Docosahexaenoic Acid Benefits
Although fish are the main source of docosahexaenoic acid, benefits of the omega-3 fatty acid can also be obtained from supplements. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation may be beneficial for people with high cholesterol or heart disease. It may also help with fetal and infant brain and eye development. However, studies have not evaluated the benefits of docosahexaenoic acid alone (since it is usually combined with EPA).
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) 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. Docosahexaenoic acid 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 docosahexaenoic acid supplements to obtain these benefits.
Unlike most supplements, docosahexaenoic acid has been extensively studied for a variety of uses. However, many of these studies evaluated docosahexaenoic acid in combination with another omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), usually in the form of fish oil. It is not clear if docosahexaenoic acid provides exactly the same benefits of fish oil or other docosahexaenoic acid and EPA combinations. This article will discuss the potential health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid 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 Docosahexaenoic Acid
Docosahexaenoic acid is an essential fatty acid, which means that it must be obtained through diet. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the only source of docosahexaenoic acid for an infant is the mother. There is some concern that pregnancy may actually cause a docosahexaenoic acid deficiency in women, since the developing fetus can deplete maternal docosahexaenoic acid levels. Traditional infant formulas do not contain docosahexaenoic acid, but many manufacturers now make versions with docosahexaenoic acid.
Most often, docosahexaenoic acid is claimed to help with fetal and infant brain and eye development. However, studies have been contradictory, with some studies showing a benefit for docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and others showing no benefit at all.
However, keep in mind that some fish (and theoretically some docosahexaenoic acid supplements, particularly those made from fish) may contain heavy metals and other toxins that are especially dangerous for pregnant women. Do not take a docosahexaenoic acid 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). Docosahexaenoic acid obtained from non-fish sources is unlikely to contain toxins or contaminants. One such product is Expecta® Lipil®.