Omega-3s–The Key To A Healthy Brain

Omega-3 fatty acids and its various health benefits have been the subject of tens of thousands of research papers over the years. 

And that's no surprise, given that omega-3s have been said to reduce the likelihood of heart attack, improve high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the so-called 'good' cholesterol), and improve arthritis.

That’s pretty impressive in and of itself. 

But, as it turns out, omega-3s also offer a lesser-known health benefit: they can help improve cognitive function and safeguard brain health, too. That’s because omega-3s and their metabolites influence gene expression, cerebral blood flow, levels of neurotransmitters, and even the production of new neurons (1, 2, 3). 

This article covers everything you need to know about omega-3s–including what they are, their health benefits, and the exact amount you should be getting daily.  

What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats that your body needs for metabolic functioning. As the human body does not synthesise omega-3s on its own, you must get them from your diet. There are 3 primary omega-3 fatty acids:

  • DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid)
  • EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid)
  • ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) 

While all 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential, research indicates that DHA and EPA exert a particularly strong positive effect on health (4). That’s because ALA needs to be converted into EPA or DHA before it can be utilised by the body for something other than energy.

However, only a small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA, and even less into DHA (5, 6, 7). 

Regardless, DHA primarily plays a role in developing and maintaining brain structure, while EPA supports heart health by reducing inflammation, keeping triglycerides in check, and maintaining healthy blood flow in the arteries (8, 9). 

How do Omega-3s affect your Brain?

The human brain is the fattiest organ in the body–coming in at nearly 60% fat (10). Illustrating the importance of DHA to the brain is the fact that roughly 30% of the ‘grey matter’ in the mammalian brain is comprised of DHA. 

As mentioned earlier, because omega-3s and their metabolites influence neuron membrane health and communication between brain cells, these fatty acids are also vital for the maintenance of optimal brain function throughout life. 

Cognitive health

Multiple studies have highlighted the importance of prenatal omega-3 supplementation.

Pregnant women’s fish intake or fish oil use have been associated with higher scores for their children on tests of intelligence and brain function in early childhood (11, 12). 

Perhaps more importantly, omega-3s have also shown promise in improving brain function in individuals with memory problems. 

A 2010 clinical trial–which lasted for 24 weeks–randomly assigned 485 older adults with age-related cognitive decline to either 900 mg of DHA or a placebo every day. The results? It was found that those who took DHA ended up performing better on memory and learning tests (13). 

Another 2008 study which investigated the effects of 1.8 g of omega-3s supplementation daily for 24 weeks showed similar findings as well. The researchers found significant improvements in brain function in individuals suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) (14).  

Interestingly, the positive effects of omega-3s on brain health extend beyond cognitive functioning, too.

Mental health

Studies suggest that getting enough omega-3s can be critical for helping depression and other emotional disorders. A 2016 meta-analysis pooled randomised placebo-controlled trials assessing the effects of omega-3s supplementation on depressive symptoms in major depressive disorder (MDD) (15). 

It concluded that omega-3s supplementation improved depressive symptoms in individuals with MDD, with effects comparable to those of antidepressant medications. 

Research has also suggested that omega-3s supplementation can help stabilise the mood in people with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (16, 17, 18).  

What happens to the brain when you’re short on Omega-3s?

Consuming sufficient omega-3s in your diet is not all about optimising your brain function (i.e. making it better); instead, there’s evidence to show that it’s necessary for normal functioning.

When animals are fed diets without omega-3s, the levels of DHA in their brains decrease, and they’ve been observed to experience deficits in learning and memory (19, 20). 

Perhaps more worryingly, according to a 2012 study published in the American Academy of Neurology, older adults with lower levels of DHA in the blood have been associated with smaller brain size, which is a sign of accelerated brain ageing (21).

Clearly, it's paramount that you get enough omega-3s not only to improve your brain functions but also to avoid some of these detrimental effects.

Additional health benefits of Omega-3s 

Decreased risk of heart disease

A diet rich in omega-3s appears to be able to improve several cardiovascular disease risk factors: 

  • Lowers the level of triglycerides – Omega-3s can lower the level of triglycerides (fats) in your blood, typically in the 15%-30% range (22, 23, 24). 
  • Reduces blood pressure levels – Omega-3s have been shown to reduce blood pressure levels in individuals with high blood pressure (25).
  • Raises ‘good’ HDL cholesterol – Omega-3s can increase the level of ‘good’ HDL in your body (26).
  • Prevents formation of blood clots – Because Omega-3s can keep blood platelets from clumping together, they help prevent the formation of potentially fatal blood clots (27).
  • Prevents plaque formation – By protecting your arteries from damage, they help prevent the formation of plaque that can restrict and harden your arteries (28). 

