Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an essential ω-3 fatty acid, is an integral part of all cell membranes and critical to membrane fluidity. Because of the high concentrations of DHA in the brain, it’s often aptly referred to as important “brain food.” According to a 2016 review published in the journal Nutrients, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the predominant omega-3 (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) found in the brain and can affect neurological function through signal transduction pathways, neurotransmission, neurogenesis, myelination, membrane receptor function, synaptic plasticity, healthy inflammation balance, membrane integrity and membrane organization. DHA is critical to the formation of neuronal synapses.
The American diet is woefully inadequate in omega-3 fatty acids, so it has been recommended that pregnant and lactating women take DHA supplements to support healthy infant brain and eye development, and DHA is often added to infant formula. Long term follow up to clinical trials have shown that prenatal DHA supplementation substantially supports a healthy full-term birth and improves visual attention in infants.
As an omega-3 fatty acid, DHA supports many diverse, important functions in the human body and is often studied alongside its companion omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
“Studies have shown both EPA and DHA are important for proper fetal development, including neuronal, retinal, and immune function,” according to a 2012 review published in the journal Advances in Nutrition. “EPA and DHA may affect many aspects of cardiovascular function….”
A 2017 review of the health benefits of DHA in particular that was published in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology described DHA this way: “one molecule-diverse functions.” That review highlighted these important functions of DHA:
Supports memory formation
Involved in neurogenesis
Acts as a signaling molecule
The researchers conclude, “It seems astonishing how DHA, a single molecule, plays so many roles….”
Much of the research on DHA has been focused on brain health and the research supporting DHA’s role in supporting brain function is impressive. According to a 2016 review published in Nutrition Research Reviews, supplemental DHA not only supports cognition, it can also support mental health as well. The researchers state, “DHA has an important role in the nervous system, which is highlighted by its prominence in neural tissues.” The authors of that 2016 review published in Nutrients conclude, “…the modern diet typically lacks appreciable amounts of DHA. Therefore, in modern populations, maintaining optimal levels of DHA in the brain throughout the lifespan likely requires obtaining preformed DHA via dietary or supplemental sources.”
Most omega 3 supplements contain both DHA and EPA, but there are many high quality DHA supplements also available when more of this precious nutrient is desirable.
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