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Importance of DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)

The Importance of DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)

A balanced diet is a basic part of good health at all times in our life. However, it is more critical during pregnancy as it has to provide the extra nutrients needed for mother and baby. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. DHA is derived from dietary alpha-linolenic acid and is found in foods such as fatty fish, organ meats and eggs.

Fat makes up 60% of the brain and the nerves that run every system in the body. DHA is the major structural fatty acid in the gray matter of the brain and the retina of the eyes. It is especially important to the correct structural formation of photoreceptor cells (the cells of the eye that recognize light - in all its various hues - and transmit this information to the brain), and thus is crucial to good vision. However, if there is not a sufficient amount of DHA, development may be impaired. In addition, DHA can also help prevent pre-term labor and may help protect against postpartum depression.

Low levels of DHA in our body have been associated with mood swings, memory loss and visual and other neurological conditions. A small amount of DHA is synthesized in our body naturally. But people who limit meat and egg intake, such as vegetarians or those on low-fat diets, are liable to have low level of DHA.

DHA is naturally transferred to a foetus and it is required throughout the pregnancy. Because developing foetuses cannot make their own omega-3 fatty acids, their needs must be met by their mothers. The DHA content and the essential nutrient contents in the mother's diet reflect the amount of DHA and nutrients and that are passed on to the baby. If the mother is not properly nourished, the foetus will suffer.

A continual supply of DHA is needed for the full term of the pregnancy as the DHA content of the cerebrum and cerebellum increases threefold during the last trimester. Premature babies, who were born without the benefit of maternal DHA during the rapid brain growth phase of the last trimester of pregnancy, scored average points lower on IQ tests than average full-term infants when tested later in life.

During the last trimester of a pregnancy, the mother transfer to her foetus much of the DHA needed for the development of its brain and nervous system. If a mother fails to get sufficient DHA in her diet, the foetus will use-up DHA that the mother has stored in her own tissue - including her brain.

Therefore, such mothers are six times more likely to suffer postpartum depression. Short-term memory loss or permanent memory loss depends on how much DHA is lost. In addition, DHA supplementation helps to increase the plasma and breast-milk DHA concentrations of lactating women, resulting in higher plasma phospholipids DHA concentrations in infants. Dietary DHA supplementation also increases the DHA content in human milk. This ensures the infant obtains sufficient DHA, especially during the first week of life.

The brain development of infants will triple again and will continue growing rapidly for the first year as well. Therefore, during this period of time, there is a great demand for DHA, which must be satisfied through breast milk. The breast-feeding mother should get enough DHA, otherwise the breast milk will also be low in DHA. Moreover, it will further decrease storage of DHA.

If the baby is not breastfed at all, it receives no subsequent DHA, thus hindering the impairing mental and visual acuity. Therefore, mothers-to-be and breastfeeding mother must be getting enough DHA to ensure the rapid brain growth of the baby. But DHA supplements derived from fish oil are not recommended for pregnant women and children five years and younger, because fish oil contains fairly large amounts of EPA and moderate amounts of DHA.

In adults, both DHA and EPA are assimilated. However, in infants and foetuses, EPA might compete with DHA for a place in the nerve cell membranes, therefore, administering fish oil at a young age may be counterproductive.

Algae supplements are the better source of DHA for children, pregnant and breastfeeding mother. Until recently, the primary source of DHA dietary supplements was marine fish oils, which supplies both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA. However, the development of a process of extract DHA straightly from ocean micro algae, the food source of fish, has provided us with a natural source of DHA without EPA. Thus, it has made assessment of the separate dietary effects of single omega-3 fatty acids possible.

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