DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 essential fatty acid that has been the focal point of thousands of studies related to brain health, from maintaining a healthy mood to protecting our ability to learn and focus.
Most of us hear about DHA for the first time when we are pregnant, nursing, or close to someone who is pregnant or nursing, because DHA is so critical for the health and development of healthy babies. It is one of the select few supplements recommended for women to consume if they are planning to become pregnant, are pregnant, or while they are nursing. DHA is even included in all breast milk replacement formulas, whether they be in a base of cow milk, goat milk, or even a vegan milk. But DHA is important for so much more than early childhood development. DHA is a critical component of our central nervous system. It supports cell to cell communication and makes up structural components of every single cell of the 37 trillion in our bodies.
DHA is a critical component of our central nervous system
Importantly, DHA also makes up half of the fat in our brains and our eyes – so, that alone should be a great reason to consider how much DHA you consume each day. Ask yourself a simple question as you read this article: Am I getting enough?
Getting more DHA in your diet is positively associated with reproductive health in men, healthy attention and focus in children and, with it’s partner in crime, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), it has even been demonstrated to help preserve cardiovascular health. Its myriad effects come from one simple fact: DHA is present in every human cell. As an essential fat, it must come from our diets because our bodies are incapable of producing it from thin air.
- Supports Recovery After Exercise
One of the first reasons I began supplementing with omega-3s related to athletic performance. As a competition mountain biker in my teens and 20s, I wanted to be my very best, and recover my very quickest from my most intense training days. In this 2016 study, we see the positive effects of short-term DHA supplementation on inflammatory markers after strenuous exercise.
Reduced inflammation = reduced recovery time = better overall performance.
- Supports Eye Health
Given that DHA comprises half the fat in your brain and eyes, it should be no surprise that DHA supports common complaints related to eye health. The most promising research related to eye health covers 3 primary categories:
Early in my career in the omega-3 space, I began suffering from eye strain headaches. I went to the eye doctor, and they confirmed that my vision had improved and my prescription had therefore become too strong for me (which led to my headaches). While this experience is anecdotal, my ophthalmologist said it wasn’t the first time he had seen a case like mine. He said, “If you’ve consumed an insufficient amount of DHA for some time and you commence taking it, your vision may actually improve.” I kept taking my omega-3 every day, and waited to get Lasik surgery to correct my vision to 20/20 after it stabilized 2 years later.
- Supports Men’s Reproductive Health
Roughly half of all infertility cases for men are connected to poor dietary fat intake. Having low levels of DHA is directly connected to low sperm count and poor sperm mobility. In another study, a direct connection was drawn between high omega-6 and low omega-3 composition of sperm and resultant fertility. Consuming more DHA is therefore generally recommended for male reproductive health.
- Supports Healthy Cells and May Reduce Risk of Certain Cancers
Given its omega-3 superpower of quashing out-of-control inflammation in the body, DHA has been positively associated with a lower risk of several cancers – from colorectal to breast and even prostate cancer. While its exact mechanism of action is yet unknown, having lower levels of inflammation in the body is positively associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers. Also, since DHA is involved in structural components of our cells, its presence may be protective at the DNA and cell replication levels.Healthy cells and healthy cell division = a lessened likelihood of tumor formation.
- May Help Slow Alzheimer’s Disease Progression
People with lower levels of DHA in their tissues, especially those at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease, were advised to consider high-dose DHA supplementation in this recent study due to its protective effects.
- The Brain / Liver Health Connection
Early research in animal studies has identified a “plasma-liver-brain axis” and describes a direct connection to cognitive decline.
When I attended the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids & Lipids (ISSFAL) conference back in 2008 in Kansas City, Missouri, an Italian researcher concluded in his poster presentation that there was enough evidence for the plasma-levels of omega-3 that you should “mind your liver” for long-term cognitive health.
Neurologists agree. Recommendations today are that there is “no healthy level” of alcohol products to consume if you want to protect your cognitive health long-term – but for those of us who enjoy a glass of wine here and there, at least DHA can offer some protection, even in those who have drawn the short straw with an APOE4 allele genome type.
Why You Should Supplement with DHA Every Day
Dosages in the studies referenced in this summary vary widely, and typically they also include EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid, the other widely-researched omega-3 commonly found in fish oil (and some leading algae oils). In most cases, the doses used would be hard to consume each day unless you were consuming a half can of sardines or anchovies every day or supplementing with a direct source of EPA and DHA. If that isn’t enough to convince you that supplementing with DHA is a great way to preserve and protect your health, consider the following:
- DHA is an essential omega-3 fat, which means your body cannot produce it on its own.
- Most Americans consume 16 times more omega-6 than omega-3. It’s very challenging to move the needle closer to the ideal 1:1 ratio without. Check out this article to learn more about balancing your fats.
- Getting enough DHA from diet alone is difficult at best. If you consume plant-sourced omega-3s like flax, chia and walnuts, your body must go through the arduous process of converting the alpha linolenic acid (ALA) form of omega-3 into EPA and DHA. This is inefficient, and your body’s systems may not be primed to do so if you aren’t consuming sufficient levels of other co-factors, or if you consume your omega-3 with other omega-6s or trans fats (they compete for the same enzymes, reducing potential yield of DHA and EPA from ALA consumption).
- Consuming a DHA product, like that produced by Örlö Nutrition, ensures that you get your DHA in its most bio-available polar lipid form. This means you get the full benefit of its power by being rapidly absorbed into your body’s tissues. It won’t repeat or burp-back on you because it is absorbed much more quickly than a fish or standard algae oil – and since it’s from algae (and not fish) there will be no fishy taste or aftertaste.
- Getting the expert recommended 300 mg of DHA each day is challenging to do without supplementation. You might remember to eat a high-DHA egg one day, but not the next. You may consume sardines one day, but not feel like consuming them later in the week. Supplementation is easy and provides measurable benefits over the long term.
But What If I’m Already Getting Plenty of the Omega-3s EPA and DHA?
If you think you’re already getting enough DHA and that your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is already optimized, I encourage you to take the blood-spot test offered by Omega Quant. Knowledge, as they say, is power. An ideal time to take a test like this is before you begin a supplementation regime. Then you can take a second test 3 months after you start supplementing to see whether you have reached your ideal >8% omega-3 index. If you haven’t, you may want to further augment your daily omega-3 consumption while reducing your omega-6s to optimize your long-term health and wellness.
Take Home Message
It’s really hard to get enough of the powerful omega-3 DHA in your diet every day. Most people, even those that think they’re getting enough, are still consuming an insufficient quantity. While it’s possible to achieve balance through your diet alone, it is difficult to do so without consuming fish regularly. Many people who consume fish frequently end up with high levels of heavy metals in their systems, since the fish bio-accumulate toxins along with omega-3s.
Given the incredible body of research in support of the omega-3 DHA, I generally recommend supplementation. For personal context, my kids (boys who are 4 and 7) take one DHA softgel each day supplying 175 mg DHA + EPA. I take 2 per day most days (350 mg EPA + DHA), and sometimes 4 when I know I haven’t consumed enough omegas that day (700 mg EPA + DHA). Building a plan that works for your health isn’t complicated. You can optimize your supplementation regimen with measurable data from a simple blood spot test like that provided by Omega Quant.
Furthermore, taking a DHA supplement like the one I helped create at Örlö Nutrition is easy to do, and it won’t break the bank or destroy ecosystems either since it’s algae-based. Plus, because the essential omega-3s are in the polar lipid form, they don’t burp back on you, and they are better absorbed than fish or even krill oil so you can get more benefit in a smaller pill.