I recently saw a Facebook post from my sister-in-law in which she complained of her insurance company giving her a hard time about paying for fancy DHA-containing (docosahexaenoic acid) prenatal vitamins. She then commented on how they make her breath bad, but that her doctor insists they are necessary.
That got me thinking… is DHA necessary? Is it really a magic “brain-food” for the unborn baby?
So, I did what everyone else does…. Google’d it. No, really, I did. But then I realized that I have to do better than that. I decided to look into the main medical studies, ask a few maternal-fetal-medicine specialists, and then speak with some of the other OB/GYNs around the hospital.
The short version is that we don’t really know for sure if the DHA in prenatal vitamins has a huge benefit; more research is necessary. Because there is potential benefit and no downside to taking it, it seems reasonable to add a DHA supplement if you desire.
The long version is that DHA (whether from fish or from supplements) is a structural component of the brain and eyes. It appears to be particularly important in the third trimester through the first two years of life. Studies have tried to show that DHA supplements are related to cognitive function (ie intelligence). The problem is that doing studies in humans is complex because it is difficult to ignore all the different external variables associated with a young child’s mental capacity, and it is challenging to following a group of people for several years without losing contact with a large percentage of them. The two best studies failed to show a significant benefit in cognitive test scores (in one study they looked all the way to ages 5 to 6). However, in one study there was less preterm labor and in the other there was some improvement in the neurological testing.
Soooooooo… eat healthy fish with low mercury content and/or take a DHA supplements if you would like; studies may eventually show some major benefit and there does not seem to be any downside to it.
— Dr. B