“DHA is such an essential building block of the brain’s cell membranes that, like a house without bricks or walls, the brain could not exist without Omega 3 fatty acids.”
Our Omega 3 fish oil for brain health guide
From whole grains to olive oil, we may be sold on the benefits of eating a heart-healthy diet to keep our arteries clear and blood pressure low. But how much thought do we put into nourishing that other hard-working organ, the brain?
Well perhaps it’s time we put the effort in. Dementia (of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type) is now the UK’s leading cause of death, overtaking heart disease for the first time in 2016. There is currently no drug treatment that slows dementia once it has started and the disease is expected to affect more than one million of us in the UK by 2025, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.
So far, so scary. But if you thought that cognitive decline was an inevitable part of ageing or that dementia was caused by faulty genes, there’s some positive news. Scientists believe that at least one third of all Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by making simple changes to our lifestyles, with our diets playing a key role.
So what should we be putting in our bodies to keep our brains in peak condition for the whole of our lives? Well there’s Omega 3 for starters. Eating more oily fish or taking a good Omega 3 supplement for brain health is a great first step in caring for our grey matter. Our ultimate guide to Omega 3 and the brain will explain why.
Read on to discover how Omega 3 benefits brain function and find out why it deserves its rightful place on your brain health menu.
The importance of food to the brain
We all know that our diets can have an effect on our bodies. The food we eat day after day can either whittle or widen our waistlines, make our complexions dull or clear and can even affect the quality of our hair and nails. But what many of us forget is that this same diet is shaping our brains, which in turn affects our thoughts, our learning and memory, as well as our emotions and feelings of well-being.
The brain is our body’s hungriest organ, taking up just 2% of our total bodyweight yet gobbling up more than 20% of its energy requirements. But the food we eat does more than just provide our brains with the fuel it needs for all that thinking. In fact the quality of our daily diet can affect the structure of the brain and the way it functions.
Which foods nourish the brain?
Brain cells work differently to the other cells in our body. In our bodies, cells continuously die and are replaced, but the cells of our brain are irreplaceable and need a special kind of nourishing. The most important foods for our brain are glucose, vitamins and minerals and polyunsaturated long-chain fatty acids such as Omega 3.
“Omega 3 fatty acids are involved in many different fundamental brain processes,” says Simon Dyall, head of nutrition at Bournemouth University. Talking to Time Magazine he says, “both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) influence gene expression, oxidative stress, cerebral blood flow, levels of neurotransmitters and other brain-related processes such as the production of new neurons.”
How does Omega 3 help the brain?
The brain has a huge number of cell membranes and all of them are made out of fat. But not just any fat. Unlike the rest of the body, the only fatty acid allowed into healthy grey matter in appreciable amounts is the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA.
According to Kamilla Schaffner, “grey matter is fat, so if you’re not getting enough Omega 3 it affects your central nervous system. We need essential fatty acids (EFAs) for the neurons in our brains to fire impulses. Mental illnesses such as depression can occur when this process does not work correctly.”
Omega 3 DHA is vital for our brain throughout life, from early cognitive development in foetuses to learning and memory in adults. But the benefits of Omega 3 DHA for the brain don’t end there. According to Dr Dyer, “DHA is such an essential building block of the brain’s cell membranes that, like a house without bricks or walls, the brain could not exist without Omega 3 fatty acids.”
And it’s not just the DHA in Omega 3 that benefits the brain. The other essential fatty acid in fish oil, EPA, plays an anti-inflammatory role which in itself is thought to be neuroprotective. While inflammation is a natural response to injury, chronic inflammation in the brain has been linked with clinical depression, low mood and even inability to sleep.
Omega 3 can even help blood flow in specific regions of the brain. According to a report published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease there’s “a clear correlation between lower Omega 3 fatty acid levels and reduced brain blood flow to regions important for learning, memory, depression and dementia”.
Which foods harm the brain?
The human brain has evolved over millions of years to function on a specific diet. However the food we put on our plates has undergone a huge change in the past 150 years, thanks to the industrialisation of food.
