You’ve entered the wild, wonderful world of pregnancy. Congratulations! For the next nine months, you will constantly wonder what’s next. So what are some of the things you and your doctor will do first? Probably calculate the baby’s due date. And from there schedule all of the necessary tests to make sure you and your baby are proceeding along the pregnancy path as normal.
As you continue along this wonderful journey, it is important to make sure you are doing whatever you can to support a healthy pregnancy, like eating the right foods, taking the right vitamins, getting some exercise (unless you’re specifically told not to), taking it easy, getting enough sleep and keeping your stress level at a minimum.
All of these things help support a healthy pregnancy, but more important, that you will carry the baby to full term, which is when 38-42 weeks of pregnancy have been completed. But did you know that around 10% of babies are born too early each year? Even more startling is that the medical community is still uncertain as to all the reasons why. Well, new research suggests a nutrient deficiency might be at least partly to blame.
Omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, have been the subject of several research studies during the last 30 years with results pointing to their benefits in pregnancy, particularly for preterm and early preterm birth — i.e. having a baby before 37 and 34 weeks, respectively. Have a baby prematurely is one of the top concerns for pregnant women and their doctors.
INFOGRAPHIC: 5 Reasons Every Pregnant Woman Should Know Her DHA Level
One study showed that taking DHA could reduce early preterm birth risk by 42%, while another study showed that women with low blood levels of DHA are 10x more likely to deliver a baby prematurely than women with healthy DHA levels. And yet another study showed that taking a DHA supplement could save the US healthcare system $6 billion in costs associated with preterm births.
To take some of the mystery out of the issue of preterm birth, OmegaQuant Analytics has launched its newest test — the Prenatal DHA Test. Developed to help expecting moms monitor their omega-3 DHA level, the company believes this tool will help women figure out how much of this important nutrient they need in order to support a healthy pregnancy.
Researchers believe assessing a pregnant woman’s DHA status could be instrumental in identifying if she is at increased risk for preterm birth due to low DHA levels. Also, DHA blood levels can help ensure that mom is getting enough DHA from her diet to support baby’s development. In other words, if a woman knows her DHA level is low, then she can make the necessary dietary modifications to bring those levels into an optimal range.
The DHA level a pregnant woman should strive for is at least 5% (i.e., 5% of her red blood cell fatty acids are DHA). If a woman falls below 5%, she can easily increase her DHA level by eating more fatty fish like salmon or taking an omega-3 supplement that contains at least 200 mg of DHA. DHA levels in pregnant women of 4.3% are described in the research as “very low,” with 3.5% defined as “exceedingly deficient.”
“In a study we published in December, we estimated that over 70% of women of childbearing age in the US are below the 5% DHA cutoff. There are no known risks to having a DHA level that is too high in pregnancy, except for the potential of carrying a baby past the due date. Still, the longer a baby can stay in the womb, the lower the chances are for complications,” said Kristina Harris Jackson, PhD, RD, a Research Associate at OmegaQuant Analytics, and inventor of the Prenatal DHA Test. “It’s hard to think of a more important biomarker than prenatal DHA levels that can be safely and easily modified and has such potentially consequential outcomes.”
Introducing the Prenatal DHA Test
The Prenatal DHA Test measures the amount of DHA in your blood. It requires a simple finger stick and one drop of blood. For you, DHA is important because studies have shown that women with higher DHA blood levels are less likely to have early preterm birth. For your baby, DHA is important for brain, eye and immune system development.
Once you know your Prenatal DHA level, you can personalize your diet to safely change your level in as little as two to three months. Achieving a score of 5% or higher is desirable, while anything below that number is associated with an increased risk of early preterm birth.
Establishing your DHA status during the different stages of pregnancy could play a crucial role in preventing prematurity. Until recently, omega-3 intake was confirmed primarily through dietary or supplemental records, but OmegaQuant believes that measuring blood levels of DHA during pregnancy to guide this intake is needed.
How You Can Improve Your DHA Level
There are very simple dietary changes you can make to increase your DHA level. First, you can (and should) eat two servings of low-mercury, high-DHA fish per week. Some options include salmon, tuna, anchovies, herring and mackerel.
Taking a DHA supplement is also a good option. In this case, you don’t need to worry about mercury or other environmental contaminants in supplements, but always check the DHA content on the label to make sure to make sure it provides at least 200 mg of DHA daily. If you want to take more, studies have shown that doses up to 1000 mg DHA daily to be safe during pregnancy.
It is important to remember that while dose matters, your DHA level matters most. Once you have established a dose that gets you to the 5% range or higher, then you need to maintain that dose or dietary regimen to keep your level in the optimal range.
Taking flaxseed oil supplements that are rich in the plant omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid, or ALA, will not affect your prenatal DHA level. If you are a vegan, vegetarian or allergic to or prefer not to eat fish and shellfish, algal DHA supplements are a great option.