Why DHA Is Crucial at Any Stage of Life
Your Brain on DHA
What is DHA?
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid—the most abundant of all the fatty acids most commonly found in the brain and eyes. But like many essential nutrients, DHA’s importance is often overlooked, and many Americans fall short of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) outlined by the US Department of Health.1,2 With all the cognitive, and other, benefits DHA has to offer, ensuring you get enough through your daily dietary intake is truly a no-brainer.
What are the benefits?
Not only does DHA account for over 50 percent of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain, it also turns on your brain’s growth hormone, known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This helps support the survival and function of existing neurons and also encourages new neurons and synapses to grow.3,4 Unfortunately, BDNF circulation slows down with age and can be stunted by stress and other lifestyle factors.5 That’s why upping your DHA is so important.
Although DHA is essential at every age, it’s especially crucial during three particular stages of life:
DHA can be helpful for baby’s development as well as mom’s recovery. A study showed that mothers who supplemented with omega-3s during pregnancy saw their children score higher on intelligence tests due to enhanced cognitive performance.6
For some mothers, pregnancy also takes a temporary toll on cognitive functioning and memory. Colloquially, it’s called “baby brain,” and it’s likely due to hormonal changes and the stressors placed on a woman’s body to meet the increased needs of her unborn baby. According to research, pregnancy can sometimes shrink brain tissue and cause long-term changes to brain structure.7,8 Recovery from pregnancy-induced brain changes can take years, but increased dietary intake of DHA has been studied to help support the regrowth of cells along the way, as well as promote healthy brain development in the baby.9
Babies and young children are growing every day, so it’s hard to understate the importance of DHA on brain development during this tender season of life.9 In fact, higher levels of DHA are associated with improved learning skills, while DHA deficiency in children has been linked to cognitive and learning disorders.10 That’s why making sure babies and toddlers get their fair share (500-700 mg daily)2 is a vital part of early brain development.
The benefits of DHA are enormously promising for older adults looking to keep their brains sharp and healthy. In a study of over 1,500 men and women over the age of 65, those with the lowest levels of DHA had significantly lower brain volumes than those with higher DHA levels and scored lower on tests measuring both memory and abstract thinking skills.11 On the flip side, studies show higher levels of DHA in the body (1,600 mg RDA for those age 51 and older)2 have also been associated with a decreased risk for brain-related chronic illness.11,12
DHA & gray matter
Our brains consist partly of something called “gray matter” (neural tissue that makes up a large amount of the central nervous system). Recent studies have supported a link between intelligence and the amount of gray matter in particular parts of the brain, which shrinks steadily in the years following adolescence. Though we naturally lose some brain volume over time, a higher intake of DHA is positively associated with gray matter volume and better cognitive function, even as we age.12
Where can I get it?
You can get some of your DHA in foods like fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines) as well as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. But for vegans and vegetarians, as well as those with nut allergies, obtaining DHA through diet alone can be a challenge. It’s also important to be mindful of how often you eat certain kinds of fish due to high mercury content.
Supplementing with fish oils, a mainstay in many supplement regimens, can help fill in the gaps and give you the support you need for positive brain and cognitive development.1 There are many things to look out for when choosing a fish oil supplement, so keep these tips in mind while you shop.
This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare professional for advice on medical issues.
- Papanikolaou Y et al. Nutr J. 2014;13:31.
- US Department of Health & Human Services. National Institutes of Health. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/. Accessed April 10, 2019.
- Acheson A et al. Nature. 1995;374(6521):450–453.
- Huang EJ et al. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2001;24:677–736.
- Erickson KI et al. J Neurosci. 2010;30(15):5368-5375.
- Helland IB. Pediatrics. 2003;111(1):e39-44.
- Kim P et al. Behav Neurosci. 2010;124(5):695–700.
- Hoekzema E et al. Nat Neurosci. 2017;20(2):287–296.
- Kuratko CN et al. Nutrients. 2013;5(7):2777–2810.
- Horrocks LA et al. Pharmacol Res. 1999;40(3):211-225.
- Tan ZS. Neurology. 2012;78(9):658-664.
- Titova OE et al. Age. 2013;35:1495-1505.
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