DHA and breast milk: goodies for baby's brain
Many people know how the fatty acid DHA is now added to some infant formulas, because it is a substance that is important for baby's brain growth. But did you know you can affect the level of DHA in your breast milk by your own diet?
Good fats and brain development
Nutrition in utero and during the very first years of life plays a big role in determining a child's cognitive abilities and intelligence. Touching, cuddling, games, and a stimulating environment, and even studying music all have been shown to affect cognitive performance, but this article will concentrate on fats and intelligence, since the pitiful "standard American diet" (SAD) supplies so little of the essential omega-3 fats that are crucial to proper brain development in infants and children − and crucial to proper brain functioning in adults.
Breastfeeding has been shown to boost a child's intelligence. But did you know about the ONE nutrient affecting a child's IQ where the breastfeeding mother's diet has a lot to do with how much of that nutrient the child receives?
To answer those questions we need to know about essential fatty acids. If you do not yet know what are ALA, LA, and DHA, click on the link to read the basics of essential fatty acids. Then use the "back" button to come back here.
Brain and DHA
The brain is about 60% fat by weight, and DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids are very abundant in it. A lot of the fat is in the cell membranes of the neurons and in the protective myelin sheath that covers them. The types and proportions of fats in the cell membranes determine how effectively the brain cells communicate. A diet deficient in omega-3 fats also alters brain's energy metabolism.
Scientists are now revealing how all kinds of mental disorders including Parkinson's disease, depression, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and schizophrenia are connected with deficiencies in the essential fatty acids, and with an imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 fats. For example, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) have been shown to have low levels of DHA in their blood.
DHA is crucial to the optimal development of the brain in infancy and childhood. Breast milk boosts the brain growth because it contains lots of DHA − provided that the mother herself eats things rich in omega-3 fatty acids. So DHA is the main reason why breastfeeding has been shown to increase a child's intelligence − or maybe we should say that bottle feeding produces children with less-than-optimal brain growth and intelligence.
Standard infant formulas in the USA have practically no DHA. Some special formulas do have it, and studies have shown that infants fed these formulas do score better on cognitive tests than those fed standard formula.
The DHA levels of breast milk vary a lot according to the diet of the breastfeeding mother. In a Danish study, consuming fish or fish oil increased the amount of DHA found in the breast milk, and the researched noted large fluctuations in the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk. The milk of Nigerian women, whose diet is rich in nuts, has a high omega-3 fat content, significantly more than that of German mothers.
In a study from Connecticut, it was found that babies of mothers with higher DHA levels showed significantly more quiet sleep and less active sleep, and less sleep-wake transition than those of mothers with lower DHA levels. In other words, they slept better. This was interpreted as indicating greater central nervous system maturity in the higher DHA group. That is very interesting news for all pregnant and nursing mothers, since the baby's sleeping pattern has such an effect on everybody in the family.
Pregnant women should eat fish to get omega-3 fats, as well. It has been well proven that maternal fish consumption during pregnancy helps child cognitive development, independently of breastfeeding.
Additionally, by consuming fish or fish oils during pregnancy you can ward off postpartum depression, because women who develop that depression have lowered levels of DHA. The developing fetus has drawn a lot of DHA from the maternal sources, and a woman not eating foods high in omega-3's risks her own mental health. Books always tell pregnant women that you need to eat your yellow vegetables, your dark greens, and your proteins, but mention NOTHING about the omega-3 fats!
How to get DHA
Nursing mothers can increase DHA levels of breast milk by adding fresh oily fish, flax seed, flax seed oil, and spirulina in the diet (but note mackerel may have too much mercury in it). When essential fatty acids are increased in the diet, it's also important to take a multinutrient rich in antioxidants to help protect the fatty acids from being destroyed.
Children who don't nurse anymore, can get DHA from fatty cold-water fish such as mackerel, salmon, trout, and sardines (mackerel is not recommended because of mercury levels in it). Low-fat fish have only small amounts of DHA. Another source is omega-3 fortified eggs from chickens that have been fed flax seed or fish meal. Dr. David Williams recommends 1-2 yolks from these kind of eggs for children under two to get the daily 250 mg of omega-3 fatty acids that breast milk might contain. You would need roughly 8 yolks from regular eggs − showing what a difference the chicken's diet makes in the nutritional value of its eggs!
Now, DHA is not really an essential fat (at least not for adults) because the body makes it from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). But ALA is ESSENTIAL for children and for adults alike! The best food source of ALA is flax oil.
Flax oil should come in a dark sealed bottle and be refridgerated because light, oxygen, and heat destroy the essential fats in it. Dr. David Williams recommends the following amounts of flax oil for NON-nursing children: 1-6 months old, 1/4tsp daily; 6-12 months 1/2 tsp daily; 1-2 years 1-2 tsp daily, and over 2 yrs 2 tsp daily. You can simply add some flax oil to salad dressings, smoothies, yogurt, etc. to provide ALA for the whole family (but don't fry with it).The absolutely best bet is of course to let your child breastfeed for at least 2 years and beyond and simply make sure the mother's breastfeeding diet is adequate. Then after weaning the child can consume flax or flax oil to get the alpha-linolenic acid.
