The Importance of DHA During Pregnancy
The growing body of research in the field of epigenetics suggests that the mother’s nutritional status during and even before pregnancy is a powerful influence on lifelong health. The conditions we encounter in utero shape everything from our susceptibility to disease to our appetite, metabolism, intelligence, and temperament. Adequate maternal nutrition prior to conception and during pregnancy can protect babies from diabetes, stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, and dementia later in life.
Traditional cultures have been aware of this for millennia. They had sacred foods they emphasized for mothers and fathers-to- be, which were particularly rich in certain nutrients known to promote healthy growth and development.
Unfortunately, this traditional wisdom has been largely lost in the modern world. The role of nutrition prior to conception is scarcely even mentioned in the media or conventional medical settings. However, many of the nutritional factors that we have now studied and recognize as important to embryonic and fetal development are the same ones emphasized in traditional pregnancy and preconception diets.
There are now hundreds of papers published on PubMed for “Developmental Origins of Health and Disease” referencing the ways the nutritional environment in the womb has an effect on our health later in life. One of the most important nutrients that both modern science and traditional wisdom recognize as essential is DHA or Docosahexaenoic acid.
What is DHA?
DHA is an omega-3 essential fatty acid, meaning it is a fatty acid that must be acquired through diet as the body is unable to make it itself. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain, making up 10-20% of the brain’s total lipid composition (or 60% by dry weight). DHA is essential for the development of neurons and cell membranes of fetal eyes and brain, especially during the last 3 months of pregnancy. During this time, the fetus is rapidly growing new brain
cells, and DHA provides the raw building blocks to fuel brain growth. Since DHA is transferred from mother to baby in the third trimester and during breast-feeding, it can also leave many mothers relatively DHA deficient if they are not actively replenishing their stores from their diet.
Where To Get DHA?
It is always best to try to meet nutritional needs from food first as there is a synergistic effect of the nutrients contained in foods. Fish is high in DHA (salmon, mackerel, and sardines contain 10 to 100 times more DHA than non-marine sources) but unfortunately there is a fear around consuming fish during
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that eating more servings of seafood per week was associated with an increase in cognitive scores and a decrease in behavioural and social problems in children. Eating 600g of fish per week - about 3 to 4 servings - was linked to an increase in IQ score and fine motor skills without negative associations with mercury on neurodevelopment.
The FDA recently revised their stance on eating fish during pregnancy and encouraged women to eat more of it while choosing types of fish lower in mercury. Selenium is protective against mercury toxicity and 16 of the 25 highest sources of selenium are ocean fish.
During times when it is difficult to meet all of our nutrient needs through food, using a high quality supplement can be beneficial, but will depend on an individual’s nutrient intake.
Studies show that DHA levels are nine times higher eating fish when compared to consuming fish oil, however, fish oil absorption from supplementation has been shown to significantly increase when consumed with a meal containing other healthy fat such as extra virgin olive oil. Absorption is also affected by the form, or molecular structure, of the fatty acid in the fish oil supplement. The phospholipid form of DHA has been shown to be more bioavailable and crosses the blood brain barrier ten times more effectively than the triglyceride or ethyl ester form of fish oil. This is why krill oil is a preferred source of essential fatty acids. Krill oil is less potent in DHA than fish oil but studies have shown it is 40% more bioavailable since it is in phospholipid form. Doses of krill oil 40% lower than doses of fish oil resulted in the same plasma levels of DHA despite being given a much lower dose.
Determining an adequate dosage of DHA is dependent on a variety of factors, including intake of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Excess omega-6 can block absorption of omega-3 and can have a negative impact on health. It has been shown that the modern western diet contains between 10 and 25 times the optimal level of omega-6. This is why recommendations for omega-3 intake that do not take the omega-6 intake into account can be inadequate.
It is beneficial to use functional lab testing to determine what essential fatty acids and other nutrients your body requires to optimize your health, especially when preparing for pregnancy.
If you’re curious to learn more about testing and nutrition for fertility, prenatal, and postpartum health, contact Breanne for more information. Be sure to check the Matraea class and event calendar as Breanne teaches fertility, prenatal, and postpartum nutrition classes alternating months throughout the year.