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DHA and DHEA: Different Benefits for Pregnancy

Last updated March 01, 2021

One question that comes up often about our Fertinatal DHEA is this: “Is this the same as DHA?” The short answer is no – DHA, short for docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid, while DHEA, short for dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone. Adding to the confusion due to the similar-sounding acronyms, both are recommended in the fertility context, as they play different but important roles in conception and maintenance of a healthy pregnancy. In this article, we delve into the benefits of DHA, primariliy focused on fertility and pregnancy. For an in-depth look at the science of DHEA and fertility, head over to our explainer on DHEA and IVF outcomes

What is DHA?

DHA is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. DHA is the main building block of our nervous system, including brain, cerebral cortex and retina, as well as our skin – it’s the most abundant omega-3 fatty acids in our brain, with as much as half of the plasma membrane of our neurons consisting of DHA. Supporting a wide range of signaling between cells and through cell membranes, DHA is considered essential for the health of our nervous system. Human body can synthesize a small amount of this essential fatty acid from another omega-3 fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). However, for a vast majority of DHA that our body needs, we rely on dietary sources like salmon and other seafood.

What are DHA’s fertility and pregnancy benefits?

DHA has been the subject of numerous studies since since at least the 1980s. The most commonly cited health benefits of DHA are cardiovascular (protection against heart disease and reduction of serum triglycerides), neurological (ADHD and Alzheimer’s Disease) and fetal development, but there is some evidence that DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids also facilitate conception.

DHA and baby’s neural and intellectual development

There has been some direct and indirect evidence to support DHA’s beneficial effects on the baby’s neural and intellectula development. Some studies like this one in the journal Pediatrics found that mother’s DHA intake during pregnancy impacts the baby’s intellecutal development well after birth. Epidemiological studies like this one have positively linked the fish intake during pregnancy to the baby’s early cognitive development, suggesting that DHA, abundant in many fish, may be a crucial part of the benefit.

DHA and chances of pregnancy

A 2016 study, published in the journal Nutrients, compared the IVF outcomes of 46 women based on how much omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids were present in their diet. The researchers found that the women whose diet contained higher levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids were more likely to get pregnant than women whose diet was low on these healthy fats.

More recently in 2018, researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health investigated the serum levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in women undergoing assisted reproductive treatments. They reported an 8% increase in pregnancy rates as well as live birth rates for every 1% increase in the concentration of omega-3 fatty acid in the blood.

Furthermore, some studies have shown that DHA can reduce the risk of early premature birth. While systematic reviews have found evidence to be inconclusive for many of the investigated health benefits of DHA, many doctors recommend pregnant women and those planning to get pregnant to increase DHA intake, either through incorporating more seafood to their diet, taking an omega-3 supplement or both.

How does omega-3 affect pregnancy chances and longer-term outcomes?

Researchers are still on the hunt for answers, but a Dutch study may offer a clue: Higher intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid before conception appeared to improve the embryo morphology. As embryo quality has a tremendous impact on the establishment of pregnancy and fetal development at the earliest stage of pregnancy, improvement in embryo qualify from DHA may very well explain some of the benefits observed in pregnancy rates and longer-term outcomes.

What is DHEA and its fertility benefits - briefly?

While DHA is a fatty acid, DHEA is a weak male hormone (androgen) that exists naturally in both men and women. It’s an intermediary step in a process called steroidogenesis, where male and female hormones like testosterone and estrogens are synthesized in our bodies.

DHEA has been shown to improve fertility prospects in women with low ovarian reserve, primarily women whose ovarian functions have declined as they approach their 40s, but also younger women with prematurely aging ovaries. Since a fertility center started using DHEA supplementation for IVF cycle preparation in the early 2000s, DHEA supplementation for female fertility purposes have spread globally, with some 1/3 of IVF centers using it worldwide. In case you’ve missed it, here’s our explainer on DHEA and IVF outcomes.

What does this mean for me?

When getting ready for a baby

  • Aim for 1.1 grams of omega-3 per day. Eating 8 oz of seafood each week can easily get you there, or you can take an omega-3 supplement instead.
  • If you are between 35 and 39, discuss with your doctor if 25 mg of DHEA per day is right for you.
  • If you are 40 and up, talk to your doctor about taking 75 mg of DHEA per day.
  • Take prenatal vitamins.

When pregnant

  • Aim for 1.4 grams of omega-3 per day. Eating 8-12 oz of seafood each week will get you there.
  • Consider taking an omega-3 supplement. Doctors may recommend taking an omega-3 supplement to pregnant women women, because omega-3 supplements typically don’t contain mercury, which is a concern in some species of seafood. Here’s FDA’s handy list of safer and riskier fish species, in terms of mercury content.
  • Stop taking DHEA, if you supplemented before pregnancy. Your body produces more DHEA during pregnancy, so you won’t need the supplement.
  • Continue taking your prenatal vitamins.

While breastfeeding

Sources of DHA

Seafood is the most common sources of DHA. For example, a 4-oz portion of salmon has 1.65 grams of DHA, more than what you need in a day during pregnancy. Seafood is also a good source of another major type of omega-3, EPA.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, nuts and seeds like flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts, are a great source of alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-derived type of omega-3. However, the conversion of ALA into DHA and EPA in our bodies is rather inefficient, and vegetarians and vegans may benefit from taking omega-3 supplements. There are plant-derived omega-3 supplements, such as those made with algal oil, which has been shown to be equivalent to DHA from salmon.

National Institutes of Health has an informative list of foods high in DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids.

As always, talk to your doctor or registered dietitian – they are in the best position to determine if any lifestyle change or supplement is a good fit for your particular situation. If you – or your healthcare team – have any questions, please let us know via LiveChat. We are with you.

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