Omega-3 for Your Brain - MEG-3
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!
1. Chang C, Ke D, Chen J: Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurologica Taiwanica 2009;18:231-241.
2. Ahmad A, Greiner R, Moriguchi T, et al: Effects of dietary omega-3 fatty acid on the morphology of the hippocampus. Journal of Neurochemistry 2000;74:88.
3. Haag M: Essential fatty acids and the brain. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2003;48:195-203.
3a. Cutuli D: Functional and structural benefits induced by omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids during aging. Current Neuropharmacology 2016;June 13th.
4. Horrocks L, Farooqui A: Docosahexaenoic acid in the diet: Its importance in maintenance and restoration of neural membrane function. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 2004;70:361-372.
5. Colin J, Gregory-Paurn L, Lanhers M, et al: Membrane raft domains and remodeling in aging brain. Biochimie 2016;130:178-187.
6. Bourre J: Dietary omega-3 fatty acids and psychiatry. Journal of Nutrition, Health, And Aging 2005;9:31-38.
7. Ahmad A, Greiner R, Moriguchi T, et al: Effects of dietary omega-3 fatty acid on the morphology of the hippocampus. Journal of Neurochemistry 2000;74:88.
8. Orr S, Bazinet R: The emerging role of docosahexaenoic acid in neuroinflammation. Current Opinions in Investigational Drugs 2008;9:735-743.
9. Haag M: Essential fatty acids and the brain. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 2003;48:195-203.
10. Horrocks L, Farooqui A: Docosahexaenoic acid in the diet: Its importance in maintenance and restoration of neural membrane function. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 2004;70:361-372.
11. Sanchez-Villegas A, Henriquez P, Figueiras A, et al: Long chain omega-3 fatty acids intake, fish consumption and mental disorders in the SUN cohort. study. European Journal of Nutrition 2007;46:337-346.
12. Whalley L, Fox H, Wahle K, et al: Cognitive aging, childhood intelligence, and the use of food supplements: Possible involvement of n-3 fatty acids. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004;80:1650-1657.
13. Nitta H, Kinoyama M, Watanabe A, et al: Effects of nutritional supplementation with antioxidant vitamins and minerals and fish oil on antioxidant status and psychosocial stress in smokers. Clinical Experimental Medicine 2007;7:179-183.
14. Delarue J, Matzinger O, Binnert C, et al: Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men. Diabetes Metabolism 2003;29:289-295.
15. Schaefer E, Bongard V, Beiser A, et al: Plasma phosphatidylcholine docosahexaenoic acid content and risk of dementia and Alzheimer disease. The Framingham Heart Study. Archives of Neurology 2006;63:1545-1550.
16. Pjamondon H, Roberge M: Dietary PUFA supplements reduce memory deficits but not CA1 ischemic injury in rats. Physiology & Behavior 2008; July 22nd.
17. Sinclair A, Begg D, Mathai M, et al: Omega 3 fatty acids and the brain. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007;16 (suppl):391-397.
18. Freeman M, Hibbeln J, Wisner K, et al: Omega-3 fatty acids: Evidence basis for treatment and future research in psychiatry. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 2006;67:1954-1967.
19. Motluk A: A fatty diet can clog your brain as well as your coronary arteries. New Science 2001;169:10.
20. Lim S, Kim E, Kim A, et al: Nutritional factors affecting mental health. Clinical Nutrition Research 2016;5:143-152.
21. Kulzow N, Witte A, Kerti L, et al: Impact of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on memory functions in healthy older adults. Journal of Alzheimers Disease 2016;51:713-725.
22. Parker G, Gibson N, Brotchie H, et al: Omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry 2006;163:969-978.
23. Chiu C, Huang S, Shen W, et al: Omega-3 fatty acids for depression in pregnancy. American Journal of Psychiatry 2003;160:385.
24. Mamalakis G, Tornaritis M, Kafatos A: Depression and adipose essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 2002;67:311-318.
25. Timonen M, Horrobin D, Jokelainen J, et al: Fish consumption and depression. Journal of Affective Disorders 2004;82:447-452.
26. Sontrop J, Campbell M: Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression. Preventive Medicine 2006;42:4-13.
