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Striking the Right Balance of DHA and ARA

 

Marcelino Reysio-Cruz III, MD
Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician
Diplomate, Philippine Pediatric Society
Fellow, Philippine Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics
 

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

Striking a balance is often a challenging task. The body works best in a state of balance. Since all nutrients work together to keep our body healthy, their distribution within the blood and body cells is very important. This is well demonstrated by 2 very important fats we know as DHA and ARA.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Arachidonic acid (ARA) are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that work together to support growth, brain development and immune defense.

DHA is a building block of the brain and eyes. In fact, DHA is deposited in the brain of the unborn baby during the last trimester of pregnancy. Hence, most prenatal milk drinks for pregnant women contain significant amounts of DHA.

Although DHA is much needed for brain growth and development, body cells cannot do without ARA. ARA is critical for tissue growth and repair like wound healing. It promotes healthy skin and hair too. It also triggers the release of chemical messengers necessary for inflammatory responses to protect and heal the body.

Because of its pro-inflammatory nature, too much ARA in the cells can make a child more prone to atopic eczema, asthma and allergic rhinitis especially when there is a strong history of allergies in the family.

On the other hand, DHA is more anti-inflammatory since it stimulates the release of an antibody called sIgA (secretory Immunoglobulin A) by immune cells in the intestines. This antibody which is richly found in breast milk; stops harmful allergens and infectious agents from passing through the intestinal wall and entering the bloodstream. As a result, DHA helps protect against infections and allergies.

Interestingly enough, studies have looked into the possible right balance between DHA and ARA. Breast milk levels of DHA & ARA were used as the reference values.

However, the amounts seen in breast milk are reflective of the mother’s diet. Asians who tend to have more fish in their diets showed more of a 1:1 DHA:ARA ratio while mothers in western countries where diets are high in meat intake, reflected more of a 1:2 DHA:ARA ratio.

The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood compared these DHA:ARA ratios versus the incidence of allergies and asthma in children. Those countries whose mothers’ milk had a higher ratio of ARA to DHA showed a higher trend of asthma and allergic rhinitis.

Giving the right balance of DHA and ARA confers a positive immunological benefit to the child. DHA and ARA have been found to help in the maturation of the immune system. Studies have also shown that a balanced amount of DHA and ARA helps the body in responding to infections and lowering the incidence of upper respiratory infections.

At times, we think giving more of any nutrient is always better. But this is not the case for the human body because it is programmed by nature to work best in a state of balance. And so, it seems for these two important special types of fat. They worked best in tandem without one overpowering the other. Clever fats, wouldn’t you say?

 


 References:

1. Wainwright PE, Colombo J. Nutrition and the development of cognitive functions: interpretation of behavioral studies in animals and human infants. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;84:961–70.

2. Colombo J, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) balance in developmental outcomes.Prostaglandins Leukotrines Essential Fatty Acids.2017;121:52-56. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2017.05.005.

3. Lapillonne A, et al. Infants fed formula with added long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids have reduced incidence of respiratory illnesses and diarrhea during the first year of life. BMC Pediatr. 2014;14:168.

4. Brenna JT, et al. Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.2007;85(6):1457-1464.

5. The Global Asthma Network. The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood.

6. Lien EL, et al. DHA and ARA addition to infant formula: Current status and future research directions. Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids.2018;128:26-40.

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