I remember growing up my parents would say I should eat tuna before an exam because fish is brain food. Well, as usual, they were right. A growing stack of scientific papers shows fish, more specifically the fat in fish called omega-3 fatty acids, improves brain function.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
The main omega-3 fatty acids in the human body are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The central nervous system, which includes the brain, has high concentrations of omega-3s. The human brain is comprised of 40 per cent DHA. As such, DHA is thought to be a very important nutrient for brain structure and function. In the July 2014 issue ofNutrients, omega-3 researchers concluded evidence shows the consumption of DHA enhances cognitive performance relating to learning, cognitive development, memory and speed of performing cognitive tasks.
EPA and Your Mood
EPA also plays an important role in the brain. Studies have found EPA concentrations in the brain are linked tomood, particularly depression. A 2011 review in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry concluded that supplements containing EPA (200 to 2200mg/day of EPA in excess of DHA) were effective against primary depression.
Prevents Old-Age Moments (aka Cognitive Decline)
Omega-3 fatty acids not only enhance and support brain function, they may also protect it. In the August issue ofFrontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers reported omega-3 fatty acids had a neuroprotective effect. Over the 8-week study, the researchers found the older (19 month old) mice given omega-3 fatty acids had multiple biological markers suggest there was a lack of cognitive decline. Another study suggests omega-3 fatty acids may prevent brain atrophy with age: the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study followed 1,111 women over 8 years noting MRI brain scans showed an association between higher blood concentration of DHA and EPA and larger normal brain volume. What does all of this tell us? Eating a diet rich in DHA and EPA appears to prevent the brain from shrinking and becoming less effective. Yikes…us older folks had better start seeking out omega-3s to support our brain health as intently as we’ve been ensuring our kids take it!
Best Sources of Omega-3s
The body’s capacity to synthesize DHA and EPA is limited, making dietary sources vital to brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in some plants, such as flax or chia seeds, in the form of ALA. The body uses enzymes to convert ALA into EPA and DHA in the body; this conversion has been estimated to occur at a rate of about 10 per cent. You are better off eating foods that have DHA and EPA ready to digest, such as fish. Are you a vegetarian? You’ll be excited to know that [many companies] now have algae-based DHA and EPA supplements.
[Editor’s Note: If you want to earn more about incorporating omega-3 into your diet, click here to sign up for Naturally Savvy’s Omega-3 Get Healthy Challenge.]
This article originally appeared on AllisonTannis.com.
Image: alex lang
· Cutuli, D et. al. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids supplementation enhances hippocampal functionality in aged mice. Front Aging Neurosci 2014 Aug 25;6:220.
· Kerti, L. et al. Higher glucose levels associated with lower memory and reduced hippocampal microstructure. Neurology, Oct 2013;81(20):1746-1752.
· Pottala JV. Higher RBC EPA+DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes: WHIMS-MRI study. Neurology 2014 Feb 4;82(5):435-42.
· Stonehouse, W. Does consumption of LC omega-3 PUFA enhance cognitive performance in healthy school-aged children and throughout adulthood? Evidence from clinical trials. Nutrients 2014 Jul 22;6(7):2730-58.
· Sublette, ME. et al. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinlcal trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry 2011 Dec;72(12):1577-84.