The positive benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on our cardiovascular systems are well-known. It turns out that this essential nutrient is vital for brain health, too.
Consisting of 60 percent fat,¹ the brain needs omega-3s to properly develop and function.
The ways in which omega-3 fatty acids help our brains and nervous systems include:
- Preserves cell membrane health
- Facilitates communication between neurons
- Aids in the growth of brain tissue
- Helps with better sleep and cognition
- May prevent neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders
Since we humans lack the enzymes needed to create omega-3s, we need to get these fatty acids through our diet for optimal brain health. Here we explore the role omega-3s play in brain development and performance, and where you can find the best sources of omega-3s for optimal health and wellness.
Recap: Omega-3s play a vital role in cell health and communication, development of brain tissue, better sleep and cognition, and preventing neurodegenerative diseases. Because our bodies can’t make omega-3s, it’s essential that we get them through our diet.
Why The Brain Needs Omega-3s
The three omega-3s found in our food are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA—the most abundant fatty acid in the brain—is located mainly in cell membranes. In addition to building the brain’s structure, DHA is involved in neurotransmission as a messenger, signaling when injury is detected or to initiate protection. It is also involved in neurogenesis (generation of neurons).
Our levels of DHA change depending on the type and amount of fatty acids in our diet, and decreases with aging. We can get DHA either by consuming DHA itself, or by ingesting ALA and EPA, which the body metabolizes it into DHA. Adequate levels of DHA make it easier, quicker, and more effective for nerve cells to communicate.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also necessary for healthy brain and eye development in utero, postnatal and into early childhood (most brain growth is completed by six years of age). Studies have shown that greater fish consumption is associated with improved cognition among children. Recent results reported that frequent fish intake was related to fewer sleep problems in children and higher IQ scores.²
Recap: There are three types of omega-3s—ALA, EPA and DHA. DHA plays a key role in brain structure, communication and protection. Omega-3s are essential for brain and eye development in fetuses, babies and toddlers. They may also contribute to better sleep and higher IQs scores in children.
How Omega-3s Protect Your Brain From Neurological Conditions
An imbalance of omega-3s in your diet can lead to not only impaired brain performance but also disease. These essential fatty acids have been shown to prevent or improve several neurological conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.
Several studies suggest that low dietary intake of omega-3s can cause inflammation in certain regions of the brain, contributing to depression and memory loss. While many factors may contribute to depression, imbalances in neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are linked to this disorder. Increasing omega-3 consumption could help treat depression due to its potential in enhancing regulation of serotonin and dopamine transmission.³
As we age our brain goes through many physical and biological changes including shrinkage in volume, a loss of plasticity, and a decrease in omega-3 levels, which could contribute to overall cognitive decline. Findings from a recent study found that the consumption of seafood and omega-3s reduces age-related deterioration, specifically in subjects ability to remember facts and to learn and process new information. The study demonstrated that older adults without dementia who ate one or more servings of seafood per week have less cognitive decline than those who eat less than one serving of seafood per week. Additionally, the results suggest that this relation may be more pronounced in individuals who carry the APOE ε4 gene, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.4
Recap: Omega-3s may also help prevent or ease depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and dementia; as well as reduce age-related cognitive decline (think memory and ability to learn and process new information).
Where to Find the Best Sources of Omega-3s
The healthiest choices for omega-3 fatty acids include fish rich in DHA and EPA, such as barramundi, salmon, trout and sardines; farmed barramundi has the highest ratio of omega-3 to total fat, at 25 percent. (Barramundi also has the highest level of omega-3 fatty acids—960mg per 6 oz skinless serving*—of any commonly eaten white fish.)
While you can also get DHA and EPA from fish oil supplements (like fish oil), studies have shown that fatty acids from fish are more effectively absorbed into our system than when taken as capsules.5 One reason for the better absorption may be due to the variety of different nutrients in fish, rather than just taking the omega-3s alone.
Vegetable oils, flaxseed, walnuts and dark leafy vegetables are all sources of the ALA type of omega-3s, yet our bodies can only turn small quantities of it into EPA and DHA, and therefore it won’t provide as much omega-3s as fatty fishes.
We owe much to the work that our brains do: the ability to move, speak, think and feel. By providing it with the essential nutrients it needs, such as omega-3s, we can ensure it—and we—will function at its best.
Recap: Fatty fish—such as salmon, trout, sardines and barramundi—is the best and most efficient way to get your omega-3s. However, plant sources include vegetable oils, flaxseed, walnuts and dark leafy vegetables.
Read more about omega-3s in our Ask Australis column here.