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Pregnancy is an especially demanding period and there is a greater need for all nutrients during pregnancy. Many nutrients have a positive role in safeguarding the health of the mother and ensuring proper growth of the baby. One amongst them is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

What is DHA?

The main components of all fats are fatty acids which might be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. 

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are fats that are essential to the diet because the body cannot produce them. Essential fatty acids are extremely important nutrients for health. 


They are present in every healthy cell in the body, and are critical for the normal growth and functioning of the cells, muscles, nerves and organs.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).


Docosahexaenoic acid (commonly known as DHA) is an omega-3 essential fatty acid. Docosahexaenoic acid is the most abundant essential fatty acid in the brain and Retina. It makes up 40% of the PUFAs of the brain and 60% of the PUFAs in the Retina.

 

Role of DHA in pregnancy and breastfeeding

Pregnancy is a crucial time when the baby depends on mother forDHA. The last 3 months of pregnancy are particularly crucial as the baby gains weight during this period. There is also a rapid development of the brain and the nervous system during this time. Therefore, if the mother's DHA status is poor, it may lead to low DHAlevels in the baby, which can have adverse effects on the growth and development of the baby.

After birth, from 1 to 8 months of age, DHA continues to accumulate at a slower rate in the baby’s body. After about 2 years of age brain DHA practically reaches adult levels.

Since breastfeeding is the only source of nourishment for the newborn for the first 6 months of life, it is important to ensure that the breastfeeding mother has adequate stores of DHA as well. Studies have shown that breast-fed babies of the mothers who consumedDHA had improved Psychomotor Development. In another study, supplementation of infant formula with DHA during the first weeks of infancy was found to improve the mental function.

DHA benefits for the baby
Important for development of baby's brain
Important for development of eyes
Important for intelligence
 

Major food sources of DHA

Fishes such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel; fish oil supplements, nuts, seeds, oils like soyabean oil, rapeseed oil, linseed oil, flaxseed oil, eggs and marine algae are rich in DHA.However, excessive cooking of these foods may destroy DHA. 


How much of DHA is needed?

World Health Organization (WHO) suggests an intake of 300 mg/day of DHA during pregnancy and breastfeeding. In contrast, the intake of DHA by pregnant women in India has been found to be 11 mg/day, which is far below the recommended levels.

In recent times it is seen that the fishes or fish extracts may contain traces of heavy metals like mercury, an environmental contaminant,which may be harmful to the growing baby and the mother. Moreover,vegetarian diets are poor sources of DHA. Hence, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers can ensure adequate intake ofDHA by adding to their diet a nutritional supplement that containsDHA.

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