LAKE OCONEE — When NASA scientists began to look for the best space food, they turned their attention to marine algae for its high content of the fatty acid DHA. We have since learned that DHA is not only important to astronauts, but everyday people here on Earth.
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that makes up a significant portion of your brain tissue and is essential for proper brain function. The areas of the brain closely related to memory show the greatest concentration of DHA.
DHA is vital for proper fetus development during pregnancy, especially during the first and second trimesters. DHA helps determine brain structure and protects the developing brain. DHA helps ensure that during early childhood, when the learning curve is steepest and brain tissues are forming and connecting, the brain will grow in a way that reduces learning issues further down the road. A recent study of Canadian school children from birth to age 11 showed that children with higher levels of DHA performed better on tests of memory and learning.
But DHA is not only needed when you’re young. It’s needed throughout our lives. Adults who are DHA-deficient show cognitive deficiencies and put themselves at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Low DHA levels have also been associated with depression and a higher risk of coronary heart disease. People who are at greatest risk for DHA deficiency are people who consume a vegan diet because their diets provide little or no DHA at all.
As we age, DHA levels drop. While it is possible to get DHA from your diet (cold water fish being the ideal source), that often is not enough. This is why supplementation is crucial. In studies with older animals given DHA supplementation, the DHA levels were normalized and the risks associated with deficiencies were reduced. Supplementation of 2 to 3g per day provides sufficient DHA to maintain healthy function if taken in addition to a well-balanced diet. If supplementation ceases, DHA levels drop.
Many people ask if consuming these Omega-3 fats puts them at risk for clogged arteries, heart disease and high cholesterol. The answer is no. Unlike other fats that collect in fat cells and are utilized for energy when needed, DHA is collected in cell membranes. Cell membranes are responsible for helping protect and keep the cell healthy. Cell membranes constantly undergo degradation and renewal. This is why the body needs a constant supply of DHA to avoid depletion and injury to neurons, which are the cells that make up brain tissue. What’s more, DHA has been shown to help lower triglycerides and the total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio making these fats a heart-healthy choice.
When purchasing an Omega 3/DHA supplement, make sure you buy a quality source. Cold-water fish are best. Whole food, organic sources are ideal. If the fish oil stinks or tastes bad, it is rancid and should not be consumed. For a quality test, put a capsule in the freezer and see if it freezes. Oil and water do not mix and there should be no water in the capsule to freeze. A quality fish oil can also be easily mixed into food for babies and toddlers, or for individuals who have a hard time swallowing pills.
No adverse side effects or outcomes of DHA supplementation have been shown in any studies, even studies where patients consume large doses of DHA. All the evidence suggests that DHA provides a huge health benefit. DHA supplementation is easy and the risks of deficiency are great, making it a “no-brainer” addition to your daily regimen.
Dr. Haley Lance can be reached at Pathways to Healing, (706) 454-2040.