Omega 3 fatty acids – what’s all the fuss about ? (part 3) - DHA supplements

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DHA supplements

When you’re pregnant

Since it is hard to get the recommended amount of DHA from your diet, you may want to take supplements. The evidence is not as strong as for folic acid supplements, but it is generally agreed that they are beneficial during pregnancy.

Research from several countries has shown that pregnant women who take DHA supplements have pregnancies that are 2–4 days longer on average and are less likely to give birth very prematurely (before 34 weeks). The babies of women on supplements have also been found to be heavier, 50–70g more on average. Being born too soon or too small can have serious health effects, although it is debatable whether a couple of days, or a couple of ounces, really makes much difference.

Scientists have also investigated how DHA supplements affect babies’ health and development. Various studies have found that consuming higher levels of DHA during pregnancy and just after birth has beneficial effects on a baby’s visual acuity, cognitive function, attention, maturity of sleep patterns and spontaneous motor activity. Different studies have looked at different features of development, so it is difficult to draw together the evidence and assess the overall impact. But higher levels of DHA certainly do seem to have a positive impact.

Another possible benefit of DHA is on allergy risk. It seems that taking supplements during pregnancy may help to protect babies against common food allergies, such as egg allergy, as well as reducing the risk of other allergic conditions, including eczema.

When you’re breastfeeding

In the first few months of life, babies’ brains continue to grow rapidly and accumulate DHA. If women don’t consume any DHA themselves, their breast milk contains much less, though it still has some. The breast milk of vegan mothers who don’t take DHA supplements has been found to have about a quarter the level of DHA found among meat-eaters. How this affects a baby isn’t completely clear. Researchers have tried to see what difference it makes if breastfeeding mothers take DHA supplements. But trials involving mothers of full-term (rather than premature) babies haven’t found any benefits to neurodevelopment (such as problem solving or motor skills). One study did find weak evidence of better language development at two years and of attention at five years when mothers took supplements.

Overall it remains debatable whether or not DHA supplements during breastfeeding provide clear benefits to a baby’s development. It could be that any effects are only detectable when children are older and their cognitive function is more complex. Since there may be benefits, and there don’t seem to be any adverse effects, supplementation is worth considering while you’re breastfeeding.

Buying supplements

In the past, taking a DHA supplement meant taking a fish oil supplement, but in recent years supplements made from algal oil have become readily available and increasingly popular. This is partly because they are suitable for vegetarians, but also because they offer an alternative for anyone worried about contamination of fish with pollutants, and for those concerned about fish sustainability. Initially it wasn’t known whether DHA from algae would be absorbed and used by the body in the same way as DHA from oily fish. However, research has shown that taking algal DHA supplements increases levels of DHA in the blood in the same way as eating salmon. It has also been found that breastfeeding women taking 200mg of DHA from algae have 75% higher DHA levels in their breast milk.

High-street pharmacy chains, such as Boots and Superdrug, don’t seem to stock DHA supplements made from algae. However, some healthfood shops do and you can also get them online by searching for vegetarian DHA supplements. Several brands, including Opti 3, Deva and V-Pure, are approved by the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society. Each of these contains slightly different amounts of DHA and EPA, but they all seem like reasonable choices based on the official recommendations above. No doubt there are also other brands that would fit the bill. It is best not to take supplements containing more than 1g (1,000mg) of DHA or 2.7g of long-chain omega 3s per day. Research studies have used this amount without any adverse effects, but the effects of taking higher doses are unknown.

Some people take spirulina, which is a type of algae that can be bought in powder or tablet form. It is known to be rich in DHA, as well as containing vitamins and minerals. However, it has not been tested for safety during pregnancy, and the official advice from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US is that it is best avoided in pregnancy and breastfeeding, to be on the safe side.

 
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