I’m Skeptical That DHA Supplements Are Wonder Drugs. Let Me Tell You Why

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The news on the street is that infants get modest cold relief if their mums took the supplement DHA while pregnant. NPR reports that it has become the “it” nutritional supplement and is being marketed as an elixir that will make a child achieve feats of strength previously unheard of. Or something. But my experience with DHA was a not pleasant nightmare of our first year with our firstborn.

Our baby was nine months old and we went to St. Louis as a family. When we arrived in town, we went to the nearest grocery store and picked up some food for our little one to get us through our stay. That included some food supplemented with DHA.

We were staying with friends, a pastor and a pediatric nurse. They have three children and are experienced with kids. Well, we went to put our baby down the next night, our baby who never has any trouble sleeping. And to make a very long story short, she didn’t sleep for the next nine hours. She just screamed and screamed and screamed. My husband and I tried every trick in the book. The only thing that worked was when we took her for a drive in the rental car. But when we stopped the rental car, the screaming was back. The pastor had to preach the next morning and we were anxious that we were keeping everyone up. At some point in the wee hours, the wife came in and gave us that “I’m a pediatric nurse, I’ll get this baby to sleep in minutes” look. She brought the baby back one half hour later in exasperation.

My husband finally took her to the basement with some blankets and laid down on the concrete floor with her. She slept from 6 AM on. It was horrible.

The only thing we could figure out was the introduction of some of this DHA food that evening for dinner. Was this the cause? I have no idea. But I still recoil in horror at the mere mention of DHA. Is it rational to avoid DHA in light of this? Almost certainly not.

But despite its marketing, the actual gains from DHA are modest, at best:

In fact, most of the evidence in favor of taking DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, which is found in fish, nuts and algae, is modest. DHA has been shown to be good at lowering triglycerides, which contribute to cardiovascular disease, and the substance may help prevent heart disease in other ways. But although hundreds of studies on DHA supplementation have been published in the past five years, none has found strong connections between DHA supplements and children’s health.

A study published last year in the JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 800-milligram DHA supplements did nothing to prevent postpartum depression in women. The babies of the women who took DHA while pregnant showed no increase in cognitive and language skills of the children at 18 months.

Good. I can skip it without any regret.