Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Brain Health

Perhaps you are familiar with the saying “fish is brain food.” My mother used to tell me this to encourage me to eat my fish sticks. She was pretty smart because there is scientific evidence behind that adage.

What is so special about fish that it can nourish your brain? The answer is the omega-3 fatty acids present in fish, the most prominent of which are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which have been shown to possess an ability to support and promote brain function. Another omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in several foods (but not fish).

Read about omega-3s, the smart choice for your brain

Although the human body can make DHA and EPA from ALA, the conversion process is far from efficient and so fish and fish oil are considered by most experts to be the best sources of these essential fatty acids. Both EPA and DHA are integral components of cell membranes and also have powerful anti-inflammatory abilities which are key not only for the brain but for the heart and human development as well.

Where can you find omega-3 fatty acids?

You need look no farther than cold water fatty fish, such as anchovies, herring, sardines, tuna, and salmon as rich sources of EPA and DHA. If fish is not your cup of tea, then fish oil supplements can be substituted instead. In fact, even if you do eat fish, few people consume the two or more servings per week that is recommended, so a supplement can be an easy way to boost your intake.

If you want to rely on ALA for your omega-3 intake, this is a challenge. ALA is found in foods such as canola oil, chia seeds, flaxseeds, soybeans, soybean oil, and walnuts. (Often canola and soybeans are genetically modified, so if you choose these sources make sure they are organic.) An omega-3 supplement is likely needed, but if you do not consume fish or fish oil, there are a few algae-based EPA and DHA supplements available for vegans and others who do not consume fish or fish products.

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Read about what you need to know about the different types of omega-3 fatty acids

Experts vary on their recommendations for intake of EPA and DHA from omega-3 supplements. A suggested daily dose is 1,000 to 2,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil or a comparable omega-3 supplement.

How are omega-3s good for your brain?

Both EPA and especially DHA are important even before an infant emerges from the womb, as they play a crucial role in the development of a baby’s brain. But the benefits keep on coming. For example:

  • Intake of omega-3s as fish or fish oil among pregnant women has been correlated with higher test scores of intelligence and brain function in early childhood of their offspring.
  • The fatty acids in cell membranes of brain cells are responsible for preserving cell membrane health and assisting with intercellular communication.
  • Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids may speed up aging of the brain and contribute to impaired brain function.
  • Use of fish oil supplements has been shown to improve brain function in individuals who have mild cognitive impairment or age-related cognitive decline. Some research suggests it is best to start taking omega-3 supplements during the early stages of brain function decline or else they not be as beneficial.
  • If you are depressed, fish oil supplements may result in an improvement in depressive symptoms comparable with those achieved when taking antidepressants. Depressed individuals who got the most benefit from taking fish oil were those who were also taking antidepressants and/or those who took fish oil supplements that had high doses of EPA.

What’s the bottom line?

Mom was right: fish—or more accurately, omega-3 fatty acids—is good for your brain. Taking an omega-3 supplement is recommended if you do not eat fish several times a week, and especially if you have mild cognitive decline or have been diagnosed with depression. Talk to a knowledgeable healthcare provider before you begin taking omega-3 supplements. The Food and Drug Administration has determined that 3,000 mg daily is the safe upper limit for supplementation, although the European Food Safety Authority sets their limit at 5,000 mg.

Because fish oil can affect the ability of your blood to clot, you should tell your doctor you are taking these supplements, especially if you are also taking blood thinners or are scheduled for surgery, including dental surgery.

Chiu CC et al. The effects of omega-3 fatty acids monotherapy in Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment: a preliminary randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study. Progress in Neuro-psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 2008 Aug 1; 32(6): 1538-44
Dyall SC. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 2015; 7:52
Helland IB et al. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics 2003 Jan; 111(1): e39-44
Hjalmarsdottir F. How much omega-3 should you take per day? Healthline 2017 Jun 3
Mazereeuw G et al. Effects of w-3 fatty acids on cognitive performance: a meta-analysis. Neurobiology of Aging 2012 Jul; 33(7): 1482.e17-29
Mocking RJT et al. Meta-analysis and meta-regression of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for major depressive disorder. Translational Psychiatry 2016 Mar; 6(3): e756
Papanikolaou Y et al. US adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008. Nutrition Journal 2014 Apr 2; 13:31

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Lisa Roth Collins is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist (RHN) and is the Marketing Manager at She is passionate about health and wellness and tries her best to make healthier choices every day for herself and her family. Her journey to natural health was driven by her own struggles with digestive discomfort, depression, and anxiety. Lisa returned to school in 2014 to study nutrition at the Canadian School for Natural Nutrition. She threw herself into her studies so she could learn as much as she could to help herself feel better and thrive. Upon completing the program and being certified as an RHN, Lisa began her work at Naturally Savvy where she has been able to help so many people learn to make healthier choices for themselves. Through her work, she has connected with so many incredible people in the industry whether other authors, influencers, or brands. Plus, she is affectionately known as "Techie Spice" because of her ability to wrap her head around technology. Every day she gets up with a renewed sense of energy and ready to make a difference. You can read all of Lisa's content here. In her spare time, Lisa loves to try new recipes, make delicious and nourishing meals, and she is an avid reader. For more information about Lisa, check out her profile on here.