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Why is DHA so Critically Important in our Diet? - Part 1

by Tom Lang

First let’s start with a simple definition of what DHA is.

DHA is the abbreviation for Docosahexaenoic acid, one of the most important EFAs (essential fatty acids), that are bodies require from birth until death. It’s called an “essential fatty acid” because our bodies produce only small amounts of DHA so we have to get most of it through our diets or through supplements.

Why do we need DHA?

Although DHA is found throughout our bodies it is especially important to many of our organs and to life sustaining processes. For example:

  1. DHA is a major structural fat in the brain and retina accounting for up to 97% of the omega-3 fats in the brain and up to 93% of the omega-3 fats in the retina.
  2. DHA makes up 50% of the membranes that surround our nerve cells so that our nerves function properly and DHA Promotes the maturing of nerve cells and their capacity to make connections (synapses).
  3. DHA regulates certain genes that manage the development, maturing and maintenance of the brain. A lack of DHA in infancy may result in poor vision, a lower IQ, less efficient brain functioning and poor performance in school.
  4. DHA regulates genes involved with mood management, behavior, and violence control. Experiments suggest that giving DHA to a “difficult child” helps to improve both their behavior and their learning performance in school.
  5. DHA increases the activity of antioxidant protective enzymes (such as glutathione peroxidase).
  6. DHA improves glucose (fuel) delivery and energy efficiency in the brains of the elderly.
  7. DHA helps our liver and kidneys make L-carnitine, which we need to produce energy from food. Nearly all our cells contain L-carnitine, but our skeletal and cardiac muscles contain the highest concentrations. This is why DHA can improve our heart health and the functioning of our muscles.
  8. DHA is a primary structural component of our skin cells. (Itchy dry skin and seborrheic dermatitis may be signs of a DHA deficiency.)
  9. DHA in our cell membranes is also transformed into a variety of smaller “messenger” (docosanoid) molecules that spread out from the membranes and circulate all through our bodies acting like police to help  protect our health (through the positive management of inflammation and other necessary responses to infection and injury) as well as other essential regulatory processes in our bodies.
  10. DHA may contribute to positive moods and feelings of well being.
  11. DHA plays an essential role in male reproductive systems (it is a building block of the cell membranes in sperm and the testicles). 
  12. DHA is critical for healthy brain, eye and nerve development during pregnancy and infancy.
  13. DHA also supports our brain, eye and heart health, including maintaining normal blood pressure, throughout our lives. 
  14. DHA may help to reduce pain in those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  15. DHA taken in higher amounts was positively associated with slower rates of telomere shortening, which is a basic DNA marker or sign of aging.
  16. DHA may help prevent some forms of cancer, especially cancers of the breast and colon, and possibly of the uterus and the skin.
  17. DHA may decrease the risk of Alzheimers and Dementia (by lowering beta-amyloid production which acts like chunks of glue “clogging up” brain cells). For middle-aged people, higher DHA intake in their diets lowers their risk for severe memory loss. For the middle aged and the elderly, consuming adequate amounts of DHA is linked to better reaction times, sharper attention, and better performance on tests of their memory, reasoning and vocabulary. (In 2010 a study was conducted on 500 people over 55 years old who had age-related cognitive decline, a condition that features troublesome memory loss. The people who got DHA (at 900 milligrams per day for 6 months) had their learning and memory errors reduced by half.

(to be continued...)

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