Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid. About half of the brain and eyes are made up of fat, much of which is DHA, which is an essential nutrient for optimal brain and eye function.1 Children's diets today are notoriously low in the beneficial omega-3 fats found in foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, soybeans, leafy greens, and certain fish. I do not recommend fish as a preferred source of these beneficial fats for children because of contamination with pollutants and mercury.
The most commonly used supplement to add DHA to the diet is fish oils, but what is not widely known is that most of us can produce sufficient DHA from short-chain omega-3 fatty acids received from walnuts, flax seeds, and green vegetables. Many fish make their DHA from eating greens, too, from algae.
New products are available that contain DHA from algae, the fish's original source. Unlike fish oil, the algae-derived DHA, grown in the laboratory, is free of chemical pollutants and toxins that may be present in some fish oil-based brands. I recommend favorable DHA products that are designed for purity and are suitable for children. Neuromins is a common (non-fish-derived) brand of DHA sold in most health food stores, and I also have designed and manufactured an all-plant-derived DHA supplement, DHA Purity, available on my Web site and in my office.
DHA is also a normal component of breast milk, and infants fed breast milk score higher on intellectual and visual measurements than those fed baby formulas lacking DHA. Children who were breast-fed, as a group, have higher IQ scores than those who were formula fed.2 Pregnant women should pay close attention to their DHA status to ensure proper DHA supply for prenatal development. Maternal supplementation with DHA during pregnancy, and lactation has been demonstrated to augment children's IQ.3
DHA is present in breast milk, but up until 2002, the United States was the only country in the world where infant formulas were not fortified with DHA, despite a 1995 recommendation by the World Health Organization to do so. In addition, the average DHA content of breast milk in the United States has been tested to be low compared to other countries that consume more fish. In fact, postpartum depression, lower IQ, dyslexia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have been linked by many scientific studies to the low DHA intake common in the United States.4
Deficiency in DHA fatty acids has been linked to:
- Reduced intelligence
- Sleep problems
- Temper tantrums
- Manic depression 5
The first year of life is a crucial year that sets the stage for your child's healthy body and mind. Exposure to DHA-rich breast milk while the brain is rapidly growing assures that your child will develop his full intelligence potential. To supplement her healthy diet, Mom should be taking a multivitamin plus a daily DHA supplement containing approximately 200 mg of DHA, to assure adequate DHA content in her breast milk. Even after food is introduced, continued breast-feeding is important and necessary past the first birthday for maximum disease resistance, immune function, and brain development.
Once your child is off breast milk, I recommend that parents add a small amount of DHA (50 to 100mg) to their child's orange juice, oatmeal, or other food. Even if you don't do it every day, it still ensures that no child will suffer the consequences of DHA deficiency during these crucial years of brain development. When our children don't consume the right mix of brain boosting nutrients, they have a reduced ability to learn and a lower IQ, and later in life they can develop dementia and Alzheimer's disease. On the other hand, the right mixture of brain-supporting foods will afford our children the ability to reach their maximum potential in life, not just for health, but for emotional stability, happiness, and success in their chosen careers.
1. Haag M. Essential fatty acids and the brain Can J Psychiatry 2003;48(3):195-203.
2. Mortensen EL; Michaelsen KF; Sanders SA; Reinisch JM. The association between duration of breast-feeding and adult intelligence. JAMA 2002;287(18):2365-2371.
3. Helland IB, Smith L, Saarem K, et al. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children's IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics 2003;111(1):e39-40.
4. Horrocks LA, Yeo YK. Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharamcol Res 1999;40(3):211-225.
5. Turner N, Else PL, Hulbert AJ. Docosahexarnoic acid (DHA) content of membranes determines molecular activity of the sodium pump: implication for disease states and metabolism. Naturwissenschaften 2003;90(11):521-523. Saugstad LF. Human nature is unique in the mismatch between the usual diet and the need for "food for the brain" (marine fat, DHA). Adding marine fat is beneficial in schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis. This underlines [that] brain dysfunction in these neurological disorders is associated with deficient intake of marine fat (DHA). Nutr Health 2002;16(1):41-44.