Omega-3s for Your Brain: The Sooner You Start, the Better
You need to fuel your mind with healthy food choices, just as you nourish the rest of your body. It’s important to check in to make sure you’re eating to support brain health.
A diet packed with antioxidant-rich colorful fruits and vegetables, 100 percent whole grains, nuts, legumes and other real food is the first place to start in fueling a healthy brain, memory and concentration. The sooner you start, the better. But, let’s get real. Most people don’t eat perfectly. While you continue to improve diet-wise, it makes sense to fill in the gaps by taking a supplement or two. And, for brain health, one of the most important supplements to consider is fish oil because of the omega-3 fats in fish oils, EPA and DHA (i.e., eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and).
Second only to those rolls of pudge around the waist or elsewhere, brain tissue has the most fat of any other tissue in the body. About 60 percent of your brain is fat. (1) In the brain, fat is a building material. Each of your 100 billion brain cells is encased, like a balloon, by a sheath or membrane made up of two layers of fat. Through that membrane, the cell eliminates toxins, takes up nutrients, and sends and receives messages. The more fluid or flexible those fatty membranes, the better they relay and transport information. The less flexible, the more our thought processes are jammed, cognition plummets, and the faster the brain ages. (2-4)
The omega-3 fats are especially flexible. That’s why the brain loves them. (5) Children and adults who maintain high levels of the omega-3s in fish oil, EPA and DHA, are the ones who stack the deck in favor of protecting their minds throughout life. (6-18) They are more likely to remember more as they age, pay closer attention to detail, and are less anxious compared to those without a diet rich in EPA and DHA omega-3s. (19-21) Throughout life, from birth onward, those who include ample omega-3s in their daily routine are less prone to depression and other mood disorders (22-28) and children may perform better at school (29-32).
As the Brain Ages
One of the contributing factors in Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of nerve tangles, called amyloid plaque, in the brain. Preliminary research shows that the omega-3s in fish oil help to break down these tangles. (33,34) Fish oil omega-3s also support cell-to-cell communication, nerve chemical release, and nerve conduction, all of which allow brain cells to effectively send messages to each other. A study from the Rush Institute for Aging in Chicago compared the dietary habits of 800 men and women between the ages of 65- and 94-years-old. They found that those who included omega-3s in their weekly diets were significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who consumed little or no omega-3s. (35-39)
Not All Omega-3s Are Created Equal
The omega-3 in flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, leafy greens and soy may help to support heart health, but those foods are not optimal your mind. That’s because there are three omega-3 fats, and they are not created equal when it comes to brain health.
The omega-3 fat found in plants - from flax to soy - is called ALA, which stands for alpha-linolenic acid and shows promise in lowering inflammation and heart disease risk. Granted, the body can convert ALA to other omega-3 fats, but the conversion is poor. In fact, one study found that eating flax did not support the increase in levels of the other two omega-3s - EPA and DHA. (40-41) If your goal is to optimize your brain health throughout life, you must get ample amounts of the EPA and DHA omega-3s in fish oils.
How Much Do You Need?
It’s important to note that your body can’t make these fats in sufficient amounts. They have to come from the diet or supplements. When you don’t regularly consume fatty fish or take fish oil supplements, your brain is forced to build its cells from less flexible fats. (42)
Aim for at least two servings weekly of fatty fish. Ounce for ounce you get the biggest omega-3 bang for your buck with salmon, herring, mackerel, lake trout, anchovies and sardines. Other seafood is better than a pork chop, but has considerably less of these mind-boosting fats. The general recommendation is to include two servings of fatty fish in your weekly diet. (43, 44)
Don’t like fish? Don’t despair. All the research on omega-3s and the mind has used either seafood or supplements; both work equally well at supporting brain health. Even the most conservative nutrition groups recommend at least 500 milligrams of a combination of EPA and DHA in fish oil supplements. Make sure to check the label. You want a supplement that spells out exactly how much EPA and DHA is found inside. (45)
I am the first one to take my own advice. My mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s. I have combed the research on dietary approaches to support brain health. Along with eating a healthy diet, exercising daily, and getting ample sleep, making sure I get optimal amounts of the omega-3s is one of my top priorities. The sooner you start, the better, but it’s never too late!
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