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Defining “DHA” — Its Importance for Baby’s Brain and Eye Development

By Sara Vance, Nutritionist and Author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan

It is easy to see how fast baby’s body grows and reaches milestones during the early years. But what we can’t see is how fast baby’s brain is developing — tripling in size the first two years of life!

Fat comprises most of the human brain — approximately 60 percent! It should come as no surprise that dietary fats (fatty acids) play a significant role in baby and toddler’s brain development and function. Since the brain is growing so rapidly the first couple of years, fats should comprise approximately 50 percent of the diet during that time.

The human body can synthesize most of the fats it needs from the diet. But two fatty acids — omega-3s and omega-6s — are considered “essential” because the body can’t make them. Therefore, they must be obtained from the diet.

When most people think about food sources that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish come to mind. Fish get their omega-3s from eating algae — and we can too! Algae is a rich source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid that comprises up to 97 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and up to 93 percent of the omega-3s in the retina. Because brain development experiences its most rapid growth and development during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life, a diet rich in DHA during that time is important.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, algae is an effective source of DHA. The study states that “algal oil DHA and cooked salmon appear to be bioequivalent in providing DHA to plasma and red blood cells.”[1]Consuming algal oil that is derived from algae grown in a controlled environment is a sustainable and contaminant-free way to obtain DHA omega-3s. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, algae is an effective source of DHA. The study states that “algal oil DHA and cooked salmon appear to be bioequivalent in providing DHA to plasma and red blood cells.”[1] Consuming algal oil that is derived from algae grown in a controlled environment is a sustainable and contaminant-free way to obtain DHA omega-3s.

DHA is needed for:

  • Brain health - DHA is the predominant omega-3 found in the nervous system. According to the journal Nutrients, “the consumption of DHA leads to many positive physiological and behavioral effects, including those on cognition…the modern diet typically lacks appreciable amounts of DHA. Therefore, maintaining optimal levels of DHA in the brain throughout the lifespan likely requires obtaining preformed DHA via dietary or supplemental sources.”[2]
  • Eye health - Fats are also important for eye health. DHA fatty acids are also important for eye health, including visual development and retinal function. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), DHA is found in the highest concentrations in the retina, with studies supporting that optimal omega-3 intake is required for eye health and visual development.[3] The AOA states that good sources of DHA omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, other seafood, and microalgae.

Regular consumption of DHA omega-3s is important. According to a study published in the journal Pharmacological Research, the turnover of DHA in the brain is very rapid. The same researchers also determined that deficiencies may be associated with ADHD, depression, cardiovascular disease and other disorders.[4]

Healthy Times Organic Toddler Formula offers 14.4 milligrams of DHA per serving.


About the Author: A nutritionist and the author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan, Sara Vance is a passionate advocate for natural approaches to health. She regularly offers cooking and group classes and has developed a series of online courses to empower people to use foods to balance their metabolism and overall health. As a mom and a specialist in childhood nutrition, Sara loves working with kids, speaking frequently at school assemblies and leading children’s workshops. Sara is a frequent guest on the Fox 5 San Diego show, CBS Los Angeles, KUSI and CW 6. She has contributed to Delicious Living, Mind Body Green and Refinery29. Sara has also filmed videos for eHow and created a Kids Yoga series for GaiamTV.

References and Sources

  1. Algal-oil capsules and cooked salmon: nutritionally equivalent sources of docosahexaenoic acid.
  2. Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan.
  3. Essential Fatty Acids
  4. Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  5. The Benefits of Algal DHA / Why Do I Need DHA?
  6. DHA Supports Brain Development and Protects Neurological Function
  7. Algal DHA
  8. Algal Oil for Omega-3s?
  9. Long-term effects of LCPUFA supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes

DISCLAIMER

The content provided in this article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not recommended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem without consulting a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical questions or concerns. See additional information.