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By Barbara Levine, Ph.D.

DHA is key to optimal brain and eye health, especially in infants. If you're not taking it now, hereÕs why you should.

While you may not be familiar with DHA, you body is. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid that serves as the primary structural fat for your brain and retina.

Fetuses depend primarily upon their mothersÕ stores of DHA for brain and eye development-they receive DHA from their mothersÕ blood through the placenta. Breast Fed infants obtain DHA from their mothersÕ breast milk. And, children and adults get DHA from fish like salmon, tuna and sardines. Our bodies can make DHA, to a limited extent, from certain vegetable oils; however, a babyÕs body cannot make DHA fast enough to meet the needs of the rapidly developing brain.

Therefore, a pregnant woman must provide the developing fetus with an adequate source of DHA. You can do this by eating lots of DHA-rich foods or taking DHA supplements throughout pregnancy. Pregnancy can also deplete your stores of DHA, so you should continue to eat DHA-rich foods throughout lactation. Breast milk is an infantÕs only source of DHA in the first few months of life, so the milk must contain enough DHA. DHA deficiency may also be involved in postpartum depression and may play a role in preventing other emotional/mental problems.

Formula-fed infants in the United States are deprived of DHA because most American infant formulas do not contain DHA. In most other developed countries, mothers have access to formulas supplemented with DHA. In 1995, a joint expert panel of the World Health Organization and the Food Agriculture Organization recommended including DHA in all infant formulas. A debate still rages on, however, as to whether or not DHA is necessary in formula.

According to Michael Crawford, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, The university of North London, "Leaving DHA out [of infant formula] at this critical time is not justifiable. We should give our infants the best possible, optimum nourishment," he says.

Eileen Birch, Ph.D., of the Retina Foundation of the Southwest in Dallas, found that infants receiving DHA could see better those not receiving DHA. And a recent literature analysis of 32 studies demonstrated that children who are breast-fed have an IQ advantage over those fed formula without DHA.

DHA is as important throughout the rest of life as it is at birth. According to studies, children without adequate DHA may be more likely to develop behavioral and learning problems, such as ADHD. Studies also show that a low level of DHA is a significant risk factor for developing dementia and AlzheimerÕs disease.

By eating several servings of DHA-rich food s weekly or by using safe DHA supplements daily, we can increase our DHA levels, providing the best nutritional environment for brain and eye functions.