As a result, there is evidence to show that omega-3s supplementation can confer beneficial effects on heart health. 

A clinical trial study published in The Lancet followed 11,000 individuals who supplemented with 850 mg dose of combined EPA and DHA daily over 3.5 years. It was found that these people experienced a 25% reduction in heart attacks and a 45% reduction in sudden death (29). 

Other research also suggests that omega-3s can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death among people with cardiovascular disease (30). 

Lowered inflammation 

Long-term inflammation has been associated with almost every chronic disease, including heart disease and cancer (31, 32, 33). And this is where a diet rich in omega-3s appears to help. 

Notably, many studies have consistently highlighted a connection between higher omega-3s intake and reduced inflammation (34, 35, 36). 

Perhaps more interestingly, omega-3s supplementation may also reduce morning stiffness, the number of swollen joints, and the need for corticosteroid drugs in people with rheumatoid arthritis (37). 

Omega-3s’ anti-inflammatory effects are thought to be key to its role in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. 

Other health benefits

Many studies have also shown that omega-3s may be beneficial in the following areas:

  • Eye health (38)
  • ADHD symptoms in children (39)
  • Metabolic syndrome (40)
  • Autoimmune diseases (41, 42)
  • Cancer (43)

How much Omega-3 should you be getting daily?

Overall, the majority of mainstream health organisations recommend a minimum of 250 to 500 mg of combined EPA and DHA daily for healthy adults (44). 

The best sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish, such as fresh and canned salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines.

You will be able to meet the recommended omega-3s intake by eating at least 2 servings of fatty fish each week. This begs the question: “What happens if I don’t like the taste of fish or if I can’t take fish?”

Well, you can get some EPA and DHA from eating kelp and seaweed. You can also get some omega-3s from oils, soy products, and nuts. 

Regardless, it may be easier for you to meet your required daily intake through a high-quality fish (or algal) oil supplementation. 

An important caveat 

More is not always better. Do note that too much omega-3s (i.e. over 5,000 mg per day) can be harmful.

Omega-3s can cause blood thinning or excessive bleeding in some people (45). For this reason, many health experts encourage people who are planning surgery to stop taking omega-3s supplementation 1 to 2 weeks beforehand.

[INTRODUCTION OF CAPSULES]

Omega-3 fatty acids and its various health benefits have been the subject of tens of thousands of research papers over the years. 

And that’s no surprise, given that omega-3s have been said to reduce the likelihood of heart attack, improve high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the so-called ‘good’ cholesterol), and improve arthritis.

That’s pretty impressive in and of itself. 

But, as it turns out, omega-3s also offer a lesser-known health benefit: they can help improve cognitive function and safeguard brain health, too. That’s because omega-3s and their metabolites influence gene expression, cerebral blood flow, levels of neurotransmitters, and even the production of new neurons (1, 2, 3). 

This article covers everything you need to know about omega-3s–including what they are, their health benefits, and the exact amount you should be getting daily.  

What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats that your body needs for metabolic functioning. As the human body does not synthesise omega-3s on its own, you must get them from your diet. There are 3 primary omega-3 fatty acids:

  • DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid)
  • EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid)
  • ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) 

While all 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential, research indicates that DHA and EPA exert a particularly strong positive effect on health (4). That’s because ALA needs to be converted into EPA or DHA before it can be utilised by the body for something other than energy.

However, only a small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA, and even less into DHA (5, 6, 7). 

Regardless, DHA primarily plays a role in developing and maintaining brain structure, while EPA supports heart health by reducing inflammation, keeping triglycerides in check, and maintaining healthy blood flow in the arteries (8, 9). 

How do Omega-3s affect your Brain?

The human brain is the fattiest organ in the body–coming in at nearly 60% fat (10). Illustrating the importance of DHA to the brain is the fact that roughly 30% of the ‘grey matter’ in the mammalian brain is comprised of DHA. 

As mentioned earlier, because omega-3s and their metabolites influence neuron membrane health and communication between brain cells, these fatty acids are also vital for the maintenance of optimal brain function throughout life. 

Cognitive health

Multiple studies have highlighted the importance of prenatal omega-3 supplementation.

Pregnant women’s fish intake or fish oil use have been associated with higher scores for their children on tests of intelligence and brain function in early childhood (11, 12). 

Perhaps more importantly, omega-3s have also shown promise in improving brain function in individuals with memory problems. 

A 2010 clinical trial–which lasted for 24 weeks–randomly assigned 485 older adults with age-related cognitive decline to either 900 mg of DHA or a placebo every day. The results? It was found that those who took DHA ended up performing better on memory and learning tests (13). 

