Your Brain on Omega-3s: How Much Do You know?
As you know may know, nutrition not only impacts our physical health but it has a profound impact on our mental health. Knowing this, you may also already be aware that omega-3 fatty acids are paramount in optimizing many facets of brain function. It’s virtually impossible to get into the impacts of a nutrient dense diet for brain health without the discussion of the infamous omega-3s (after all, they’re what put nutrition on the radar of the medical and scientific community).
Being that the brain is more than 60% fat, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that healthy fats are essential for brain function. But just how essential are they? Fuelling your brain with healthy fats not only provides energy your brain needs, but also helps increase the production of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that provide communication between cells and allow your brain and body to function. Some of these essential fats even get incorporated right into our brain cells and become part of our brain, directly influencing its structure and function. It’s pretty important stuff! However, there is more to it than eating a salmon filet a few times a week.
The brain is more than 60% fat, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that healthy fats are essential for brain function.
Omega-3s & The Brain
Omega-3 essential fatty acids contribute to brain function in 3 key ways:
- They build brain cell membranes
- They reduce brain inflammation
- They promote new brain cell formation, most specifically in regions of the brain involving memory
Omega-3s not only support the development of a growing brain but also how it functions under stress and in the prevention of its break down. To better understand just exactly how omega-3s effect our brain, we must first understand what omega 3s are. For starters, there are two main omega-3 fatty acids that research strongly suggests are key: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
DHA is a fatty acid that is found in high concentration in the gray matter of the brain. DHA is essential in regards to structural support, the function of brain cell membranes and in preventing the loss of brain tissue. Lack of this omega-3 in the body can cause a communication breakdown and even deterioration of the brain.
DHA is specifically important in pregnant women and growing children, especially before 5 years of age as brain mass increases over 3 times during early childhood. It appears that DHA is an important building block in the developing child’s brain, as kids consuming the appropriate amount of DHA are provided with important health benefits such as normal cognitive function and proper brain and eye development. While important in all stages, DHA becomes especially important again later in life. In conjunction with EPA, DHA is also important in limiting damage and loss of brain tissues in the elderly suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
EPA doesn’t become part of a brain cell’s structure the way DHA does. The role of EPA seems to be in reducing inflammation in the brain and balancing out metabolic pathways, the biochemical way in which our body functions. Studies are beginning to show that it is low levels of the fatty acid EPA in adolescents and adults that correlates strongly with development of mental health issues, ranging from focus and attention problems to depression, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
Some studies show that those with depression who took an antidepressant drug and an omega-3 supplement, sourced from fish oil, experienced a significantly greater reduction in their depressive symptoms than from the medication alone. This is great news for those struggling on antidepressant mediations as it can help make conventional antidepressants work better, while also improving overall physical and mental health. Omega-3s also reduce the adverse impacts stress has on our brain and body so, while stress is inevitable and a part of life, we can literally fight back against its harmful effects.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are considered essential because your body cannot produce them and must get them from your daily diet. In reality, the only true essential omega-3 is the parent or “mother” omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), from which EPA and DHA can be made by our body. This fatty acid is found in vegetarian foods like flax, chia and hemp seed along with their oils. However, EPA and DHA omega-3s, derived from fish or algae, appear to be more clinically effective than ALA sourced from plants, because it seems as though ALA is not being converted into helpful EPA and DHA in up to 80% of us. Thus, while flaxseeds and other seeds have many brainy components such as fibre, protein, and B vitamins, for the evidence-based brain and mental health benefits it appears that the best way to get your omega-3s are with EPA and DHA.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are considered essential because your body cannot produce them and must get them from your daily diet.
Three Ways To Supplement Your Omegas
The science is clear: our brain needs and wants EPA and DHA. And while we always recommend whole food sources first and foremost to keep your brain happy and healthy, if you are using EPA and DHA therapeutically to address a brain or mental health concern, research suggests you may need to supplement. These are your best bets for getting those brainy benefits:
1) Fish Oil
Fish oil with 1000 mg EPA, as this is shown to be clinically effective in adults (DHA is important to have in there too, but the exact number is less important). Make sure it’s third party tested to ensure the doses are for real.
If you are vegan, vegetarian or have a fish allergy this will give you good levels of EPA and DHA.
3) Flaxseed oil + a multivitamin
If you insist on getting your omega-3s from ALA, a multivitamin will increase the chances of your body converting it to EPA and DHA.
Contributions to this article provided by Dr. Matthew Hill, PhD.
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