DHA—The omega-3 that should be on your mind

There’s been a big buzz lately in the medical community about all the positive effects omega-3 fatty acids have on a person’s health, but did you know that not all omega-3s are created equal?

There are several omega-3 fatty acids that help your heart. However, only one is also critical to the development and optimal functioning of your brain — docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA.

What is DHA?

DHA is a fundamental building block of the brain. It is essential that the fetus receive DHA while in the womb for optimal brain and eye development. Moreover, recent studies clearly show that infants who receive optimal levels of DHA in the womb and through nursing perform better on cognitive tests.

But DHA is not just baby food. Clinical studies show that in healthy adults, high consumption of DHA is associated with a reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s, dementia and age-related macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness. Low levels of DHA in red blood cells are associated with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder in children, as well as cognitive decline in the elderly.

How much is enough?

Most Americans don’t get enough DHA in their diet. An expert panel from the National Institutes of Health and the International Society for the Study of Fats and Lipids recommends that healthy adults consume a minimum of 220 mg of DHA a day. The panel also recommends that pregnant and nursing women consume at least 300 mg of DHA a day. Yet, a typical American diet includes only about a third of that recommended amount.

In addition, based on studies looking at children’s brain growth and development, children up to 5 years of age should get at least 150 mg per day to support optimal brain and eye development. Right now, most young children are only getting between 30 and 50 mg per day.

Getting more DHA into your diet

There are several ways to get more DHA into your diet so you can reap the brain, eye and heart health benefits.

The developing fetus is completely dependant upon the mother’s dietary sources of DHA, while the infant’s best source is breast milk. Pregnant and nursing women can increase their DHA levels by increasing their dietary intake of DHA. Higher levels of dietary DHA from foods and supplementation directly enhance breast milk DHA levels. Formula-fed babies can get their DHA from supplemented formulas.

One abundant source of dietary DHA is fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and tuna. However, there are some drawbacks to turning to that source. Both fish caught in the wild and farmed fish run the risk of being contaminated with chemical compounds known as PCBs, including dioxin and mercury, among others. Some fish oil capsules sold as supplements may not be any safer. For example, in a recent British study of cod-liver oil capsules, investigators found that they contained flame retardant. As a result, experts have cautioned pregnant and nursing women to limit their fish consumption.

So how do you get the benefits of DHA without the risk of contamination? Go straight to the source. Fish get their DHA from algae. Scientists have derived an all-natural vegetarian source of DHA from the same microalgae, the only vegetarian source of DHA. Developed by a company called Martek, this algae-derived DHA is produced under strict manufacturing conditions in facilities that follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations.

Martek’s DHA is the only DHA approved for use in U.S. infant formulas and is available to people of all ages through nutritional supplements as well as certain foods.

From the Nov. 9-15, 2005, issue

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