August's Health Genie: DHA

Note:This article is not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.

Dear Health Genie,

Someone suggested I add a DHA supplement to my child’s multivitamin to support concentration, learning and positive mood going into a new school year.  What is DHA?

DHA-curious Debra

Dear Debra,

DHA, docosahexaenoic acid, is one of the essential fatty acids that has been recognized as being especially beneficial for supporting healthy nervous system function as well as vision. This nutrient has been recognized as being very important for fetal and infant nervous system development. Supplementation is also suggested for children and adults.

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid. Relative to the current understanding of what our bodies need for good health, most Americans probably don’t get enough omega-3s in their diets.

Current understanding is that when membranes in our body are made of more of these fats as opposed to others, the result is greater flexibility and permeability, which facilitates faster waste elimination and signal transmission.

The simple reasons fatty acids are so important to brain and eye health are because these are organs with areas of high concentrations of membranes, made mostly of lipids or fats, and healthy function of these organs depends on rapid signal transmission. Sixty to seventy percent of the brain is made of fat, and it is estimated that about 17% is DHA.

DHA is associated with fast response times. In nature, animal tissues highest in DHA are hummingbird wings, rattlesnake tails, and the hearts of mammals that fight for social rank. Not to worry as DHA won’t make your child hyperactive. On the contrary, there is much research supporting its use for helping children concentrate and learn. Results of a few studies published in professional medical journals in 2011 and 2012 include statements about:

  1. Higher reading, spelling and multitasking scores in children with higher tissue DHA.
  2. Omega-3 in tissue was increased in children after supplementation with DHA.
  3. Increased brain activity, measured by MRI and decreased reaction time in healthy boys taking a DHA supplement for eight weeks.
  4. Greater vocabulary and lower anxiety and shyness in children with higher tissue DHA.

Common dietary sources rich in omega-3s include vegetable oils, nuts, green leafy vegetables and fish. Plant sources contain only ALA, a precursor to DHA in the body.  To obtain DHA, you need to either eat animal or algal sources or convert the ALA to DHA.  Individuals differ in how well they convert ALA to DHA. One study found on average that women convert 15% more ALA to DHA, and that conversion is increased by estrogen and inverse to testosterone levels. This may be an adaptation in women to increase stores to support healthy fetal development.

Fish is the most common choice for boosting DHA levels, either as a food or a supplement. Wild fish obtain high amounts of DHA from microalgae. Fish are better at converting ALA to DHA, so even farmed fish fed a diet other than algae supply DHA.  Cold water fish have higher amounts of DHA in their tissues to survive lower temperatures. Supplement manufacturers utilize wild cold water fish to harvest oil with the highest concentrations of DHA. A process has been developed to harvest DHA from farmed algal sources. This yields a fish-free DHA supplement, suitable for those allergic to fish and some vegans.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not established an Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for DHA. Other health authorities recommend amounts ranging from 100 mg to 1000 mg per day. Supplements typically offer 100-300 mg for most adults and children, 500 mg for babies and 1000 mg for pregnant women.

City Market currently carries omega-3 and DHA supplements labeled for babies, children, adults and pregnant women, including fish-free and vegan choices. Many supplement sources of DHA include other essential fatty acids, and may have descriptions using “Omega” or “Fish Oil” rather than DHA.  Ask a staff member for assistance.

Good Luck,
The Health Genie

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