by Robert Abel, Jr., MD in Nutrition
As a society, we are starving our children. Yet this newest generation to the planet is so obese that children are developing Type 2 diabetes in unprecedented numbers at younger and younger ages. The fast, tasty, easy processed foods that bedeck our glittering food emporia are mostly empty calories that fatten our children while robbing their brains, nervous systems, eyes, and very spirits of the nourishment they need to flourish. And yet, in our fat-phobic obsession to be thin and have slender children, we have labeled all fats as the enemy.
We need to be far more selective before we banish one-third of all naturally occurring nourishment. Some fats are so important, they are said to be “essential,”or essential fatty acids (EFAs). One of these essential fatty acids is DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid.
Healthy Mothers, Healthier Babies
DHA is usually associated with the central nervous system, and taking DHA is especially important in the growth of the brain and in learning. The most active period for the development of the central nervous system is while the baby is still growing inside the mother.
During the first trimester of pregnancy, especially in the first five weeks, the nervous system and the eyes of the fetus begin to develop. Obviously, this is a very critical time and deficiency of fatty acids during this period can cause a range of very serious problems. Then again, during the last trimester of pregnancy, the brain doubles in size. The fetus is undergoing the “finishing touches” and growing a lot bigger. Approximately 80 percent of the growth of the fetus during the final trimester centers on building the brain. During the last critical months, the mother’s body transfers to the fetus the nutrient materials that become the foundation of the baby’s brain and nervous system. The transfer of DHA to the baby causes the mother’s DHA level to decrease. This is the only time in the human lifecycle that the body doesn’t retain all of the DHA taken in from the diet. Numerous studies show that the levels of EFAs in the diet and therefore in the milk of many American mothers is below the recommended amount to support fetal and infant requirements—to say nothing of their own.
Mother’s Milk and Baby’s Brain
In the U.S., more infants are given formula than in many other countries. Great care has been taken to ensure that formulas contain the optimal amounts of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats for the infant. Still, formula is not, as yet, identical to mother’s milk, and attempting to ascertain the differences has been the focus of many studies.
The differences appear when one compares the long- term achievement, behavior, or performance on IQ tests of individuals who were breast-fed as infants to those who were formula-fed. In one analysis, children who were breast-fed scored on average three to five points higher on IQ tests than children who were formula-fed.
Measurements of vision and the progression of growth, orientation, motor skills, and learning during infancy indicate that even though formula-fed babies grow bigger and more quickly than breast-fed babies, their developmental progression is slowed. Studies show that formula- fed babies at ages two to three years old complete an eye chart (with pictures of animals instead of letters) one line higher (larger pictures equal poorer vision), on average, than breast-fed babies at the same age. Clinical studies show that if DHA and ARA (arachadonic acid, an omega-6 fat) are added to standard formulas, the babies’ visual development returns to normal, as compared with the vision of the breast-fed infants.
Learning and Behavior
Fatty acids also have a close relationship with cognitive function, motor and sensory skills, and emotional health. ADHD affects an estimated 5 percent of the juvenile population. Of this number, more boys than girls are effected. The disorder is generally characterized by inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity, although the severity of the symptoms varies among individuals.
ADHD is less often seen in infants who were breast-fed or given supplements of DHA. Researchers have determined that there is an abnormality in fat metabolism in boys with ADHD; these youngsters have low blood levels of DHA and EPA.
DHA and Mood
Sufficient levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain help bring mood into balance. DHA is necessary to facilitate the flow of serotonin across the synaptic junction. Plus, higher levels of DHA and ARA in the fluid that nourishes and cushions the brain and spinal cord correlate with higher levels of serotonin metabolites. Conversely, deficiency of DHA in the brain, especially in the areas of synapses, seems to relate to low serotonin levels, which, in turn, can lead to depression.
