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The importance of DHA during pregnancy: a guest post by Tom Hines

July 10, 2013
logo by Christine Hepner

I have a guest post!

Tom Hines is the Co-Founder of, a retired USAPL powerlifter, a youth wrestling coach, the father of 3 amazing boys, and interested in all things health.

Before we really get into it, let’s just state the obvious and get some numbers straight. Everything a developing baby gets, he or she gets from the mother. It would make sense then to look at vital nutrients that the mother’s body can’t produce for itself; one would be Folic Acid.

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. The word “essential” gives it away… we have to eat the stuff to have the stuff. We’re going to focus on the Omega-3 called  DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). The brain is 60% fat, Omega-3 makes up 8% of the brain’s weight, 97% of the Omega-3 in the brain is DHA, and DHA accounts for about 20% of the fatty acid in the cerebral cortex.

So yes, it’s pretty important!

DHA is a vital component in cell membranes throughout the body, but nowhere is it more important than the brain, where DHA’s flexible structure helps the cells transport signals and proteins at their best.

Science is now busy validating what centuries of Norwegians, who valued the use of cod liver oil, seemed to already know.

It’s estimated that a fetus in the third trimester accumulates 67 mg of DHA per day. However, 2 Canadian studies found that women were getting an average of 82-160 mg, where the low end of the range was just 24 mg per day.

A 2003 University of Oslo study found a positive correlation between cod liver oil intake during pregnancy, and the 3 months of breastfeeding, with Mental Processing Composite testing of the children at age 4. EU funded research recently reported that infants who did the best on verbal intelligence, social, and fine motor tests had the moms whose diets and sampled blood levels of healthy fats were the highest.

The eye’s retina is mostly nerve cells, with lots of DHA in the cell membranes. Infants with greater DHA levels have a higher retinal sensitivity to light. Additionally, they have a better developed visual evoked potential 2 ½ to 4 months after birth… a sign of a maturing retina.

In addition to the developing brain and eyes of the baby, research of fish oils have also found other benefits, including:

  • Supports healthy gestational length

  • Supports healthy birth weight

  • Promotes attention and focus

  • Promotes the healthy development of the fetal nervous system

  • Promotes a positive mood for mothers

  • Supports healthy immune system development

And perhaps just as importantly, it’s been shown to be safe for long-term use.

What are the sources for DHA?

Although there are small amounts of DHA in egg yolks and poultry, the major sources are coldwater fish like anchovies, herring, cod, salmon, tuna, sardines, halibut, and mackerel.

While flax is a good source of the Omega-3 ALA, it does not convert well to DHA, so it’s not a good option.  Vegetarians do have supplemental microalgae options however.

When it comes to consuming nutrients, experts almost universally recommend that you get it from food first, and supplement if you have to.  This is not the case in terms of fish oil, and especially if you’re pregnant.  Fish can contain unwanted heavy metals such as mercury.  Top brands like Nordic Naturals do a fantastic job of removing virtually all heavy metals (<0.01 parts per million).  Make sure you taste and smell your fish oil… if you buy capsules, then bust one open.  High quality oils have very little fishy taste or smell.

How much should I take?

Here is the current recommended minimum dosage from ISSFAL (the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids) as published by the American Pregnancy Association.

  • Pregnant and Lactating Women:300 mg DHA daily

  • Infants (1-18 months): 0-15 lbs: 32 mg/lb EPA+DHA

  • Children (1.5-15 yrs): 15 mg/lb EPA+DHA

This article was written for educational purposes only and does not render medical advice or professional services.  Before starting any new diet program please check with your doctor and clear any diet changes with them before beginning.


Denomme J, Stark KD, Holub BJ. Directly quantitated dietary (n-3) fatty acid intakes of pregnant Canadian women are lower than current dietary recommendations. J Nutr. 2005 Feb;135(2):206-11.

Innis SM, Elias SL. Intakes of essential n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids among pregnant Canadian women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Feb;77(2):473-8.

Helland IB, Smith L, Saarem K, Saugstad OD, Drevon CA. 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 Jan;111(1):e39-e44.

Malcolm CA, McCulloch DL, Montgomery C, Shepherd A, Weaver LT. Maternal docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy and visual evoked potential development in term infants: a double blind, prospective, randomised trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2003 Sep;88(5):F383-90.

Malcolm CA, Hamilton R, McCulloch DL, Montgomery C, Weaver LT. Scotopic electroretinogram in term infants born of mothers supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid during pregnancy. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2003 Aug;44(8):3685-91.

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