How Much DHA Do Expecting Mothers Need To Support A Healthy Pregnancy?
Good nutrition is crucial at every point in your life, but it's especially vital when you're pregnant. After all, you're taking in nutrients for both you and baby.
If you're taking a prenatal multivitamin or want to complement your prenatal vitamin with some healthy omega-3s, it's a really good idea to see if it contains a solid amount (more on that later) of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This marine-derived omega-3 fatty acid has been linked to healthy fetal growth and development1, along with a slew of other perks for you and your growing baby.*
But what is DHA, exactly—and why is it so important to get it during your pregnancy? Here's what you need to know.
What is DHA?
DHA is one of the main and most well-researched types of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are found in certain foods (like flaxseed and fatty fish), along with dietary supplements (like fish oil or algal oil). There are several types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the most widely studied include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA, and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
While some biological properties overlap (i.e., they all have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions), each of these omega-3 fatty acids also has its own unique and powerhouse roles in the body.
In general, ALA is found in plant-based foods, while fatty fish, the algae they consume, and shellfish (e.g., oysters, mussels, lobsters, and crab) are the best sources of EPA and DHA.
"DHA helps with fetal growth and development,"* says Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., RDN, CDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. The nutrient has also been linked with cognitive function, proper blood flow, hydrated skin, cardiovascular health, optimal eye health, and more.*
EPA and DHA can be synthesized in the body from dietary sources of ALA, but the conversion rate is very low (and variable), says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game Changers. It's hard to pin down an exact percentage of how much ALA gets converted into EPA and DHA, but research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition estimates that it's anywhere from 1% to 21%2. Not great odds.
Benefits of DHA during pregnancy.
Since your body can't make a lot of DHA, getting enough from your diet and high-quality supplementation is critical during pregnancy, says Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.
Greves calls DHA "the most important type of fat in pregnancy," thanks to its critical involvement in so many different parts of the body. Perhaps most well known is DHA's reputation as a key proponent of fetal brain development in the womb3 (and after birth, i.e., the postnatal period).*
Whether nine months or 99 years old, the omega-3 fatty acid makes up a large majority of the gray matter in the brain, which controls everything from memory and emotions to movement. Additionally, DHA helps protect and maintain the structural integrity of cell membranes and neurons (which are responsible for sending and receiving messages throughout the central nervous system).*
DHA is also important for fetal eye development4 and visual functioning.* "During pregnancy, DHA, in particular, helps with the development of the baby's brain and eyes,"* Young explains.
Observational studies have also linked higher intake of DHA from fish during pregnancy to better infant health outcomes.* In an American Journal of Epidemiology prospective cohort study of 341 mother-child pairs in the U.S., researchers found moms who had fish more than twice a week had babies with better visual-motor skills at age 35 compared to their counterparts with lower fish intake.
Another observational cohort study6 in the U.K. published by the Lancet analyzed data from 11,875 pregnant women with seafood intakes ranging from none to approximately 12 ounces per week. Researchers discovered that children of mothers who consumed less seafood during pregnancy were more likely to have suboptimal communication skills, verbal IQ, and prosocial behavior.
With clear benefits for both fetal growth and cognitive development, getting sufficient DHA during pregnancy should be a top priority for expecting mothers.*
How much DHA do you need during pregnancy?
This is a little complicated. Currently, there's an established daily nutritional requirement for ALA, per the National Academies’ Food and Nutrition Board: 1,100 milligrams per day for adult women and 1,600 milligrams for adult men. (To put that number into perspective, a serving of walnuts has 2,600 milligrams of ALA7.)
Technically, there's no established recommendation for DHA dosage, although as nutrition scientist Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, explains, "The desire for EPA and DHA to be assigned their own established dietary reference intakes8 by the National Academies has been a desire that researchers, doctors, and nutritionists alike have shared for many years."
Ferira goes on to say that, "while we wait on that recommendation to be issued, we can share what the science and clinical consensus say." Speaking of clinical consensus, doctors generally recommend9 that pregnant individuals consume 200 milligrams of DHA a day, says Greves. You can find DHA in certain prenatal multivitamins or as a separate, stand-alone omega-3 supplement, too.
On the food front, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that people eat at least two servings (i.e., eight to 12 ounces) of fish or shellfish a week for their EPA and DHA content before getting pregnant, while pregnant, and while breastfeeding.
In fact, conclusive evidence from a number of respected organizations recommends adequate daily DHA intake during pregnancy. "From the WHO and European perinatal health associations10 to the esteemed ACOG and research dating back 20-plus years11, clinical consensus aligns at a minimum of 200 to 300 milligrams of omega-3 DHA intake daily during pregnancy and lactation," Ferira previously shared.
Unfortunately, it's common to have a DHA insufficiency. "Most Americans don't eat enough fish to meet their needs for omega-3s and DHA, so insufficiency is pretty common," Cording says. Evidence indicates that up to 90% of Americans12 aren't getting enough DHA.
"If you're thinking of starting a family or you want to be healthy overall, you want to incorporate DHA into your diet," Greves shares. "That's especially true with the standard American diet—most people don't eat enough cold-water fish."
Sources of DHA.
It is possible to get enough DHA from food—it's just that most U.S. citizens don't. Young points out that DHA is found mainly in seafood, listing the following as the best sources:
You can also get DHA from algae and a small amount from eggs enriched with omega-3s, Young points out.
While it's possible to get your DHA from eating fish, Cording points out that most Americans don't—and that's where supplementation comes in. "I encourage people to take an omega-3 supplement," she says. "In pregnancy, your needs are higher, and it's hard to cover them through food."
What's more, "during pregnancy, you're extra cognizant of contaminants like heavy metals and other toxins found in fish and elsewhere, so the case for a purified omega-3 supplement source of DHA becomes even more compelling," adds Ferira.
If you're looking for a premium omega-3 supplement to meet your DHA needs, mindbodygreen's omega-3 potency+ is a fantastic option. With 1.5 grams (i.e., 1,500 milligrams) of EPA and DHA derived from sustainably sourced, wild-caught anchovies from the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, this high-quality fish oil supplement is a great way to support a healthy pregnancy and thereafter!*
DHA is a critical nutrient to have before, during, and after your pregnancy. Given that most people don't meet their DHA (or overall omega-3) needs from diet alone, experts recommend that both pregnant and nonpregnant people supplement with the healthy fat.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, relationships, and lifestyle trends with a master’s degree from American University. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Prevention, Self, Glamour, and more. She lives by the beach, and hopes to own a taco truck one day.