WHAT IT IS Docosahexaenoic acid is a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, an essential building block of brain tissue that is crucial for communication between neurons.
REPORTED EFFECTS According to Barbara Levine, Ph.D., chief nutritionist at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, DHA plays a vital role in brain development in infants and children. She said taking the fatty acid can have a beneficial effect on adults, too. In Japan, students frequently take DHA pills before examinations to improve their academic performance, and the labels of many foods–from soda to canned tuna–advertise the fact that they are nutritionally enriched with DHA.
Because its role in the brain and nervous system is so wide-ranging, DHA can improve concentration, and may help to alleviate a number of disorders, including depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (as a milder substitute for the drug Ritalin), dyslexia, aggressive behavior, and memory loss in healthy people, as well as those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Note that if you’re experiencing excessive thirst and dry skin, these are common indicators of an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.
HOW IT WORKS Brain cell membrane fluidity is essential for “talk” between the cells–which is how thoughts and memories are transmitted. DHA helps keep cell membranes fluid, and also helps to replenish brain tissue.
THE EVIDENCE In October 1997, David Kyle, Ph.D., of Martek Biosciences Corporation in Baltimore, Maryland, reported the results of a new study, which showed that low blood serum levels of DHA are a significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s dementia. In a separate study, researchers also demonstrated that dietary supplementation of DHA improves memory in Alzheimer’s patients. And other studies have linked low DHA levels to aggression, ADHD in children, clinical depression, and dyslexia.
CAVEATS A vegetarian diet puts you at risk for low levels of DHA, because there are no adequate vegetarian sources of the fatty acid. Seaweed contains a small amount of DHA, and flaxseed oil is a good source of linolenic acid, a precursor to DHA–but these alone probably don’t supply adequate dietary levels of DHA.
DIETARY SOURCES Eating “fatty” fish like salmon or tuna three or four times a week is a good way to make sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and especially in fish oil, is a precursor to DHA. Because EPA acts as a blood thinner, pregnant women, children, and older people are advised to avoid taking it.
WHERE TO FIND IT You may decide to try supplementing your diet with DHA, which is available at any health foods store, either in the form of fish oil capsules or capsules of pure DHA in sunflower oil (marketed under the name Neuromins). Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Spontaneous Healing (Knopf, 1995), recommends avoiding fish oil supplements, which may contain mercury or other toxins in concentrated forms. Algae-derived capsules contain pure DHA. You can take either 100 mg or 200 mg per day to keep your brain healthy. Because DHA plays a key role in infant brain development, Kyle recommends 200 mg daily for pregnant and lactating women.
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