DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an essential omega-3 fatty acid, most notably found in fish. Fish oil is an extremely popular supplement for adults and children alike. In fact, it is the best-selling non-vitamin supplement sold in North America. Supplements and fortified foods containing DHA may help to improve the health of children, especially under the age of three.
DHA is often used as a naturopathic medicine for children, especially those with neurological, mental and behavioral disorders. DHA omega-3 may help to treat dyslexia, epilepsy, gross motor delays, ADHD, autism-spectrum disorders, mental retardation and pediatric depression. However, evidence of DHA’s medicinal efficacy is mixed and inconclusive. Never use DHA alone as a treatment for a serious medical condition unless your child’s pediatrician approves.
Even for children who do not have neurobehavioral disorders, DHA is key in a healthy, balanced diet. DHA in a young child’s diet helps to facilitate the development of the brain, eyes, nerves and cardiovascular system. The human body produces trace amounts of DHA, but not enough to enable proper development if a child’s diet contains little or none. Foods and supplements containing DHA omega-3 are important components of a healthy diet.
Most American diets do not contain enough DHA. The best food sources of DHA are fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, or DHA-fortified juices and dairy products. DHA supplements for children may take the form of chewable capsules or liquids. The flavor of liquid DHA supplements may be maksed with gelatin, chocolate milk or pudding. For infants and toddlers, human breast milk is the best source of the DHA omega-3 fatty acid.
DHA supplements are usually very minor, but no dietary supplement is completely risk-free. The most common side effects of DHA omega-3 supplements for children include diarrhea, gas and reflux. Rarely, a child may experience digestive side effects significant enough to warrant discontinuation of the product. Talk to your health care provider before giving your child and nutritional supplement, particularly if she has a medical condition.
Contrary to common misconception, “DHA” is not synonymous wth “omega-3 fatty acid.” It is one of several compounds regarded as omega-3 fatty acids. Other omega-3 acids found in fish oil include EPA, which is essential for cardiovascular support and mood balance. Algae oil is a great vegetarian alternative to conventional fish oil omega-3 supplements. Other plant-based sources of omega-3 fats, such as flaxseed oil, contain alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) but no DHA or EPA. Higher doses of ALA are needed to accomplish the same nutritional task as DHA.
Links and Resources
University of Maryland Medical Center: DHA
National Institutes of Health: Medline Plus- Fish Oil