Do You Need DHA in a Prenatal Vitamin?

Do You Need DHA in a Prenatal Vitamin?

DHA offers expectant mothers and babies many health benefits, but do you need to take a prenatal supplement that contains the omega-3 fatty acid?

When you’re trying to conceive or are newly pregnant, you probably want to start taking a quality prenatal supplement. If you’ve been to the drug store, though, you’ll notice that not all prenatals are the same. Some contain the usual “must-haves”–docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and folic acid. Do you need these—and if so, how much should you be getting a day? Do you even need a supplement at all if you’re eating well?

The DHA–IQ link…or lack thereof

Recently, a study in JAMA study examined the effects of DHA on children’s IQ. Researchers assessed about 500 children whose mothers took and did not take 800 mg of the supplement each day during the second half of their pregnancies. They didn’t find much of a change between groups as far as the children’s cognitive, language, and motor development at 18 months. And at four years old, there was no advantage for those who had DHA supplementation as far as general IQ, language and executive functioning; and no difference in language, academic abilities, or executive functioning when the children were seven.

Perceptual reasoning was slightly higher in children who got DHA, but parent-reported behavioral problems and executive dysfunction were slightly worse in children whose mothers had DHA supplementation though still in normal ranges.

So is it time to ditch DHA? Not quite.

DHA still has perks, but do you need a supplement?

DHA has been found to lower risks of preterm birth and preeclampsia, while improving birth weight, and aiding in brain, eye and nervous system development.

That doesn’t mean you need to take a supplement while pregnant, according to Nicole Alexandria Smith, M.D., M.P.H., an OB/GYN with Brigham and Young Women’s Hospital in Boston. She tells patients to eat a well-balanced diet that includes fish low in mercury.

“Our grandmothers were probably right—everything in moderation is the best approach,” she said.

Even if you don’t eat fish, there are probably no benefits to supplementation.

“Pregnant women concerned about their babies’ neurologic development do not need to supplement with DHA,” she said.

Most medical professionals still recommend that women get 200 to 300 mg per day of DHA while pregnant and lactating, according to Noel Strong, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. The American Pregnancy Association recommends Nordic Naturals’ Prenatal DHA, which has 480 mg DHA and 205 mg of EPA in each serving.

The lowdown on other must-have nutrients

Alexandria Smith said to make sure you take 400 mcg of folic acid daily—especially in the first trimester. If you’re on a gluten-free diet, you may need to take 800 mcg of folic acid a day to make up for not getting it from wheat. Folic acid is taken to prevent neural tube defects, and is best started when women begin planning to get pregnant.

To prevent anemia, which can occur in the second and third trimesters, choose a supplement with 27 mg of iron, Alexandria Smith noted.

“Women with food insecurity, heavy smokers, and some other groups, may benefit from a multivitamin,” she added.

Strong said that pregnant women should get 1,000 mg of calcium, 25 to 50 mg of vitamins B6, 2.6 mg of B12, and 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day.

What exactly do you need? It really does depend on the individual. Talk to your doctor or midwife about what you may need in a prenatal, and ask if you need a prescription supplement or an over-the-counter product.

Cover image courtesy of Getty Images.