27. Mamalakis G, Kalagerpoulos N, Andrikopoulos N, et al: Depression and long chain n-3 fatty acids in adipose tissue in adults from Crete. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006;60:882-888.
28. Tanskanen A, Hibbeln J, Tuomilehto J, et al: Fish consumption and depressive symptoms in the general population of Finland. Psychiatric Services 2001;52:529-531.
29. Whalley L, Fox H, Wahle K, et al: Cognitive aging, childhood intelligence, and the use of food supplements: Possible involvement of n-3 fatty acids. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004;80:1650-1657.
30. Richardson A, Burton J, Sewell R, et al: Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years. PLoS One 2012;7:e43909.
31. Kuratko C, Barrett E, Nelson E, et al: The relationship of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with learning and behavior in healthy children: A review. Nutrients 2013;5:2777-2810.
32. Pu H, Jiang X, Wei Z, et al: Repetitive and prolonged omega-3 fatty acid treatment after traumatic brain injury enhances long-term tissue restoration and cognitive recovery. Cell Transplantation 2016; November 24th.
33. Grimm M, Mett J, Stahlmann C, et al: Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid increase the degradation of amyloid-beta by affecting insulin-degrading enzyme. Biochemistry and Cell Biology 2016;94:534-542.
34. Ren H, Luo C, Feng Y, et al: Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids promote amyloid-beta clearance from the brain through mediating the function of the glymphatic system. FASEB Journal 2017;31:282-293.
35. Lim G, Calon F, Morihara T, et al: A diet enriched with the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid reduces amyloid burden in an aged Alzheimer mouse model. Journal of Neuroscience 2005;25:3042-3040.
36. Morris M, Evans D, Bienias J, et al: Consumption of fish and n-3 fatty acids and risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Archives of Neurology 2003;60:940-946.
37. Tukiainen T, Tynkkynen T, Makinen V, et al: A multi-metabolite analysis of serum by (1)H NMR spectroscopy: Early systemic signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Biochemical & Biophysical Research Communications 2008;August 9th.
38. Belkouch M, Hachem M, Elgot A, et al: The pleiotropic effects of omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid on the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry 2016;38:1-11.
39. Cederholm T: Fish consumption and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for prevention or treatment of cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease in older adults. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 2017;20:104-109.
40. International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids: ISSFAL Newsletter 2007;Winter 14(3):1-13.
41. Austria J, Richard M, Chahine M, et al: Bioavailability of alpha-linolenic acid in subjects after ingestion of three different forms of flaxseed. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2008;27:214-221.
42. Omega-3s are “essential” fats that cannot be made by the body: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/
43. Huang T, Zandi P, Tucker K, et al: Benefits of fatty fish on dementia risk are stronger for those with APOE epsilon4. Neurology 2005;65:1409-1414.
44. Cederholm T, Salem N, Palmblad J: Omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of cognitive decline in humans. Advances in Nutrition 2013; 4:672-676.
45. Hibbeln J, Nieminen L, Blasbalg T, et al: Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2006;83(suppl 6):1483S-1493S.
What you eat not only impacts your overall health, but truly affects the health of your eyes. Join registered dietitian and chef, Abbie Gellman, as she shares which foods and nutrients help to support eye health.
Omega-3s EPA and DHA support heart health throughout all stages of life.
Tori Schmitt, MS, RDN, LD and founder of YES! Nutrition shares her tips and tricks for exercising and eating your way to a healthy heart.
Healthy eating is too expensive or takes too much time, right? (1,2) Wrong! You don’t need to go broke, live by the stove, or even know how to cook to eat well.
The building blocks to feeling sexy come from this nutrient. Bonus, Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD and author of the Food and Mood Cookbook shares a recipe that is sure to rev you up.
Omega-3 fats are often touted important nutrients by the media. However, there are many myths that have been propagated and should be debunked. Here are four that you need to know.
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I would consider myself “Heart Smart.” I understand that having a healthy lifestyle can support the health of my heart.
Eye spy key nutrients that help support the health of our eyes. Focus on the types of omega-3s that are linked to eye health.
If you are looking to improve your heart health, you may find yourself swapping out the saltshaker for spices, eating whole foods in a variety of colors, and getting in more activity through exercise each day.