Breast is best!
Providing DHA and ARA for Your Baby
DHA and ARA are long chain polyunsaturated fats that are naturally found in breast milk. Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid found throughout the body. It is a major structural fat in the brain and retina of the eye accounting for up to 97 percent of the omega-3 fats in the brain and up to 93 percent of the omega-3 fats in the retina. It is also a key component of the heart. ARA, or Arachidonic acid, is a long-chain omega-6 fatty acid, and the principal omega-6 in the brain which represents about 48 percent of the omega-6 fats in the brain. It is also abundant in other cells throughout the body.
Developing infants cannot efficiently produce their own DHA or ARA and must obtain these important nutrients through the placenta during pregnancy or from breast milk following birth.
DHA and ARA through Breastfeeding
Breast milk, the best source of nutrition for infants, naturally contains DHA and ARA. Studies show that the amount of DHA in breast milk is related to the mothers DHA status. A balanced diet that includes these important nutrients supports both the health of the mother and her developing infant. An adequate DHA intake and development of stores before pregnancy are important and must be available as early as the first trimester of pregnancy to support early development of the fetus. A higher DHA supply to the infant during pregnancy and nursing has been associated with positive effects on the development of vision.
Women of child bearing age who consume a typical Western diet are at risk of low stores of DHA and low dietary intake of DHA. This risk may be due to the fact that the main dietary source of DHA is fatty fish, which is not eaten frequently. Additionally, expert government and public health agencies such as the UK FSA have advised pregnant and nursing women to limit their fish consumption due to the potentially high levels of toxins such as mercury (See Fish Advisories)**. Closely spaced pregnancies, multiple births and cigarette smoking may also reduce the supply of mothers DHA into her breast milk. The DHA content in breast milk is significantly higher in countries where mothers consume higher levels of DHA in their diets.
Getting DHA in Your Diet
As awareness of the importance of DHA grows, more attention is being paid to the fact that women of child bearing age in addition to those who are pregnant and breastfeeding may benefit from getting more DHA in their diets. DHA levels in the body are largely related to the type of diet we eat. A typical Western diet provides approximately 60-80mg DHA per day, which is considerably less than the DHA intake of at least 200 mg per day recommended by an expert group in 2007. Experts recommend that women consume at least 200mg of DHA daily during pregnancy and nursing.
DHA is best obtained directly from preformed DHA such as fish, algal based DHA supplements and the recent inclusion of DHA in certain prenatal vitamins and products, making it easier for women who are breast feeding to include this important nutrient in their diets every day. There is a common misconception that flaxseed oil is a source of DHA. Flaxseed oil is a source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which has no known independent benefits on the brain or eye development and function. It does not contain DHA and the conversion from ALA to DHA is inefficient and will not adequately support DHA needs during pregnancy and lactation.