Most people know about the common nutritional recommendations during pregnancy – focus on getting enough folate, take a prenatal multivitamin, and eat a little extra. However, not everyone is as familiar with another very important nutrient for pregnancy: the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA.
What Is DHA?
DHA is a very long chain omega-3 fatty acid found mainly in seafood and eggs. DHA is critical to support the proper development of baby’s brain, eyes, and nervous system.
Additionally, omega-3 fatty acid intake during pregnancy has been shown to help support a healthy mood in the postpartum period.
Why Is DHA Needed In A Plant-Based Pregnancy?
DHA accumulation ramps up during the third trimester of pregnancy and continues through the first two years of baby’s life, which is why it’s so important for pregnant women to get enough during this crucial stage.
Because of our current diet, many women- especially those who are plant-based- have suboptimal DHA levels. Plant-based women have been shown to have lower levels of DHA in umbilical cord blood and breast milk.
Can I Get DHA From Plant-Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Our bodies make DHA from another omega-3 fatty acid known as ALA, which is found in plant foods such as walnuts and chia seeds.
However, the conversion rate of ALA to DHA is pretty low, around 1-10%. Additionally, omega-6 fatty acids, which is found in plant oils, compete with omega-3s for enzymes for modification. That means a high intake of omega-6 can further reduce the body’s ability to convert ALA to DHA.
This is why we recommend DHA supplementation during pregnancy.
The American Pregnancy Association and The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend 200mg of DHA per day during pregnancy and 300mg during breastfeeding.
However, research suggests that these numbers may be too low and studies demonstrating the greatest effects have used doses of 1-2 grams per day.
Why Do Plant-Based Pregnant Moms Need To Supplement DHA?
Supplementation is especially important for plant-based mamas because only preformed DHA can raise the level of DHA in mom’s bloodstream, and therefore reach the fetus or reach baby through breastmilk.
That means that the DHA formed by Mom’s body from ALA (the plant-based omega-3), which is not preformed, does not get to the baby.
Another reason supplementation may be preferred over consuming DHA from fish is because of harmful substances found in seafood. Heavy metals and environmental toxins are a concern with seafood consumption and one of the reasons that in 2004 the FDA advised women to limit their fish intake.
However, we know that the benefits of DHA are so important that simply cutting out fish is not a good option. Supplementing with pure, clean micro algae is a way to avoid potential exposure to environmental toxins.
What Is Algae Oil?
Algae oil is a reliable, plant-based source of DHA. Microalgae is where fish get their DHA in the first place, so supplementing with it cuts out the middleman!
We like Nordic Naturals’ Vegan Prenatal DHA! Nordic Naturals is the official omega-3 supplement of The American Pregnancy Association and there are so many reasons we love them.
Their algae oil is produced using a 100% hexane free process, which means no chemicals. Their processing plant is fueled solely on biofuel leftover from making their oil, which means they have a very minimal carbon footprint.
Great information?? Question – my naturopath recommends fish oil over algae because of the additional epa in fish oil which he says is equally as important . What are your thoughts on this? Does algae oil have epa (he says no but i have my doubts) and what is the requirement for this , if any ? Thank you!
The conversion of EPA from ALA is much higher than DHA about ~10% so you could meet needs with ALA alone. Yes, Nordics Algae Omega has EPA as well.
Hi there! Thank you for all of this helpful information! Just curious – do you have to take the prenatal DHA if you’re already taking a plant based omega/DHA supplement?
No, if you’re already taking another DHA supplement than you don’t need an additional one.
Did you all take this supplement when you were pregnant? Also do you have any thoughts on carageenan that’s in this supplement? I thought I heard that carageenan was not good to eat so I usually avoid it. Thanks!
Hi Allison, yes we both took it pregnant and Alex is currently taking it pregnant. We avoid large doses of carageenan as it may have adverse GI effects, but we aren’t worried about the minuscule amounts in supplements. Carageenan is a common substitute for gelatin in supplements and personally, I’d prefer carageenan over gelatin. Thanks!
Nordic Naturals has two vegan algae supplements, one with EPA and one without. The one without has higher DHA. Which one do you recommend for pregnancy? They have an Algae Omega (715 mg) with EPA and DHA (390 mg) or they have the Vegan Prenatal DHA (500 mg) and no EPA. Thanks for your help!
Hi Marie! Ideally, the supplement contains both DHA and EPA though DHA is more important in pregnancy, EPA is in smaller amounts is beneficial– especially as relates to the right balance of eicosanoids. The American Pregnancy Recommendation is to take a minimum of 300mg DHA daily, especially in the third trimester of pregnancy. We like the Vegan NN option as a fish-free supplement that contains enough DHA. Algae oils tend to be lower in EPA.
Hi- I’m plant based/mostly vegan but open to fish 1-2x a week. I’m trying to steer away from branzino/halibut (my usual) and sticking to shrimp 1-2 x per week. I was between the vegan nordic and the regular aha fish prenatal… but ended up picking up the prenatal fish one. I read in your post, ‘Another reason supplementation may be preferred over consuming DHA from fish is because of harmful substances found in seafood. Heavy metals and environmental toxins are a concern with seafood consumption and one of the reasons that in 2004 the FDA advised women to limit their fish intake.’
Does this mean I should go with the vegan supplement over the NN PRENATAL DHA? Thanks.
Hi Tillia, those supplements are tested for heavy metals and will not contain them they way that eating higher food-chain fish will. Either the vegan or the fish-based DHA supplement are safe during pregnancy.
Is there any danger to getting well above the RDA for omegas and/or DHA while pregnant? Most vegan supplements I can find are significantly higher (around 1000mcg) but I’m worried about adverse side effects of too much.
We’d recommend sticking to the RDA where possible. We don’t know if too much DHA is harmful– there is a rat study (want to stress that humans are not rats and animal-based models can only help with generating hypothesis– we don’t take them to mean the exact same mechanisms happen in humans) showing that excess omega-3 during pregnancy may be harmful: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2839050/
Hi! I’m taking the Nordic natural prenatal dha. I don’t consume other fish during the week pregnant except for shrimp 2x a week (4 ounces per serving). The Nordic prenatal DHA consists of 830mg (total omega3s), 205mg EPA, 480mg DHA, and 145mg (other omega3s). Is this ok to take during pregnancy?