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3 Brain Nutrients That Work Together To Benefit Babies

Emerging research suggests that getting key nutrients during pregnancy and in your baby’s diet during his first year are more important than ever before.

Asian mom holding baby
Jun 11 2017

It’s widely known that nutrients like folic acid, iron and calcium are vital for a healthy pregnancy, but new research1 from Abbott suggests that after your baby is born, both you and baby also need the combination of lutein, natural vitamin E and DHA to support brain development, encourage early learning skills and give your new bundle of joy the best start in life.

Nature knows best and that’s why lutein, natural vitamin E and DHA are found together in the regions of the brain that are responsible for learning and memory.

In fact, it’s the precise combination of these brain-boosting nutrients that – in a cell culture model - provide 80 percent more neuronal connections than DHA alone. This research suggests that they may work together in a unique way to increase processing speed and improve learning.

“Babies in the womb are busy building the 100 to 200 million brain cells that they’re going to have when they’re born,” according to Matt Kuchan, Ph.D., a discovery scientist and the global lead for Abbott’s partnership with the Center for Nutrition Learning and Memory at the University of Illinois.

“Throughout the first year of life, baby’s brain continues to develop and build hundreds of neural connections faster than at any other time in their lives. That rapid development sets the stage for learning, cognition and memory for the rest of their lives – all of which makes the quality of the nutrition they get that much more important,” he explains.

A Brain-Boosting Combination

So, what’s so special about these three nutrients?

  • Lutein -- is a carotenoid or a type of antioxidant that’s found in the retina of the eyes and in the brain. Lutein is an important nutrient for your baby’s brain development and the main carotenoid in the brain related to memory, sensory skills and learning.


Video: What is Lutein?

  • DHA -- an omega-3 fatty acid that is found in the cell membranes in the brain and throughout body. “It plays an important structural role in these membranes and helps them stay fluid so the cells can function and develop appropriately,” Kuchan says.

  • Natural Vitamin E - A baby is busy developing 150 trillion neuronal connections, or pathways that connect to brain cells. Vitamin E is known to be important for neural development and function. Without enough of this essential nutrient, which is found is nuts, cooking oils, egg yolk  and many other foods, your baby’s nervous system, brain and muscles will not reach their full potential.

Better Together

And, there is another critical role that these nutrients play.  “Vitamin E, along with lutein, protects DHA from oxidative damage, a process that can interfere with DHA’s important structural role in important brain cell membranes. A special kind of membrane, synaptic membranes, is important for the quality of the developing connections in baby’s brain,” Kuchan explains. It’s important, however, that you get natural vitamin E in your diet instead of synthetic vitamin E because studies show that the natural form is better utilized by the body.  

How to Get All 3 Nutrients

Since our bodies cannot make natural vitamin E or lutein, and some infants may not make enough DHA, it’s important to get these three nutrients through your diet if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding or make sure your baby is fed an infant formula that contains all these nutrients.

1.  Green Leafy Vegetables
Lutein is found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, collard greens and romaine lettuce. Eggs and brightly colored fruits like kiwi and grapes are also rich in lutein.  

lutein in dark green vegetables

2.  Nuts and Seeds
Excellent sources of natural vitamin E include sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts; sunflower oil, safflower oil and soybean oil; green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and asparagus; and seafood such as salmon, trout, shrimp and oysters. 

3. Fish
DHA is found in fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and trout and nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews and pistachios are excellent sources too.

Brain healthy fish and nuts

4.  Supplements
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should talk to your doctor to make sure you’re taking a prenatal vitamin that includes lutein, natural vitamin E and DHA. If you’re not exclusively breastfeeding, choose an infant formula with all three as well.  


1. Vazhappilly R., Lai C., Kuchan M. Effect of Lutein and A-Tocopherol on DHA Peroxidation in Primary Cortical Neurons. Abbott Nutrition, Columbus, OH.


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