BACKGROUND: During pregnancy there is a high demand for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is needed for formation of the fetal brain. Women who do not consume marine foods must synthesize DHA from fatty acid precursors in vegetable foods.

OBJECTIVE: We studied sex differences in DHA status and the role of sex hormones.

DESIGN: First, DHA status was compared between 72 male and 103 female healthy volunteers who ate the same rigidly controlled diets. Second, the effects of sex hormones were studied in 56 male-to-female transsexual subjects, who were treated with cyproterone acetate alone or randomly assigned to receive oral ethinyl estradiol or transdermal 17beta-estradiol combined with cyproterone acetate, and in 61 female-to-male transsexual subjects, who were treated with testosterone esters or randomly assigned for treatment with the aromatase inhibitor anastrozole or placebo in addition to the testosterone regimen.

RESULTS: The proportion of DHA was 15 +/- 4% (x +/- SEM; P < 0.0005) higher in the women than in the men. Among the women, those taking oral contraceptives had 10 +/- 4% (P = 0.08) higher DHA concentrations than did those not taking oral contraceptives. Administration of oral ethinyl estradiol, but not transdermal 17beta-estradiol, increased DHA by 42 +/- 8% (P < 0.0005), whereas the antiandrogen cyproterone acetate did not affect DHA. Parenteral testosterone decreased DHA by 22 +/- 4% (P < 0.0005) in female-to-male transsexual subjects. Anastrozole decreased estradiol concentrations significantly and DHA concentrations nonsignificantly (9 +/- 6%; P = 0.09).

CONCLUSION: Estrogens cause higher DHA concentrations in women than in men, probably by upregulating synthesis of DHA from vegetable precursors.