If you opt for flax seed, you need a little coffee grinder to grind the seeds in because they are hard to chew properly. Ground flax seed should be stored in airtight containers in fridge because the ALA oil in it goes rancid very quickly when exposed to air. Add ground flaxseed to oatmeal, non-fat yogurt, or fruit smoothies. You can also add it to breads or muffins and bake with it. The whole flax seed also has other health benefits, like promoting good bowel function and protecting against breast cancer and the effects of environmental estrogens.
Trans fats - the danger
Another often overlooked fact about fats is the danger of so-called trans fats, which are formed when vegetable oils are heated in high temperatures, such as in frying or in making hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenation is a process where unsaturated fatty acids in liquid oils are transformed so they are now solid in room temperature. It has been said that if hydrogenation was found today, it would not be approved for all the harm the trans fats do in the human system.
Where are they found? Any food item containing partially hydrogenated oils has trans fats in it. This includes some margarines, shortening, and most commercially made cookies, crackers, candy bars, and more. Another major source of trans fats is any food fried in a vegetable oil that contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as French Fries or any food you fry in your kitchen.
Since 2006, food labeling in the USA is required by law to show the amount of trans fats in the product. However, the law concerning this has a big loophole: if the serving size of that product contains less than 0.5 g of trans fats, they can label it as containing zero grams of trans fats!
So, manufacturers can simply reduce the serving size to meet this 0.5 g limit, and then list the trans fat content as zero. So be sure to check the ingredients list. If the words "partially hydrogenated" appear in the ingredients, the product contains trans fat.
In a Canadian study trans fatty acids (TFAs) averaged 7.2% of the total fatty acids in breast milk. The main source of trans fats was partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The researchers also found that the levels of LA and ALA (the essential fatty acids) were inversely related to the total trans fats, which means that the elevation of TFAs in Canadian human milk is at the expense of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Trans fats are shaped differently than the corresponding normal fats. When rat mothers were fed trans fats, those ended up in their puppies' brains, and there is no reason to believe that it wouldn't happen in humans. But since trans fatty acids are shaped differently, they don't fit to the nerve cell membranes as well as the normal omega-3 fats, so they cause the nerve cells to communicate less efficiently and the brain cannot function optimally.
Trans fats also increase cholesterol and blood fat levels notably (factors in heart disease), lower immunity, are associated with cancer, and do all kinds of havoc in the human body.
So this warrants us of the grave danger of hydrogenated vegetable oils found in margarine, shortening, cookies, candy bars, chips, crackers, and a horde of other processed foods, AS WELL AS of frying anything in vegetable oil. The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils are delicate and are easily destroyed by heat (which is the reason why you should only consume cold-pressed oils). You can fry safely if you use saturated fats like butter, lard, or coconut or palm kernel oil. They are heat-resistant and don't change into trans fats.
Proper brain nutrition
Brain needs all other nutrients, too, besides the right fats. It needs proteins, it needs minerals − but it doesn't need sugar or food additives. All the details are beyond the space in this article. The base line for healthy eating is to favor nutrient-rich natural foods, such as whole grains, legumes, eggs from free-range chickens, organic meat, fish, nuts, seeds, fruit, and vegetables over processed and refined foods.
Cow's milk is specifically intended for calves that need to grow strong bones with lots of calcium but that don't need to grow large brains. Cow's milk is low in essential fatty acids, so relying on cow's milk for children's nutrition cannot produce a proper brain development. Try nut & seed milks made by blending nuts and seeds with a touch of honey, and straining the mixture. You can use the pulp in baked goods, pancakes, and breads. Yummy!
People easily remember they need to eat vegetables and fruits to get vitamins, but many forget the staple foods and minerals. White flour products, white rice, white sugar, and "white" colorless supermarket oils have been either mostly or totally robbed of the minerals and other special nutrients they once contained.
Vegetables and fruit are good for us, but it's also very important that the STAPLE FOODS are WHOLESOME, full of minerals, and free of poisons: whole grains, seeds, nuts, fish, eggs, and meat.
Dr. David William's Alternatives Newsletter September 1999 issue
Udo Erasmus: Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill
The Human Brain - Fats
Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study
The Lancet - Vol. 369, Issue 9561, 17 February 2007, Pages 578-585
Moderation of breastfeeding effects on the IQ by genetic variation in fatty acid metabolism
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, published November 5, 2007, 10.1073/pnas.0704292104.
Fluctuations in human milk long-chain PUFA levels in relation to dietary fish intake. Lipids. 2002 Mar;37(3):237-44.
