Fats vs. Bad Fats
The fats that are beneficial to your health, the ones that include the omega-3s DHA, EPA, and ALA, are the “good,” heart-healthy fats that you’ll want to add as part of a nutritious diet.
The fats you want to go easy on, like saturated fats, can be found primarily in meat, poultry, and dairy foods such as milk and butter. Including a limited amount of these foods as part of a healthy diet is considered a best practice.
Trans fatty acids are found in processed snack food, cookies, margarine, and vegetable shortening, and are listed as the ingredient “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated oil.” If possible, avoid these fats altogether, as there are no known health benefits to including them in your diet and many known adverse effects.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6s are, like omega-3s, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)that you need to get from your diet, as they play a major role in energy production and heart health. They’ve gotten an unfair rap, however, as instigators of inflammation. For this reason, health experts have spread the word: cut back on omega-6 consumption!
Omega-6, however, has been shown in more recent studies to help calm inflammation and offer up cardiovascular benefits that can’t be beat. The issue isn’t omega-6. It’s that we eat far too few omega-3s, which disrupts the ideal 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio our bodies crave.
According to Harvard Health researchers, it’s not about reducing omega-6 consumption, it’s about increasing omega-3 consumption, and DHA supplementation with fish oil can easily help you meet your omega-3 requirements.
DHA in Pregnant or Nursing Mothers
Extensive research has been conducted on the effect of DHA in the fetus, including this study presented in Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Scientists have found that it is impossible for the fetus to convert ALA into DHA. This building block of the brain is essential to brain development, as well as to the development of the eyes. The infant must rely entirely on the mother’s ability to do this and essentially sucks any available DHA from the mother’s body.
This is why it’s essential that pregnant women heed the recommendations for DHA oil intake and either make sure to eat two servings of omega-3-rich fish each week (while simultaneously avoiding fish high in mercury), or be sure that their prenatal vitamin or omega-3 supplement is rich in DHA (containing at least 100- 200 mg of DHA per day).
Once the baby is born, DHA levels double, particularly during intense nerve cell development and brain growth. Evidence that DHA may lead to the healthy development of an infant’s nervous system was found in a study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics, which tested infants in three groups: breastfed infants (where breast milk contains naturally high levels of DHA), and two formula-fed groups, one formula enriched with DHA and one without. After 14 months, researchers found that the babies fed formula enriched with DHA or breastfed had greater language and vocabulary ability than those in the control group.
However, it’s worth noting that at the 39-month mark, scientists re-tested these groups based on standardized age-appropriate tests and found no significant difference in the cognitive function or vocabulary of all three tested groups. Researchers concluded that the extra DHA in the breast milk and formula groups may have provided a specific jump to the brain’s ability to form cognitive associations early on and that the babies fed formula without DHA caught up later.
DHA in the Adult Brain
DHA is also essential to the ongoing development, structure, and function of the adult brain. While it’s assumed that the adult brain changes very little after adolescence, it is actually always in various stages of flux. Typically the brain is forming millions of new nerve connections and cycles and replacing old or tired brain lipids.
Changes in diet can affect this process dramatically. There is also some compelling evidence that the distribution of DHA within the brain changes as we age depending on the needs of our brains at specific times in our lives.
DHA levels are higher in infants in areas of the brain that include the striatum (which is associated with motor control) and are lower in the hypothalamus (which links the nervous and endocrine systems) and the hippocampus (which is associated with memory). In adults, DHA levels are highest in the cortex (which is associated with cognition) and lowest in the medulla (essential to automatic function).
DHA for Heart Health
DHA has become such a celebrated nutrient for heart health that the American Heart Association recommends coronary heart disease patients take 1,000 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA daily and people with high triglycerides supplement with 2,000–4,000 milligrams daily. The anti-inflammatory omega-3s in fish are believed to help lower blood pressure, triglycerides, and blood clotting, as well as reduce your risk factors for cardiovascular events such as stroke and heart attack.
The Health Benefits of DHA
There are hundreds of studies conducted on long-chain omega-3 such as DHA that suggest a variety of both preventative and maintenance related health benefits. Let’s take a look!
Scientists believe that what connects these diseases (and as a result why DHA and omega-3s are so influential) is inflammation within the body, such as autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3s like DHA have been shown time and again to reduce inflammation that can lead to chronic illness, disease, and cognitive decline.
In a study conducted in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that including DHA fish oil supplements in the diets of men 39-66 years old reduced levels of inflammatory markers by up to 7%.
In another study published in the journal, Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, researchers discovered that DHA helped mitigate the body’s response to inflammation.
DHA Food Sources
Unfortunately, the average American only consumes about 100 milligrams of DHA in a day. While there is no set standard for omega-3 intake, most organizations place the daily value between 250 and 500 milligrams of DHA and EPA, or more depending on specific health conditions.
For instance, people with cardiovascular disease are advised to take a high-dose 1000 milligrams of DHA oil daily. And women who are pregnant or lactating are told to take an additional 200 milligrams of DHA each day. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization recommend including DHA in infant nutrition as well, such as formulas fortified with DHA. As more information and research continues to reveal how essential DHA is, more and more foods are becoming fortified with DHA oil.
Fatty or oily fish such as anchovies, salmon, mackerel, tuna, halibut, and herring are all rich sources of DHA. However, please take into consideration the mercury level. It is not recommended to consume more than two servings of fish deemed high in mercury, particularly if you are pregnant or nursing. As an alternative you could supplement with fish oil capsules if you’re worried about mercury levels, assuming the fatty acid supplementation you choose is of premium quality.
Eggs are another fantastic source of DHA, although they contain small amounts. Some fortified eggs do provide up to 57 milligrams of DHA per egg, however.
If the idea of consuming more fish is not your thing, and algae don’t really appeal to you either but you still want to enjoy the incredible health benefits, then DHA oil is your lifeline. You can find DHA prominently as one of the two ingredients in fish oil dietary supplements (EPA being the other). The fish oil benefits are equal to that of eating actual fish in many ways.
If it’s DHA and EPA you’re after, a fish oil supplement is a better bet than cod liver oil, which contains smaller amounts of DHA but more vitamin A and vitamin D. It really depends on the fatty acid composition and vitamin profile you’re after.
It’s also possible to enjoy DHA specifically in an algal supplement. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, this is a particularly enticing option for adding more DHA into your diet. Also look for DHA-fortified foods, beverages, and supplements.
Our Omega Mixed Berry recipe is a fantastic alternative to ensure you’re getting enough DHA. It contains DHA oil and is loaded with other healthy ingredients, including chia seeds and delicious antioxidant-rich berries.