By Breea Johnson, MS RD
DHEA and DHA are two supplements that are often confused by people trying to conceive. While their abbreviations may look similar they are in fact very different - one is a fatty acid while the other is a hormone and one should be taken during pregnancy while the other should be avoided during pregnancy.
DHA stands for Docosahexaenoic acid, which is an omega-3 fatty acid and found in conjunction with EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA is beneficial for neurological health and is added to prenatal vitamins for the central nervous system and optical development of a fetus. While it's not always included in prenatal supplements, it is highly recommended that both pregnant and breastfeeding women take a DHA supplement. Consider this research:
- A 2004 study published in Child Development found that babies whose mothers had high blood levels of DHA at delivery had advanced attention spans into their second year of life. During the first six months of life these infants were two months ahead of babies whose mothers had lower DHA levels.
- A 2003 study published in the journal Pediatrics showed children whose mothers took a DHA supplement during pregnancy scored higher on intelligence tests at four years of age than children of mothers not taking DHA supplements.
- In a 2011 review article, researchers concluded that decreased brain DHA represented an important potential risk factor for depression generally, and postpartum depression in particular as research has found low levels of DHA in mother's milk and in the red blood cells of women with postpartum depression (Journal of Affective Disorders, 2002).
- In a trial of women receiving DHA supplementation during the third trimester, the average length of gestation increased six days (Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2003).
DHA is beneficial not only for the health of a growing baby but also for the health of a mother, and thus it's a critical supplement to take while pregnant and breastfeeding. But, while DHA is an important omega-3 fatty acid, EPA is left out of almost all prenatal supplements. EPA is the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid and is most beneficial when trying to conceive. Research has shown many studies that men and women with higher levels of blood omega-3 fatty acids have increased fertility rates compared to people with lower levels of blood omega-3 fatty acids.
So, now switching to DHEA, which stands for Dehydroepiandrosterone. Unlike DHA, which is a fatty acid, DHEA is a hormone, one of the most abundant circulating hormones in the human body. DHEA has recently garnered a lot of attention in the world of fertility for helping women with Decreased Ovarian Reserve (DOR) and Premature Ovarian Failure (POF) as it is a precursor to hormones such as testosterone and estrogens and may help increase follicular stimulation. It is also known to sharply decline with age. DHEA has been shown in some small studies to improve IVF outcomes in women that are poor responders to IVF. Some research also points to DHEA as possibly reducing aneuploidy chromosomal abnormalities) in embryos and thereby decreasing miscarriage rates.
A few things should be noted about utilizing DHEA when trying to conceive. First, it should not be taken in high doses for long term as it may cause undesirable fluctuations in hormone levels and may also cause liver damage. Also, before beginning DHEA it is advisable to get DHEA-S levels tested to make sure they are within range before supplementation. It is also highly encouraged to notify your Reproductive Endocrinologist before beginning a DHEA supplement. Unlike DHA, DHEA is not to be used if pregnant and should be discontinued as soon as a positive pregnancy test is achieved. DHEA should also not be used if you have PCOS, as this hormone may make this condition worsen.
DHA and DHEA are very different supplements - while both have important roles in trying to conceive it's vital to know the difference between the two. If you have additional questions, please ask your reproductive endocrinologist or one of our nutritionists at Pulling Down the Moon. To book a nutrition appointment, please call (312) 321-0004 or visit www.pullingdownthemoon.com to book online.