Fatty acid composition of mature human milk in Nigeria. Z Ernahrungswiss. 1991 Dec;30(4):289-97. "
N-3 LCP are very high in milk of the Nigerian women who obtain a large portion of dietary lipids from sea fish, but even then docosaehexanoic (C22:6n-3) and not eicosapentaenoic (C20: 5n-3) is the predominant n-3 LCP in milk."
Comparison of fatty acid composition of plasma lipid fractions in well-nourished Nigerian and German infants and toddlers. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 1986 Jul-Aug;5(4):581-5.
"The Nigerian group tended to have bigger proportions of the essential omega-6-fatty acids, linoleic acid, and its metabolites, and by far higher values for long-chain omega-3-fatty acids."
Higher maternal plasma docosahexaenoic acid [DHA] during pregnancy is associated with more mature neonatal sleep-state patterning. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Sep;76(3):608-13.
" Infants of high-DHA mothers had a significantly lower ratio of active sleep (AS) to quiet sleep (QS) and less AS than did infants of low-DHA mothers. Furthermore, the former infants had less sleep-wake transition and more wakefulness on P2 [second day post-partum]. ... The sleep patterns of infants born to mothers with higher plasma phospholipid DHA suggest greater CNS [central nervous system] maturity."
Maternal Supplementation With Very-Long-Chain n-3 Fatty Acids During Pregnancy and Lactation Augments Children's IQ at 4 Years of Age
"The children's mental processing scores at 4 years of age correlated significantly with maternal intake of DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid during pregnancy."
Increased risk of postpartum depressive symptoms is associated with slower normalization after pregnancy of the functional docosahexaenoic acid status. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2003 Oct;69(4):237-43.
"From this observation it seems that the availability of DHA in the postpartum period is less in women developing depressive symptoms. AAlthough further studies are needed for confirmation, increasing the dietary DHA intake during pregnancy and postpartum, seems prudent."
Will dietary omega-3 fatty acids change the composition of human milk? Am J Clin Nutr. 1984 Oct;40(4):780-5.
"... relatively low intakes of dietary DHA [fish oil] significantly elevated milk DHA content."
Nutritional effect of including egg yolk in the weaning diet of breast-fed and formula-fed infants: a randomized controlled trial.
Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Jun;75(6):1084-92.
"Erythrocyte DHA concentrations were 30-40% higher after the n-3 egg intervention than after treatment with regular eggs or no eggs in both breast-fed and formula-fed infants. Egg treatment had no significant effect on plasma cholesterol, hemoglobin, ferritin, and transferrin but did result in improvements in plasma iron and transferrin saturation compared with no egg treatment."
This means eating omega-3 enriched eggs increased the DHA AND iron level in blood but had no effect on cholesterol levels. Good news!
Trans, n-3, and n-6 fatty acids in Canadian human milk. Lipids 1996 March;31 Suppl:S279-82
"...average percentage of total trans [fats] was 7.2% of breast milk fatty acids... ...partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are the major source of these trans fatty acids. The elevation of trans fatty acids in Canadian human milk is at the expense of n-3 and n-6 essential fatty acids."
Incorporation of trans long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in rat brain structures and retina. Lipids 1994 April;29(4):251-8
French researchers found that when rat mothers were fed trans fatty acids, the pups' brain had the trans isomer of DHA, and when the diet was deficient in alpha-linolenic acid, the incorporation of trans isomers was doubled.
Essential fatty acids and the brain. Can J Psychiatry. 2003 Apr;48(3):195-203.
"The ratio of membrane omega-3 to omega-6 PUFAs can be modulated by dietary intake. This ratio influences neurotransmission and prostaglandin formation, processes that are vital in the maintenance of normal brain function."
In other words, the balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the brain affects brain function, and depends on the diet.
Glucose transport and utilization are altered in the brain of rats deficient in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. J Neurochem. 2002 Jun;81(6):1328-37.
"The effect of the diet deficient in n-3 fatty acids resulted in a 30-50% decrease in DHA in membrane phospholipids." Also the study found that brain used less energy and that the energy metabolism in the brain was impaired.
Associations of maternal fish intake during pregnancy and breastfeeding duration with attainment of developmental milestones in early childhood: a study from the Danish National Birth Cohort
"Maternal fish intake during pregnancy and the duration of breastfeeding are independently associated with better early child development. "
Breastfeeding Mothers Taking Martek's DHA Results in Better Sustained Attention in Children
"...five-year-old children whose mothers received a 200mg dose of
Martek's docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for the first 4 months of breastfeeding
performed better on a test of sustained attention than those whose mothers
received a placebo.
Study compares breast milk fatty acid composition in the U.S. and Tsimane women
... have found high levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in the breast milk of economically impoverished Amerindian woman as compared to women in the United States.