Benefits of DHA
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is very important for pregnant or breastfeeding women and infants. The supplement is claimed to help with fetal and infant brain and eye development. There may also be cardiovascular benefits of DHA. Studies show that fish oil (a combination of DHA and EPA, another omega-3 fatty acid) may prevent cardiovascular disease and help lower triglycerides.
DHA Benefits: An Overview
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is claimed to provide a variety of different health benefits. Currently, it is probably best known as a supplement for pregnant or breastfeeding women or a supplement used in infant formula. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is found mostly in fish. Because the typical American diet does not include much fish, many people turn to DHA supplements to obtain these benefits.
Unlike most supplements, DHA has been extensively studied for a variety of uses. However, many of these studies evaluated DHA in combination with another omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), usually in the form of fish oil. It is not clear if DHA provides exactly the same benefits of fish oil or other DHA and EPA combinations. This article will discuss the potential health benefits of DHA for the following conditions:
- Pregnancy and childhood development
- Cardiovascular disease (including cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke)
- Mental health
Pregnancy and Childhood Benefits of DHA
DHA is an essential fatty acid, which means that it must be obtained through diet. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the only source of DHA for an infant is the mother. There is some concern that pregnancy may actually cause a DHA deficiency in women, since the developing fetus can deplete maternal DHA levels. Traditional infant formulas do not contain DHA, but many manufacturers now make versions with DHA.
Most often, DHA is claimed to help with fetal and infant brain and eye development. However, studies have been contradictory, with some studies showing a benefit for DHA supplementation and others showing no benefit at all.
However, keep in mind that some fish (and theoretically some DHA supplements, particularly those made from fish) may contain heavy metals and other toxins that are especially dangerous for pregnant women. Do not take a DHA supplement during pregnancy without checking with your healthcare provider, who can direct you to a supplement that is safe for pregnant women (see DHA and Pregnancy for more information). DHA obtained from non-fish sources is unlikely to contain toxins or contaminants. One such product is Expecta® Lipil®.
Cardiovascular Benefits of DHA
As an omega-3 fatty acid, DHA may also have benefits for the heart and vascular system. Although most studies focus on DHA and EPA together, there is a little research that suggests that DHA alone may also be beneficial. One study showed that DHA may work quite well for high triglycerides (known medically as hypertriglyceridemia). It may also slightly increase HDL cholesterol ("good cholesterol"), although it can increase LDL cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol") a little as well.
Research suggests that fish oil (which contains DHA along with other active components) may prevent cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks and strokes). In people who have already had a heart attack, fish oil may decrease the risk of another heart attack and the risk of death. Additionally, taking fish oil after an angioplasty procedure or bypass surgery might help keep the blood vessels from closing back up. It is not clear if taking just DHA provides these same benefits.