By: Rachel, RD, CDN

With health professionals recommending additional DHA, or Docosahexaenoic Acid, during pregnancy, many women have become aware that there is something special about this nutrient. DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid and is not only essential during pregnancy, but throughout a woman’s entire life, since it cannot be made by the body. DHA plays an important role in brain and eye development in the fetus and is the preferred fatty acid to fuel the brain in adults as well, essential for normal brain function.

Although researchers have not yet been able to prove a direct link between increased DHA intake and fetal brain development, promising new research supports an association between DHA intake and reduced risk of preterm birth. This is important because births that occur five weeks early are one of the leading causes of infant death. By increasing the length of pregnancy, babies have more time to develop in utero and will likely spend less time in the hospital after birth, leading to better long-term health outcomes.

The recent study was performed on 350 women who were between eight and 20 weeks pregnant. Half were given 200 milligrams of DHA three times daily until they gave birth. The other half of the women received placebo capsules. The results showed that those women taking the DHA supplements had slightly larger, heaver babies and tended to give birth about three days later than the placebo group. Even though both groups had about the same number of preterm births, the placebo group had more very early premies- born at less than 34 weeks gestation. When babies are this premature they are at much higher risk of having serious health complications and longer hospital stays. The researches think that the higher DHA blood levels in the women taking the supplements were what led to the favorable results.  

Importantly, these new results also suggest that women need at least 600 mg of DHA daily to reap these benefits, given that a previous study used only 400 mg daily and did not lead to longer pregnancies. Most prenatal vitamins do not provide this high an amount, so it is important to consume low mercury, high DHA containing fish such as salmon (avoid king mackerel, white albacore tuna, shark, and swordfish, which are high in mercury) two times per week, and consider taking an additional DHA supplement.

These consistent findings give reason to believe that adequate DHA during pregnancy could play a significant role in reducing high-risk pregnancies- but remember that it won’t be helpful unless a healthy well-balanced diet is followed and the appropriate amount of weight is gained as well. It’s simply an overall healthy diet and lifestyle with a few adjustments and additional considerations (some extra nutrients including DHA) that promote the healthiest pregnancies possible!