What Is DHA?

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  • Originally Written By: Whitney Coy
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 04 January 2020
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DHA, known formally as docosahexaenoic acid, is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that has a number of important health benefits to humans, perhaps most notably with respect to brain development and function. The human body will synthesize this acid naturally from alpha-linolenic acid, which is present in foods like fish and eggs. A number of manufactured products, particularly baby formulas, are artificially supplemented with this compound, and pregnant women are often encouraged to look for vitamins and supplements that contain it. In addition to promoting development in babies and young children, this particular fatty acid is also really important in blood clotting function, is believed to aid in the prevention of heart disease, and can also help reduce tryglycerides in the blood. Even when derived from natural sources, though, this acid should normally be consumed in moderation, as there can be risks associated with getting too much, especially for people with other health concerns.


Chemical Basics

Docosahexaenoic acid is sometimes also called cervonic acid, and it carries the chemical formula C22H32O2. It’s one of several known “omega-3” fatty acids, thanks largely to the double bond between carbon atoms three places from the end of the chemical chain. This bonding makes the compound particularly strong, which in turn allows it to metabolize differently than more simplified chains. Researchers have long suggested that diets rich in omega-3s lead to better health and disease prevention. DHA specifically is often most important for development and growth, but has a range of other more generalized benefits, too.

Important Health Benefits

This compound is one of many omega-3 fatty acids known to reduce blood tryglyceride levels, which is one way of measuring fat in the blood. Lowering triglycerides, in turn, can help reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and hardening of the arteries. Diets rich in the acid have also been known to reduce blood pressure and may also reduce menstrual cramping.

Some smaller studies have shown that the compound can help reduce the symptoms of diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. It is important to note, though, that, while the acid may make the signs of these diseases less noticeable, it is not a cure for either and should not be used in place of regular medical care and treatments.

Role in Early Development

The acid also plays a major role in the development of the eyes and central nervous system for fetuses, and is a major contributor to proper brain development from conception through early childhood. The brain and central nervous system absorb high amounts of this fatty acid while in utero and during the first two years of life. Babies born to mothers with high levels are thought to develop mental skills at a higher rate and to have more visual abilities.

New and expectant parents are often flooded with options for ensuring their babies consume enough of this particular fatty acid. It can be found as an additive in prenatal vitamins, formula, infant cereal, and baby food, for instance, and many dairy products are supplemented as well. Breast milk is a natural provider, especially in mothers with diets rich in the acid already.

Dietary Sources and Supplements

Health experts generally recommend that people of all ages consume one full serving of a food rich in DHA acid each day. According to most published studies, the vast majority of people do not get enough from diet alone. The compound is found in fish, especially fatty fish known to populate cold water areas. Species that are highest in the acid include tuna, most shellfish, and wild salmon. Fish oil supplements are also widely available and can be a good alternative. Other natural sources include certain seaweeds, eggs, and many red meats.

Risks and Common Precautions

Pregnant women and women who are nursing must be careful to avoid high levels of mercury, which is found in many fatty fish. These women should ask their doctors about DHA supplements, since eating fish every day might do more harm than good.

There can be some drawbacks to adding high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids to a diet generally, as well. People who are allergic to fish should not take supplements derived from fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids may also cause a higher risk of bleeding in some patients.


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