Healing Kitchen

Brain Power Starts in the Womb
Have you ever wondered why fish is called "brain food?" Well, wonder no more, as researchers may have discovered the clue to why fish may be good for your brain as well as your heart, your eyes, your children, and your golden years. The substance in fish that researchers attribute to what makes fish "brain food" is an omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexanoic acid (DHA). A vital substance for human health, from womb to tomb, for all stages in life, DHA is actually found in what fish consume, marine algae.

DHA and Neurological Well-Being
Low levels of DHA have been correlated with certain behavioral and neurological conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dementia, depression, memory loss, as well as visual problems. Researchers have also conjectured that the depletion of DHA levels in a woman's blood after childbirth may possibly be one of the factors leading to an increased risk of postpartum depression. DHA is also being investigated as a potential factor in the prevention of atherosclerosis and cancer as well as the treatment of multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis. Although DHA is crucial for all of us; it is particularly vital for pregnant women and infants.

Why Babies (and their Moms) Need DHA
As DHA and arachidonic acid (AA) are major lipid components of the brain it is important for the mother to utilize DHA and AA during pregnancy to support fetal brain and eye development. The human brain grows at a rapid pace during the late stages of fetal development and the DHA content of the fetal brain increases three to five times during the final trimester of pregnancy and triples during the first 12 weeks of life. The first 12 to 18 months of life are when the brain requires fatty acids to set the foundations for cognition and visual acuity. DHA may be particularly vital for premature infants whose neurological and retinal needs are even greater than term infants.

Silent Epidemic
Acquiring DHA via breast milk is of optimal value during that period of early development. DHA levels in human breast milk depend upon the diet of the mother which is a matter of concern as the breast milk DHA content of American women is the lowest in the world, most likely due to their low consumption of fish. While health professionals concur that breast milk is best for babies, nonetheless, for those women who are unable to breast feed, the only alternative is infant formula. Infant formula in the U.S., however, does not contain DHA, although more than 60 countries use DHA in their formulas. In 1994, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended DHA (40 mg per kilogram of infant body weight) be added to all infant formula and the Commission of the European Community also made the same recommendation. Evidence of the necessity of DHA early on in life is emerging as more studies are conducted, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has decided to err on the side of caution by banning DHA from infant formula until the safety and usefulness of adding DHA to formula has been "conclusively established."

DHA Can Raise IQ
Results from a recent study, "A randomized control trial of early dietary supply of long-chain fatty acids and mental development in term infants," published in Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology indicate that supplementation of infant formula with DHA can result in quantifiable improvement of mental development. Researchers of the NIH-sponsored study at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest in Dallas divided 56 newborns into three groups and fed them different formulas for four months. They compared a control group that received a commercial formula with no addition of long-chain fatty acids with a test group that got formula supplemented with DHA, and a third group that received formula supplemented with both DHA and AA. The infants taking formula enriched with DHA and AA scored significantly higher on mental development tests (a total of 7 points higher); and 4 of the 7 points were attributed to the group that received DHA-enriched formula.

While all of the study participants had normal physical development and were equally able to solve simple mental problems, it is noteworthy that when given a more complex mental challenge, the children on the DHA-supplemented formula did better--and their advantage was statistically significant (four points higher than the control group on the Bayley Scales of Mental Development Index). Children in the study will be followed up and tested at age 4 and 9 to determine if the enhanced early brain development translates into higher IQs when they are school-aged.

According to nutrition expert, Barbara Levine, Ph.D., R.D., Director of Human Nutrition at the Rockefeller University, New York, NY, "Researchers have long recognized the far-reaching significance of DHA for the mental and visual development of infants, and we are so pleased to now see the emergence of key clinical data supporting this important cause. Based on the remarkable results of this study and the huge body of supporting literature, we must ensure that all young infants have the opportunity to receive the myriad advantages associated with optimal levels of DHA."

Smart People Eat Fish Although DHA and AA enriched infant formula may one day become available in the U.S., the diverse benefits of breastfeeding can not be replicated. Breast milk is easier to digest than formula, it provides natural antibodies that help protect newborns from common childhood diseases, and it is also less expensive than infant formula. As the importance of DHA for pregnant, lactating women is becoming more of an issue to contend with, it is vital for this population to consume food sources that are high in DHA, which include cold water fish such as mackerel, Atlantic salmon, bluefish, halibut, herring, sockeye salmon, striped bass, tuna, Atlantic cod and flounder. Due to declining consumption of these foods the average American's diet is low in DHA, this is of particular concern for women who are of child bearing age. Consuming foods high in omega-3 fatty acids can also reduce saturated fatty acid intake while at the same time providing a diverse array of health benefits.

Author: Maureen Mulhern-White
Date Published: 04/16/2000
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