Is DHA The Secret Of Breast Milk's Success?

By Mollie Martin

Despite a growing body of evidence that docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is the essential structural ingredient of breast milk lacking in infant formulas, the Food and Drug Administration continues to ban its use in the U.S. A recent series of studies conducted worldwide indicate that breast·fed babies have an IQ of 6·10 points higher than formula·fed babies.

Scientists and nutritional experts attribute this to DHA, an essential structural component of the brain and retina, found naturally in mother's milk. DHA has received glowing recommendations from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the National Institutes of Health.

Approximately 60 percent of the human brain is composed of fatty material ·· 25 percent of that material is DHA. Since humans cannot produce it, they must consume it. Studies show that the DHA level of women in America today are comparable to that of women in Third World countries. This is attributed to the trend against eating DHA·rich foods such as fish, liver and brain.

During the last trimester of a pregnancy is when the mother transfers to her fetus much of the DHA needed for the development of its brain and nervous system. The DHA content in the mother's diet reflects in the amount of DHA passed on to the baby. If the baby is not breast·fed at all, it receives no DHA, thus hindering and impairing mental and visual acuity. DHA levels of pre·mature infants are especially low since they miss much of that last trimester. Premies are also more likely to be bottle·fed.

In 1996, Frank Oski, retired chairman of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, led a DHA campaign in which a plethora of outraged researchers and pediatricians bombarded the FDA with over 1,000 letters pleading and demanding that they ensure the health and welfare of our children by mandating or at least allowing the addition of DHA to infant formula. The Infant Formula Act came about as a result of an infant formula company's decision to put soft water in their formula.

Because of the low level of awareness at that time, not a lot of thought was given to the fact that they were removing an essential component ·· chloride. The result was a surge of nightmare rushes to the emergency room. Babies were skipping heartbeats, getting severely ill, and dying. The formula was found to be chloride·deficient. After this fiasco, Congress decided that such a product needed to be more closely monitored. They passed the Infant Formula Act of 1980, which made the FDA the sole regulator of infant formula.

The WHO and the BNF (British Nutrition Foundation) recommend that infant formula be supplemented with DHA at .35·.5 percent by weight. At this suggestion, many European and Asian countries are producing infant formula with DHA and making recommendations of daily allowances. The American company, Wyeth Nutritionals, does make infant formula that contains DHA; however, it is marketed in Hong Kong, the Middle East and Australia since distribution is banned in the US.

Formula·fed babies have far lower levels of visual and intellectual acuity than do their breast·fed peers. The issue is that the only way babies in America can get adequate amounts of DHA is from the mother. Therefore, mothers should breast feed as long as possible. Infant formulas are deficient. Formula·fed babies do much worse than breast fed babies. People are not willing to recognize that infant formula is a problem, but we do have a solution ·· a way to make formula closer to breast milk. The simple addition of DHA fixes the problem.

Martek is one of the leading manufacturers of DHA supplements ·· their algae·based Neuromins claim to provide DHA in its purest possible form. So what is holding back this "miracle drug?" FDA continues to insist that not enough research has been done to prove DHA's benefits, or to prove that DHA has no harmful side effects.

Dennis Hoffman of the Retina Foundation of the Southwest said that he and his organization supported the findings of the WHO and NIH. He also commented that the FDA has put other ingredients into infant formula with much less research behind them. The research has been minor, nothing compared to the hoops we're jumping through with DHA. DHA may have many uses beyond the cradle. Studies show that low DHA intake in infancy can lead or contribute to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Bill Taylor, a retired engineer who teaches elementary·aged ADD children as a volunteer, has seen first hand how DHA can be used to treat ADD. Mr. Taylor is also on the forefront of the infant formula debate.

Taylor and others who have done their homework on the widespread DHA problem are suspicious that the government may be under pressure from prominent drug companies (such as Novartis who manufactures Ritalin) to keep DHA out of the mainstream. Recent studies have also indicated that low levels of DHA contribute to many major physical and psychological disorders such as depression, aggression, Alzheimer's disease, Schizophrenia, and Multiple Sclerosis.

A study done on Japanese students during the high stress period of final exams showed that students supplemented with DHA were significantly less aggressive than students who were not supplemented with DHA. Over 1200 patients participated in an epidemiological study that showed that people with high DHA levels were 45 percent less likely to develop dementia than people with low DHA levels. This suggests that proper DHA intake may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's.

A 1997 study showed that schizophrenic patients were less likely to have been breast·fed in infancy, and the lack of DHA during early brain development contributes to the development of schizophrenia. Studies show that symptoms of multiple sclerosis such as muscular weakness, loss of coordination, and speech and visual disturbances are linked to subnormal levels of omega·3 fatty acids such as DHA.




It is clear that DHA is an enormously useful food in optimizing development of the child’s brain. It is important to remember that approximately 60 percent of the human brain is composed of fatty material ·· 25 percent of that material is DHA.

So an excellent brand of fish oil would provide both of these essential fatty acids. There is another caution here, though. It is important not to fall in the American trap of ‘if a little is good, than more is better.’ If one supplements infants (or adults) with large amounts of EPA/DHA, serious imbalances can occur.

A safe form of supplementation for infants would be cod liver oil. One could use one quarter teaspoon per day for newborns to six months of age and one half teaspoon for six months to one year of age. This can be rubbed on their body as it will absorb directly into the bloodstream. Children over one and adults can take one teaspoon. It is also important to only use a high quality brand. My favorite current brand is Carlson's lemon flavored cod liver oil.

Oxidized fats or fats contaminated with PCBs or mercury are worse than no fats at all. We use Artic Omega in our office, but there are other good brands.

(Ed: You can subscribe to Dr. Mercola’s twice-a-week free newsletter at

From what I have read it is quite good. And his free book on eating right on PDF seems to be good as well)