Another 2008 study which investigated the effects of 1.8 g of omega-3s supplementation daily for 24 weeks showed similar findings as well. The researchers found significant improvements in brain function in individuals suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) (14).  

Interestingly, the positive effects of omega-3s on brain health extend beyond cognitive functioning, too.

Mental health

Studies suggest that getting enough omega-3s can be critical for helping depression and other emotional disorders. A 2016 meta-analysis pooled randomised placebo-controlled trials assessing the effects of omega-3s supplementation on depressive symptoms in major depressive disorder (MDD) (15). 

It concluded that omega-3s supplementation improved depressive symptoms in individuals with MDD, with effects comparable to those of antidepressant medications. 

Research has also suggested that omega-3s supplementation can help stabilise the mood in people with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (16, 17, 18).  

What happens to the brain when you’re short on Omega-3s?

Consuming sufficient omega-3s in your diet is not all about optimising your brain function (i.e. making it better); instead, there’s evidence to show that it’s necessary for normal functioning.

When animals are fed diets without omega-3s, the levels of DHA in their brains decrease, and they’ve been observed to experience deficits in learning and memory (19, 20). 

Perhaps more worryingly, according to a 2012 study published in the American Academy of Neurology, older adults with lower levels of DHA in the blood have been associated with smaller brain size, which is a sign of accelerated brain ageing (21).

Clearly, it’s paramount that you get enough omega-3s not only to improve your brain functions but also to avoid some of these detrimental effects.

Additional health benefits of Omega-3s 

Decreased risk of heart disease

A diet rich in omega-3s appears to be able to improve several cardiovascular disease risk factors: 

  • Lowers the level of triglycerides – Omega-3s can lower the level of triglycerides (fats) in your blood, typically in the 15%-30% range (22, 23, 24). 
  • Reduces blood pressure levels – Omega-3s have been shown to reduce blood pressure levels in individuals with high blood pressure (25).
  • Raises ‘good’ HDL cholesterol – Omega-3s can increase the level of ‘good’ HDL in your body (26).
  • Prevents formation of blood clots – Because Omega-3s can keep blood platelets from clumping together, they help prevent the formation of potentially fatal blood clots (27).
  • Prevents plaque formation – By protecting your arteries from damage, they help prevent the formation of plaque that can restrict and harden your arteries (28). 

As a result, there is evidence to show that omega-3s supplementation can confer beneficial effects on heart health. 

A clinical trial study published in The Lancet followed 11,000 individuals who supplemented with 850 mg dose of combined EPA and DHA daily over 3.5 years. It was found that these people experienced a 25% reduction in heart attacks and a 45% reduction in sudden death (29). 

Other research also suggests that omega-3s can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death among people with cardiovascular disease (30). 

Lowered inflammation 

Long-term inflammation has been associated with almost every chronic disease, including heart disease and cancer (31, 32, 33). And this is where a diet rich in omega-3s appears to help. 

Notably, many studies have consistently highlighted a connection between higher omega-3s intake and reduced inflammation (34, 35, 36). 

Perhaps more interestingly, omega-3s supplementation may also reduce morning stiffness, the number of swollen joints, and the need for corticosteroid drugs in people with rheumatoid arthritis (37). 

Omega-3s’ anti-inflammatory effects are thought to be key to its role in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. 

Other health benefits

Many studies have also shown that omega-3s may be beneficial in the following areas:

  • Eye health (38)
  • ADHD symptoms in children (39)
  • Metabolic syndrome (40)
  • Autoimmune diseases (41, 42)
  • Cancer (43)

How much Omega-3 should you be getting daily?

Overall, the majority of mainstream health organisations recommend a minimum of 250 to 500 mg of combined EPA and DHA daily for healthy adults (44). 

The best sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish, such as fresh and canned salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines.

You will be able to meet the recommended omega-3s intake by eating at least 2 servings of fatty fish each week. This begs the question: “What happens if I don’t like the taste of fish or if I can’t take fish?”

Well, you can get some EPA and DHA from eating kelp and seaweed. You can also get some omega-3s from oils, soy products, and nuts. 

Regardless, it may be easier for you to meet your required daily intake through a high-quality fish (or algal) oil supplementation. 

An important caveat 

More is not always better. Do note that too much omega-3s (i.e. over 5,000 mg per day) can be harmful.

Omega-3s can cause blood thinning or excessive bleeding in some people (45). For this reason, many health experts encourage people who are planning surgery to stop taking omega-3s supplementation 1 to 2 weeks beforehand.

[INTRODUCTION OF CAPSULES]