When we find ourselves in a stressful situation, the adrenal glands release cortisol. This hormone is meant to be a short- lived response that enables the body to deal with an acute stressful situation by increasing alertness, pulse, blood pressure, and response time. Unfortunately, depending upon one’s health and lifestyle, stress may not be short lived at all. The long- term effects of chronic physical or emotional stress on the brain are fatigue and depression. Based upon all that we know about the role DHA plays in maintaining optimal mental health, it’s very likely that low levels of DHA are at least partially to blame for the body’s inability to balance itself in instances of sustained physical stress.
A Matter of Heart
The brain is not the only organ that relies on synaptic communication in order to function. It also takes intense communication between cells for the heart to beat in a synchronous rhythm. The heart pumps 200 gallons of blood per day, but it can break down from either physical or emotional factors. DHA is critical for nerve conductivity by virtue of its flexible chemical structure, its ability to conduct nerve impulses, and its smoothness as part of the cell membrane that lines all blood vessels.
Several areas of research have indicated that DHA contributes to heart health in a number of ways, such as by:
• Facilitating intracellular communication to prevent arrhythmia • Decreasing saturated cholesterol plaque • Decreasing blood stickiness • Reducing blood pressure • Reducing heart rate • Reducing total cholesterol • Decreasing triglycerides • Reducing inflammatory proteins • Relaxing arterial walls • Reducing stress in general.
All of these functions of DHA are important in the face of increased genetic and dietary disposition to heart disease. If you have a history of elevated blood pressure, increased cholesterol, heart disease, or diabetes in your family, or if you experience chronic physical or emotional stress, you should strongly consider DHA supplementation.
Important As We Age
There are indications that low levels of DHA contribute to the increased risk of senile dementia, a category of conditions that includes Alzheimer’s disease. Studies show that DHA taken daily can improve symptoms of both cerebrovascular dementia, caused by insufficient blood flow to the brain, and true Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s patients have less DHA in their blood cells; instead, there are high blood levels of DHA breakdown products, including EPA and inflammatory components. In Alzheimer’s patients, the “good” fat is being destroyed—leaving behind inflammatory breakdown products—and it is not resupplied in the body. Thus, the DHA level decreases.
Sight for Sore Eyes
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. among people age 65 or older. It develops after a lifetime of damage to the delicate center of the retina called the macula. People with severe macular degeneration lose the ability to drive, read, and even recognize faces. The cycle of rebuilding rods and cones in the retina can be derailed by a number of factors, including overexposure to UV light, decreased blood supply to the eyes, poor digestion, and inadequate nutritional intake.
We can take precautions to prevent and manage macular degeneration. In addition to DHA consumption, researchers indicate that vitamins A, C, D, and E, lutein, lycopene, cysteine, and the amino acid taurine, along with the minerals zinc, magnesium, and selenium, all support the health of the retina.
A group of conditions targeting the optic nerve, glaucoma affects between 2 and 4 percent of American adults. Glaucoma is often called the thief of sight because most people have no apparent symptoms at first. The most common form is primary open-angle glaucoma, which is characterized by the fluctuation of pressure within the eye, loss of peripheral vision, and changes in the optic nerve. African Americans, Hispanics, and the elderly of all races have higher rates of open- angle glaucoma.
Important nutrients for preventing glaucoma include multivitamins and omega-3 fatty acids— especially DHA. Some of the latest eye drops for glaucoma therapy are derivates of omega-3 fatty acids. They work to treat glaucoma by increasing the outflow of fluid.
DHA and Wellness for Life
Genetic factors control much of our development and our innate intelligence. Our tendency to develop certain diseases may be built into our genes, but these diseases will develop only under certain circumstances. Diet is the cornerstone of the broader foundation of health, and nutrition plays a crucial role in maximizing our genetic potential. The gradual depletion of DHA in our modern diet is becoming obvious through the growing incidence of many diseases.
DHA is not a magic bullet, but it’s a necessary component of every cell in our bodies. It’s crucial in all aspects of our health, and nowhere is it more important than in infant nutrition. If we agree that a larger, optimally functioning brain is something worth having—and I think that most of us would agree—then we’ll need to start adding more DHA- rich foods and supplements to our diets.
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