Taking care of your nutritional needs during pregnancy can be daunting. Once the initial excitement wears off, you have to start going through all of your to-do lists of necessary tasks for a healthy pregnancy and baby. One of the most important tasks you have as an expectant mother is to ensure that you're eating right and taking the right supplements to nourish your body and your baby.
DHA is one such nutrient that you can't neglect during your pregnancy. This healthy fat is crucial for developing your baby's brain and nervous system, but it's not as easy to get from your food as some other nutrients.
Here’s everything you need to know about omega-3s, DHA, and your growing baby.
Why Is DHA Important For Pregnancy?
Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is an omega-3 fatty acid that you can get from certain foods in your diet and from some supplements. Omega-3s are considered “healthy fats”: as polyunsaturated fatty acids, they play roles in protecting your body tissues from oxidative stress and damage.* They may even help fight chronic inflammation, which is an inappropriate immune response that has been linked to serious health conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease.* This is why omega-3s are such a commonly-taken supplement among people looking to support their heart health!
But there are also omega-3 benefits in pregnancy. While all omega-3s can benefit your general health, the fatty acid DHA is essential for expecting mothers because of its role in healthy brain development.
Fat is one of the most integral structural components of your brain, helping your brain cells to send signals and communicate with each other. DHA is necessary because it is the primary fatty acid in the gray matter of your frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain that is largely responsible for your cognitive abilities like problem-solving and attention span.
Because so much of your brain development occurs while you are still a fetus, this means that adequate DHA is one of the cornerstones of healthy brain development. Several studies have found that women who get enough DHA during their pregnancy have babies who test better in several cognitive activities, including:
- Better visual recognition
- Higher verbal intelligence
The infants whose mothers received enough DHA during their pregnancy were also less likely to develop "suboptimal outcomes" in cognition than the infants whose mothers did not. Those suboptimal outcomes included behavioral problems and poor scores on testing for fine motor skills, social skills, and communication skills.
DHA is also an important component of the cells in your retina, which is the tissue in your eye that processes light and sends it to your brain to be "processed." As such, proper development of your retina during infancy is crucial for good eyesight, and getting enough DHA is a big factor. There's evidence that newborns with DHA deficiencies demonstrate less light sensitivity than others, which can translate to impaired eyesight over time.
So getting enough DHA in your diet is essential for expecting mothers to help with the proper development of their baby’s brain and eyes.* The American Pregnancy Association recommends that pregnant women get at least 300 mg of DHA every day.
Omega-3 Pregnancy Foods
DHA and other omega-3s are most significantly found in fish and seafood. You can get your DHA from low-mercury seafood including:
- Wild Alaskan salmon
- Pacific mackerel
However, it’s important to note that there are some serious risks associated with eating fish and seafood, especially when you are pregnant. Seafood is prone to contamination from mercury, a neurotoxic metal that can build up in your body and become extremely dangerous to both you and your developing baby. Because of this, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that you limit your seafood consumption to just 12 ounces (or roughly two servings) per week.
There are also other sources of omega-3s that you can include in your diet. Certain plant oils, like those found in walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which your body can convert to the active DHA form. Unfortunately, the conversion process is not as efficient as you might hope, and these omega-3 sources generally do not provide a significant amount of DHA.
This is bad news for expecting mothers. In fact, one study concluded that it’s virtually impossible for pregnant women to get their 300 mg serving omega-3s from just two servings of seafood and plant-based ALA sources.
Therefore, omega-3 supplementation is usually necessary for pregnant women to properly nourish their babies and their developing brains.
Benefits Of Omega-3 Supplementation During Pregnancy
Fish oil pills are some of the most popular options for omega-3 supplementation. Fish oil pregnancy benefits include:
Western diets are notorious for not providing enough omega-3 fatty acids for everyday health, and the issue increases significantly when you are pregnant. Taking an omega-3 supplement requires minimal effort to incorporate into your daily regimen without substantially altering your diet.
2. Known dosage
When it comes to pregnancy, you don’t want to guess how much of your nutrients you’re getting - you want to know for sure! Omega-3 supplements are clearly marked on the label, telling you exactly how much DHA you are getting per serving. Remember, it’s recommended that you get at least 300mg of DHA per day.
3. Good source of DHA
Unlike the omega-3s from plants like chia seeds and hemp, fish oil pills have active DHA that doesn’t have to go through a conversion process in order to be used by your baby’s developing brain. Fish oil pills also have another active omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which may also reduce inflammation.*
4. Generally more palatable
For people who don’t care to eat fish regularly, taking their omega-3s in a pill or a capsule is a more appealing option. However, fish oil pills are also notorious for “fish burps”!
So omega-3 supplements are a great and necessary option for many pregnant women who want a solid prenatal nutrition profile. However, you may still run into issues with consuming enough DHA if you are a plant-based eater or have a seafood allergy.
Luckily, there are vegan DHA supplements that can fill that gap and help you provide the nutrients for the healthy development of your baby.
Vegan DHA Sources
As mentioned previously, you can find a different kind of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in certain plant-based oils like those from walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. You can either ingest them as whole foods or take a vegetarian ALA supplement that uses these oils as its omega-3 source.
Unfortunately, these omega-3 sources are not very bioavailable. Your body can convert ALA into EPA, then DHA. But in the end, this does not yield very much DHA - in fact, two studies found that the ALA from these plant-based oils that were consumed by their subjects did not convert to any DHA at all!
So your best bet would be to get your DHA from vegan omega-3 supplements made from algae oil.
Microalgae is the very reason that those cold-water fish are so rich in EPA and DHA to begin with. These microscopic plants make DHA and EPA via photosynthesis. Then, those omega-3s are transferred through the food chain as they are eaten by fish and eventually us. So when you take algae-based omega-3 pills, you get your DHA directly from the source.
Benefits Of Vegan DHA
Using a vegan omega-3 supplement like algae oil pills can provide you the DHA necessary for a healthy developing baby without using fish or other seafood. Bypassing the fish means that you are also bypassing the possibility of ingesting fish that have been contaminated by mercury.
It’s also better for the environment! Overfishing is one of the most serious challenges to our current oceans, and the increasing demand for fish oil pills is only worsening the problem. Because so many of our fish stocks are being overfished (and many of them have already been depleted), using a vegan DHA source during your pregnancy can keep you and your baby healthy while also minimizing your impact on the environment.
Finally, vegan DHA sources like microalgae are the obvious answer for pregnant women who can’t or won’t eat fish due to allergies or personal dietary preferences. Microalgae pills are completely plant-based and are suitable for anyone who follows a fish-free and/or plant-based eating pattern.
When Should I Start Taking Omega-3s In Pregnancy?
Because omega-3 fatty acids can be stored and built up in your body, it’s a good idea to begin taking omega-3 supplements as soon as possible. If you are planning on becoming pregnant, you can start taking your DHA supplements a couple of months prior to conception.
You'll also want to continue taking them regularly throughout your pregnancy so that you meet your 300mg serving per day. This will be especially important during your third trimester since that is the time when your baby's brain is developing the most, and the most DHA will be transferred from yourself to your baby.
Your omega-3 supplementation shouldn’t stop after your baby is born, either. Your growing baby also needs omega-3s to support their continuing brain growth, so infants of breastfeeding mothers will also benefit from continued supplementation. Many infant formulas are also enriched with DHA for this same reason.
Getting enough DHA requires a combination of healthy eating and high-quality supplements. With the increasing availability of microalgae supplements, women can get all the healthy fat that their baby needs without having to resort to eating potentially dangerous fish or compromising on their dietary restrictions.