Omega-3 Fats Support Cognition
Food has a major impact on brain health and fish oil is at the top of the list for good cognitive function. Made up of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, fish oil is absolutely vital for brain development and function. More than 60 percent of the brain is made up of fat and much of that is DHA!
Unfortunately, most people are not getting enough fish oil, leaving their brain health with a lot to be desired. The unique role of fish oil in brain health varies at different life stages (1):
As a growing fetus, it lays the groundwork for cognition and visual acuity over your lifespan.
During childhood, it supports learning and focus, playing an important role in avoiding ADHD and autism.
As an adult, it enables chemical balance of neurotransmitters. Fish oil helps avoid depression and other mood disorders while laying the groundwork for cognitive function as you age.
In your senior years, EPA and DHA help counter brain inflammation. They also slow or prevent the development of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
For athletes, EPA and DHA affect motor performance and reaction time—two critical factors for optimal athleticism, especially once fatigue sets in.
Why Aren’t People Getting Enough Fish Oil?
The most obvious reason for deficiency in EPA and DHA is that the typical western diet is terribly low in fish oils compared to Japan or Scandinavia, which have the highest intake (2). Known as omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA are present in cold-water fish, such as salmon and mackerel. Most westerners rarely eat these foods. Even regular consumption twice a week may not overcome the onslaught of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats that compete with omega-3s.
Because omega-6 and omega-3 fats rely on the same enzymes, too many omega-6s effectively cancel out the positive effects of omega-3s. Omega-6 fats are present in seeds, oils, corn, and soy, which make up a majority of calories in the average western diet. This has led to a skewed ratio between omega-6 to omega-3 fats that is anywhere from 20-to-1 to 50-to-1. In contrast, humans evolved eating a diet with nearly a 1-to-1 ratio.
This discrepancy has resulted in a variety of metabolic health problems, including insulin resistance and obesity. Brain health is also compromised and there is an increase in delayed learning, poor memory, and Alzheimer’s disease.
How Fish Oil Promotes A Healthy Brain
Fish oil is a darling of the nutritional world for its ability to enhance quality of life and lower the risk of premature death. Additional research shows that EPA and DHA protect the brain and are vital for cognitive wellness throughout the lifespan.
How do they do it?
Fish Oil Makes Cell Membranes Work Better.
Your cells are made up of a membrane that has two layers of lipids or fats. The lipid layer will be composed of healthy or unhealthy fats depending on the type you eat. If the cell lipid layers are made up of omega-3 fats, the cell will be healthier, allowing for messages to pass more quickly from cell to cell. This matters because the cell membrane is a dynamic structure that manages the vast majority of life processes. Experts agree that the advanced human cell is only as efficient as its membrane system.
Fish Oil Improves Levels of Brain Nutrients.
Fish oil affects other nutrients in the brain. DHA increases brain synthesis of phosphatidylserine, a nutrient that is beneficial for maintaining memory, learning, and cognitive function in the aging brain. It also helps balance neurotransmitters, regulate mood, and manage stress. Other nutrients that work synergistically with fish oil to protect brain function are fat-soluble antioxidants such as vitamin E, CoQ10, and astaxanthin (available in eggs).
Fish Oil Regulates Brain Inflammation.
EPA is important for managing inflammation in the brain. The aging brain is particularly susceptible to inflammation that impairs learning and memory. In studies of Alzheimer’s patients, supplementation with EPA and DHA reduces inflammatory cytokines that damage cells and cognition. Randomized trials have shown supplementation with DHA (900 mg day) in adults with mild cognitive impairment improves scores on learning and verbal memory tests.
Fish Oil Promotes Growth of New Brain Cells.
When we are young, new brain cells are readily “born” via a process called neurogenesis. However, aging stops neurogenesis. There is a strong relationship between memory loss and decline in the growth of new brain cells. EPA and DHA are a treatment that can support neurogenesis and help preserve function in the aging brain.
How Much Fish Oil Do I Need to Protect My Brain?
Many factors can affect fish oil requirements. The body can produce a small amount of EPA and DHA from a plant-based omega-3 fat known as ALA. However, the conversion his rate is very low—roughly 10 to 30 percent for EPA, and as low as 1 percent for DHA. Therefore, relying on flax oil and other ALA-containing foods is unlikely to result in optimal EPA and DHA levels. Additionally, when people lack certain nutrients, EPA and DHA synthesis will be almost zero. To convert ALA to EPA, the body requires magnesium, zinc, calcium, and vitamins B3 and B6.
A second factor is genes. Different gene mutations affect metabolism of EPA and DHA both in terms of incorporation into cell membranes and conversion rates from ALA.
Because EPA and DHA compete with omega-6 fats for activity in the body, a high intake of omega-6s will require more fish oil. Diets high in processed foods will require more EPA and DHA for health. In contrast, diets dominated by vegetables, free-range meat and dairy, and healthier cooking oils (olive, coconut, avocado, butter) will require less.
People with chronic issues may require more EPA and DHA to fight inflammation. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, joint disorders, obesity, insulin resistance, PMS, or migraines.
Vegetarians are at high risk of low EPA and DHA unless they take an algae-based supplement that provides these nutrients.
Fish oil doses vary depending on the goal of supplementation. The Institute of Medicine established an Adequate Intake of 1.6 g for men, 1.1 g for women, and 1.4 g for pregnant women (3).
Clinical trials show dosages of 4g/day to be effective Some studies show benefits of as much as 10 grams a day (4). The maximum tolerated dose was found to be 0.3g/kg per day of fish oil capsules. This means a 70-kg patient can tolerate up to 21 g a day.
Is it possible to get all of your EPA and DHA from food?
Possibly. A 3 ounce serving of wild salmon or mackerel provides about 1,500 mg of EPA and DHA, of which DHA accounts for about half. A 3 oz. serving of canned salmon or mackerel contains between 1,000 and 1,500 mg of EPA and DHA. Therefore, if you eat these foods multiple times a week and have low intake of omega-6s, you could get enough from diet.
One possible drawback is mercury and other pollutants present in seafood. Pregnant women need to be careful because mercury can harm a growing fetus. In this case, supplementation is a good alternative because high-quality fish oil is purified and tested for a wide range of contaminants.
For individuals who don’t regularly eat seafood or require higher intake of EPA and DHA, supplementation is the smart and easy choice.
Taking care of your brain is a top priority since it regulates your motor function, mood, and cognitive ability. Nutrition is a great place to start. Getting adequate fish oil within the context of a healthy, whole food diet can lay the groundwork for brain health for years to come.