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The Importance of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) During Pregnancy

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Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid and a long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA). Dietary intakes of DHA are essential during pregnancy. Please continue reading to learn why maternal DHA supplementation is so vitally important. 

What are EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They are a type of healthy dietary fat found in foods of both plant and animal origin. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include nuts, seeds, fish, seafood, and vegetable oils. People who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet can take fish oil supplements to fill the gap. 

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are the two most biologically active forms of omega-3 fatty acids. They are present mainly in marine foods like seafood and algae. Dietary intake of these foods can increase circulating DHA concentrations. DHA is present in abundant quantities in the human central nervous system. The levels of DHA in the human brain are up to 300 times higher than EPA. 

Other long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids like linoleic acid and arachidonic acid are omega-6 fatty acids and are believed to protect against cancer. You can check fish oil supplements' labels to find the fatty acid composition.

Is docosahexaenoic acid safe during pregnancy?

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) intake is not only safe but essential for pregnant women to ensure healthy brain development in the fetus (unborn baby) as well as during the first two years of life.

However, surveys show that maternal DHA intake is insufficient among many pregnant women in the United States. Specifically, women who do not eat seafood and fish tend not to get enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet. Such pregnant women need DHA supplements to maintain a healthy fatty acid status. Maternal DHA status in pregnant women can be maintained with docosahexaenoic acid supplementation. 

Why is DHA intake so important during pregnancy?

Dietary fat intakes of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have multiple beneficial effects. 

Scientists have found that brain growth occurs at a very fast rate during the second half of pregnancy and the first year after birth. Brain development continues at a fast pace for several years in early childhood. Pregnant women need to take omega-3 fatty acids in the form of a fish oil supplement to support fetal and childhood brain development. The requirements for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in pregnant women are higher than in non-pregnant women. Therefore, maternal fish oil supplementation is necessary to support fetal development of the brain and eye. 

Besides the baby’s brain development, prenatal DHA supplementation also plays a role in the length of gestation and can prevent preterm delivery. Also, maternal supplementation with DHA omega-3 fatty acid has been shown to prevent perinatal depression

How much DHA fatty acids supplementation should a pregnant woman take?

The adequate DHA maternal supplementation for optimal cognitive development and fetal growth is at least 200 mg per day. These DHA levels of essential fatty acids can be achieved by consuming 1-2 servings of fatty fish or seafood per week or through dietary supplements.

What happens if I don’t take DHA supplementation during pregnancy?

Inadequate DHA during pregnancy can affect infant development. It can lead to problems with infant visual acuity (eyesight) and cognitive development. It can also result in preterm infants and low birth weight infants. In other words, DHA deficiency in pregnant women can have undesirable pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes. 

This is because docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is involved in many vital biological processes such as immune system function, inflammatory response, formation of new blood vessels, cell growth, nerve signal conduction, and a host of other processes that affect infant development. 

DHA deficiency during pregnancy can have long-lasting effects. Otherwise, healthy pregnant women who do not get adequate amounts of this essential fatty acid, especially in the third trimester, can put their infant at increased risk of cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory disorders, mental stress, and behavioral changes later in life. If dietary DHA intake (maternal fish intake) is not sufficient, a DHA supplement during pregnancy can provide more DHA and significantly reduce these risks.

It is worth noting that based on animal studies, a poor infant DHA status can result in visual and developmental deficits, and these deficits cannot be corrected with postnatal DHA supplementation. That’s why it is important to provide sufficient docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to the developing baby through prenatal supplementation throughout the pregnancy.

It is also worth noting that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is secreted in breast milk and has health benefits for both the baby and the mother. International recommendations are for pregnant and lactating women to consume 200 mg of DHA per day. 


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7759779/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3046737/
  3. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000747.htm
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5273852/#