DHA is a major structural fat found in all the tissues of the body but it’s particularly concentrated in the brain where it accounts for up to 97% of the total Omega 3 fats.

The benefits of DHA Omega 3

More protein if we want bigger muscles, less sugar if we want to stay slim, fibre for great digestion. We’re all sold on the idea that food can shape the way our bodies look and feel. But what many of us forget is that the quality of the food we eat is also shaping our brain, from its structure to the way it functions, which in turn shapes our thoughts, feelings and emotions.

And the most important food for the brain? Omega 3. This essential fatty acid found mainly in oily fish has a massive impact on the well-being of this powerful organ. It prevents inflammation, keeps cells fluid and enables neurons to communicate with each other, something that’s essential for it to work effectively.

Omega 3 is considered so important to our mental health that the American Psychiatric Association recommends it as an additional treatment for all types of clinical depression (as well as bipolar, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder).

Omega 3 is made up of two long-chain fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Both have their uses in the brain (for example, EPA is known to have anti inflammatory properties) but it’s the DHA component that’s considered most important when it comes to our mental health.

What is DHA Omega 3 and what does it do?

DHA is a major structural fat found in all the tissues of the body but it’s particularly concentrated in the brain where it accounts for up to 97% of the total Omega 3 fats.

Because it’s such a major part of the brain’s structure, DHA is vital for healthy foetal development, as it ensures cells in the brain, eyes and other parts of the nervous system develop and function properly. This is why pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding need more DHA in their diet.

The links between Omega 3 and mental health

The headlines make for grim reading. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020, mental illness will be second only to heart disease as one of the world’s leading causes of health issues. But what could be the cause of this epidemic?

Scientists believe that it could be down to the drastic change in our diets over the last 100 years - a relatively short period in our 200,000 year history! Food processing and industrialised practices in agriculture have flooded the food supply with Omega 6, while another nutrient has quietly slipped away. Omega 3.

All your cells need Omega 6 and Omega 3, but in balanced amounts. Too many rigid, inflammatory Omega 6s and too few fluid, anti-inflammatory Omega 3s do not add up to good health, be that mental or physical.

Professor John Stein, from the Institute of Food, Brain and Behaviour and the department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at Oxford University, believes that a lack of oily fish in our diet plays a key role in the rise of mental health problems.

“Probably the most important change in the past 100 years that is causing the current epidemic of mental ill health is the overall deterioration in our diet, of which low fish consumption is the worst example,” he said.

How consuming more DHA Omega 3 can help your brain

We all know our bones need calcium to stay strong. But what’s less well known is that our brain relies on the DHA in Omega 3 to form all of its structural material, from cell membranes to neurons. In fact DHA is one of the basic building blocks of the entire nervous system.

The role of DHA Omega 3 in the brain is very well-studied and you can even see it in the animal kingdom. Dolphins have much bigger brains than zebras although they’re similar in body sizes because their diets are rich in DHA...and DHA boosts brain growth!  

Can DHA can boost your mood?

So DHA Omega 3 is great when it comes to building your brain. But can it help lift your mood?

It appears it can. DHA has been shown to manage vital mood-enhancing hormones and is crucial for getting feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin to where they’re needed.  Omega 3s can also affect the degradation, synthesis and cell receptor binding of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine.

DHA Omega 3 helps with ADHD

One in 20 adults in the UK are thought to have ADHD, a condition that brings with it low moods, an inability to get organised and a lack of focus. ADHA is well-studied in children, but DHA Omega 3 supplements have also been shown to help adult sufferers. In a 2005 study of 26 adults with ADHD who took Omega 3 supplements, all of them experienced less negative mood states and found it easier to concentrate.

DHA Omega 3 helps with depression

Research suggests depression rates have risen as our intake of Omega 3 has fallen over the past 100 years. In fact, scientists know that Omega 3 levels are low in people with depression and that societies who eat large amounts of oily fish have much lower rates of mental health problems overall.

But that’s not all. A study in 2005 found that people experienced “increased vigour and reduced anger, anxiety and depression" when taking Omega 3 supplements. While in 2007, Dr Malcolm Garland looked at the effect of Omega 3 supplementation on patients with a number of mental health conditions. He found that those with lower levels of Omega 3, but not Omega 6, showed increased levels of impulsivity and depression.

DHA Omega 3 helps with anxiety

Dr Alex Richardson, senior research fellow in neuroscience at Oxford University, found that Omega 3 supplementation reduced anxiety in controlled trials, while the British Journal of Nutrition showed that supplementing with fish oils helped reduce adrenal over-activation caused  by high levels of mental stress.

DHA Omega 3 helps postnatal depression

So many cases of postnatal depression go unreported so statistics vary. But it’s thought that between 50% and 90% of mothers experience the “baby blues”, while one in 10 experience postnatal depression.

When you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, your body prioritises your own DHA to support the brain development of your growing baby, leaving mum’s own brain extremely depleted - and at risk of depression. Several studies and surveys have also found the same. A UK survey of 14,500 families found that pregnant women with diets low in Omega 3 and high in Omega 6 were at a higher risk of depression. And multiple studies show a high correlation of low serum DHA with PND sufferers in comparison to healthier control groups. In fact, one study found that women with low serum DHA were 10% more likely to go on to develop PND.

DHA Omega 3 helps with low mood

A study by Amsterdam’s Free University found that increasing levels of DHA boosted the levels of brain chemicals associated with positive mood.

Lead author of the report, Carisha Thesing said, “Our findings indicate that blood levels of Omega 3 are lower in people with a current depressive disorder. The results are consistent with earlier research and indicate that doctors should be aware that currently depressed patients, especially those with an additional anxiety disorder and more severe symptoms, may be at high risk of having low Omega 3 blood levels.”

What’s the best DHA Omega 3 supplement you can take?

Although it’s essential to the healthy functioning of our brains, our bodies cannot produce DHA  on their own. We can get it only from very specific parts of our diets, such as through oily fish. But eating the high amounts of fish we need to keep our brains healthy is not always an option, either because we don’t like the taste or we’re worried about toxins.

Taking a supplement such as Mindful gives you a clinical dose of 560mg of DHA Omega 3, but without the chemicals, nasties or fishy taste.

 Every batch is certified and awarded a 5-star purity and quality rating from International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS), the highest accolade you can receive and a guarantee of purity, freshness and strength.

So will DHA Omega 3 really help my mental health?

Taking a fish oil supplement that’s rich in DHA Omega 3 such as Mindful is such a simple act of self-care, but research suggests it may be one of the most effective.

DHA Omega 3 has been shown to help with a range of conditions, but you’ll need to remember to take it consistently and to give it time to work. As we’ve seen, many people suffering with depression tend to have lower than normal concentrations of Omega 3 in their blood to start off with, so it may take a little longer for your body to build up its own stores of DHA.

But although DHA Omega 3 has been proven to help in many aspects of mental health, remembering to take a dose each morning is not the only thing you can do to help yourself. Your holistic mental health plan could include things like gentle exercise, more sleep - and even a quick visit to your GP.

Read more about DHA on our online magazine