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The news of pregnancy may generate mixed feelings in women. On the one hand, there is the joy and excitement of bringing a new life into this world, but along with that also comes anxiety and stress as the mother-to-be wonders whether she will be able to fulfill the role of caregiver and nurturer to perfection. Some of the anxiety and mood swings can be attributed to the hormonal variations of pregnancy, but a major concern for most women is how to make sure that they are eating right to promote the adequate growth and well being of the baby. This is also aggravated by the change of appetite and the introduction of nausea during pregnancy.
Well, the best way to ensure a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby is to consume a balanced diet but in most cases, the diet alone may not be sufficient to provide all the necessary nutrients in required amounts. Hence some of these are essentially added as supplements in various food items or as medications.
The supplementation for Iron, Calcium and Folic Acid has been recommended during pregnancy - for a long time - but recent research also suggests that it may be beneficial to supplement another nutrient, DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), for pregnant and breastfeeding women. This has been recommended based on its important role in the baby’s brain and neurological development. DHA is an Omega-3 fatty acid and is not synthesized by the body so it must be obtained either through diet or supplements.
Why is DHA needed in pregnancy and lactation?
The importance of DHA can be understood by the fact that although it is found in all the body cells, its concentration is highest in the brain tissue, nerve cells and the cells of the retina of the eyes. It also has the beneficial effect of preventing low birth weight and preterm birth by prolonging the duration of pregnancy by about 6 days.
Omega-3 fatty acids have important and beneficial cardiac effects.
Studies indicate that children whose mothers received DHA supplementation during pregnancy are set to perform better in tests on sustained attention and neural development at 5 years of age.
When should DHA supplementation be started in pregnancy?
DHA is particularly important for the accelerated development of the brain and retina during the third trimester of pregnancy, however it is recommended to increase its intake right from the start of pregnancy and to continue it while breastfeeding. This is because the development of the brain tissue and nerve cells starts as early as in the 3rd & 4th week of pregnancy - and a scientifically designed balanced diet right from the beginning can be extremely beneficial for the optimum brain-development of the baby.
The baby is incapable of synthesizing its own DHA and depends upon the mother’s dietary intake for its requirement. The nausea and vomiting during early pregnancy can be an impediment to adequate dietary intake of DHA and Omega-3 fatty acids in these months.
What are the dietary sources of DHA?
Medical experts suggest that the daily requirement should be supplied through sources which include-
There is a special need to add supplementation to the diets of women who are strictly vegetarian or vegans. Even women who eat fish are restricted in their intake due the concern for Mercury content in the fish. Pregnant women should not eat more than two portions of fish in a week and should avoid eating shark, swordfish, marlin etc. as their high Mercury content can adversely affect the nerve-tissue-development of the growing baby. Hence, products containing adequate recommended concentration of DHA are important sources to provide the required daily source of the nutrient for the growing baby.