What is Docosahexaenoic Acid?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 April 2018
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Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is most often found in high quantity in foods like oily fish. This particular acid has been shown to be useful to health in a number of ways, and it’s now recommended that many people add enough fish or a DHA supplement to their diets to get these health benefits. Outside of eating oily fish or taking supplements, it’s difficult to get adequate DHA. It is what is known as an essential acid; human bodies don’t produce it and need to eat something that contains it.

The list of potential benefits to taking docosahexaenoic acid has expanded. In early studies, it was shown as being useful in protecting the heart from dangerous arrhythmias, and evidence continues to grow that DHA can improve heart health. The use of docosohexaenoic acid has also been investigated for its role in brain health; the connection between certain fatty acids and brain growth or development is firmly established.


Thus far, docosahexaenoic acid has been indicated in helping the brain in a few ways. When used in fish oil, it has been clinically shown to be useful in mood stabilization, and might be a recommended supplement for people with mood disorder conditions, such as major depression or bipolar disorder. It’s also suggested that DHA could protect the brain from the effects of aging. With aging, docosahexaenoic acid in brain cells does decrease and replenishing this supply could have a positive effect.

It’s clear that DHA is very important in brain development. A small amount of it is present in human breast milk and nursed infants appear to have higher IQs than formula fed children. This has led some formula manufacturers to add docosahexaenoic acid to formula, and children fed this formula have shown similar intelligence gains to breastfed peers.

For women who plan to breastfed, the suggestion from many doctors, which should be verified with a woman’s own doctor, is that they begin taking DHA supplements in the last trimester of their pregnancy. It may be harder to get DHA from fish given the high mercury content of many of the oily fish that are considered the best suppliers of this essential acid. Fortunately, there is an alternative that is also exciting for many vegetarians.

DHA doesn’t actually come from fish but is derived from their diet, made mostly of certain seaweeds. There are companies that are now producing DHA supplements directly from the seaweed instead of from the fish. To make these comparable with most fish oil, supplements also need to contain, or must be taken with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). There are some vegetarian sources of EPA, too, like flax seed.



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