More and more, doctors are recommending prenatal vitamins that contain the essential fatty acid DHA (DocosaHexanoic Acid). There are many benefits to both mother and child that can be derived from adequate amounts of this fatty acid. It is referred to as essential because the body cannot manufacture adequate amounts of it, particularly during pregnancy and breast feeding, and thus there must be ingestion of DHA to get what is needed. The most common dietary source of DHA is ocean seafood in the form of fatty fish. With concerns about contamination from mercury and pesticides, the consumption of fish sources of DHA has declined dramatically, particularly in the US, and most mothers have levels that are deficient before they become pregnant.

DHA is the key fatty acid component of cell membranes in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the retina. Scientific studies have shown that it’s benefits for the baby include:

1. Supports proper development of the baby’s nervous system.

a. Enhanced psychomotor development.

b. Better scores on intelligence tests at age 4.

c. Improved attention span.

2. Enhances development and function of the retina, with improved visual acuity.

3. Decreased incidence of prematurity.

Adequate DHA intake during pregnancy also provides benefits to the mother. These include:

1. Reduced risk of preeclampsia (toxemia of pregnancy).

2. Mounting evidence of help with mood disorders, including postpartum depression. See:

During pregnancy and breast feeding, the baby gets preferential treatment in the area of nutrition. This is particularly true with regard to DHA. The mother’s body will give up nutrient materials such as DHA for the benefit of the baby. An often suboptimal starting level of DHA can go to an even lower level following pregnancy and breast feeding.

At present, the international consensus on the recommended amount of DHA for supplementation during pregnancy and breast feeding is 200 mg or more per day. Breast milk is particularly rich in DHA. A recent study demonstrated a doubling of breast milk DHA levels in mothers given 200 mg per day of DHA supplement versus a comparable group given a placebo. This obviously benefits the baby.

Because so many women have deficient levels of DHA before conception and are likely to get to extremely low levels after pregnancy and breast feeding, experts such as Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr, Michael Roizen are recommending that all fertile women of child-bearing age be on a good prenatal vitamin with DHA as a matter of routine.

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