In the last few decades, various researches have shown that there are many nutrients which were earlier ignored in the diet but are very important for the proper growth and development. One such nutrient is docosahexaenoic which is also known as DHA. It is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that is found in the brain. It has an influence on the brain functioning in many ways including neurotransmission, commonly known as message transmission and neurogenesis, commonly known as development of new connections. It is also an important nutrient for the development of the structural components of the eye and retina.
More than half of the human brain is made up of mainly concentrated long-chains of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Among these PUFAs, DHA is the most important fatty acid. Initially DHA is accumulated in the foetal brain during pregnancy and this continues during the development of the brain.
What are the Benefits of DHA for brain ?
The brain has different lobes which have their own set of functions. The front lobe of the brain which is most DHA rich and requires the highest DHA concentrations is responsible for the following functions :
Other key brain functions of DHA are :
- Social, emotional and behavioural development
As per various researches a lack of DHA can lead to :
- It is responsible for growth of new brain cells and protection of existing brain cells.
- It enhances neuroplasticity i.e the ability of brain cells to connect to each other.
- It is responsible for making it possible for kids to learn and remember things on daily basis.
- Low brain volume
- Worst performance on on tests of both visual memory, problem solving and abstract thinking.
Pregnancy and DHA
The foetus gets the required supply of DHA during the pregnancy from the mother’s placenta. In the second half of the pregnancy, DHA gets accumulated in the brain at a much faster rate.
Infancy and DHA
After the child is born the main source of DHA for the infant is the mother’s milk. If required the mother may need to take supplements so that the infant’s brain can grow properly. Researches have shown that the children who got an adequate amount of DHA during pregnancy and early years have better social skills and academic results in the future.
How much DHA does your child need?
Between the time a baby is born to the time when he turns five years old, the brain increases approximately 3.5 times in its total mass. This time is critically important for infants and children and it is necessary that they consume adequate amounts of DHA in their diet to support this period of rapid brain growth and development. EPA (another related fatty acid) along with DHA is very important for development in foetus and during childhood. They aid in brain development, neuron growth as well as retinal growth. EPA also protects against inflammation. The following table will help you in understanding the requirement of DHA for your child.
Best Sources of DHA in Food
For the babies, the best source of DHA in breast milk. If you are not breastfeeding your baby because of any reason, you can choose formula milk fortified with DHA. However in the later stages when the child starts to take solid food, you can add sources of DHA like fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, herring etc., fish oil, meat, and eggs. If the infant is breastfeeding make sure to add an adequate amount of DHA in your diet to pass it on to the child.
However, if you are a vegetarian or vegan it can be tricky for you to get sufficient amount of DHA during pregnancy and breastfeeding. By consulting the doctor, you can add chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, algal oil, Hemp seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds and perilla oil in your diet. Though these food items can provide a good amount of DHA, it is still advised to check with the doctor if you will need supplements. Again most of the DHA supplements are made of fish oil so you have to check before you take them as per your dietary preferences.
What if there is a deficiency of DHA in mother of an infant?
Even after trying your level best, you or your child may face a deficiency of DHA due to diet constraints. In such cases, the main organs that get affected our the brain and eyes. The children who didn’t get the adequate amount of DHA during pregnancy and early years, have been observed to be less academically successful and also lacking on social skills. They find it hard to memorize what they have learned as well. In the long run, DHA deficiency can cause problems in both professional and personal life for them.
In the last few decades, the field of medicine has progressed a lot and benefits of DHA have become more prominent in the development of the brain. The deficiency of this nutrient can cause major development issues. It is important that the mother takes the proper amount of food and/or supplements during pregnancy and while breastfeeding so that the child’s brain can develop properly. After the child starts taking solid food seafood items like fish etc should be added as prescribed and suggested by the doctor. IF you are concerned that the baby’s diet may not have sufficient DHA, contact your pediatrician who can help you to determine a safe and effective dosage for DHA supplements if needed.