Before the industrial revolution our diets contained roughly the same amount of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats. But thanks to modern farming methods and factory-made foods, we now eat far more Omega 6 than Omega 3. In the US the ratio is thought to be as high as 20:1.
According to Jonathan Tammam, a dietician and research scientist in the department of physiology, anatomy and genetics at the University of Oxford, Omega 6 per se isn’t bad for us. He has said “the fatty acid in Omega 6, arachidonic acid (AA), has an important function in brain chemistry. The problem is the amount and the proportion in comparison with our Omega 3 intake.”
Omega 6 fats are high in oils such as canola, palm, corn, soy and sunflower. Both the food and restaurant industry love them as they’re cheap, easy to cook with and have a long shelf life. But many scientists believe this flood of Omega 6 into our diets has taken a huge toll on our bodies ...and our brains.
Dr Catherine Shanahan, a nutritionist and family doctor writing in the Daily Mail said, “vegetable oils can make you feel foggy and fatigued, cause migraines and even trigger diseases such as Alzheimer's or dementia later down the line.”
The reason is that pro-inflammatory Omega 6 competes with Omega 3 in all of the body’s cells, including the brain. And the more inflammation your brain has to deal with the higher your risk of cognitive decline. “Vegetable oil causes oxidative stress, which damages brain membranes and results in plaque building up on the brain,” continues Dr Shanahan.
Why should we eat more Omega 3 fish oil for good brain health?
If you want a healthy brain you need to address the Omega 6 to Omega 3 balance in your diet. The only way to do that is to eat more oily fish.
A study of nearly 7,000 participants aged over 60 in China found that people who ate fish over the past two years reduced their risk of dementia by 27%.
And while it's true that plants like avocados, walnuts, flax and chia do contain Omega 3, they contain the least beneficial kind. Called alpha-linolenic acid, the body can turn ALA into DHA and EPA through a series of enzymatic reactions, but it’s not good at it. Less than 1 percent of the ALA we get from plant-based sources ultimately becomes the Omega 3 we can use.
Should I take an Omega 3 fish oil supplement to look after my brain health?
Fish and seafood are the main natural sources of the Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, but we’re just not eating enough to counteract the inflammatory effects of all the Omega 6 we consume. That may be because we dislike the taste or that we’re worried about pollution. Current NHS advice is that we should only be eating a maximum of four portions of oily fish per week, with pregnant women limited to just two.
What is the best Omega 3 fish oil supplement for brain health?
To get all of Omega 3’s brain boosting benefits you’ll need to take a clinical strength oil. The best fish oil you can take for brain health will have high levels of EPA and DHA per capsule or teaspoon. This information should be easy to find, not buried in the small print.
Our Bare Biology clinical strength fish oil has all the essential fatty acids you need to get the full range of Omega 3 brain benefits, with 3,500mg of Omega 3 (2,000mg of EPA, 1,000mg of DHA and 500mg of other Omega 3s) in every single teaspoon.
If you prefer taking your DHA in capsule form we recommend Mindful. One daily capsule provides 560mg of DHA, the same amount as a tin of sardines!
How Omega 3 helps the brain function
Brain cells with high levels of Omega 3 in their membranes are thought to be better at communicating with other cells, an important process for lots of different kinds of brain functions. Here’s a look at just a few of them.
Omega 3 and memory
A large study tested the levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in the red blood cells of 1,111 women as part of the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study in the US. Eight years later, when the women were an average age of 78, MRI scans revealed those with higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids had larger brain volumes, which is equivalent to preserving one to two years of brain health. What is really interesting is that those with higher levels of Omega 3 also had a 2.7% larger volume in the hippocampus area of the brain, which plays a vital role in memory.
Omega 3 and brain ageing
Research also shows that DHA can be helpful in old age. Fernando Gōmez-Pinilla, professor of neurosurgery at the University of California in Los Angeles, wrote an extensive report in Nature Reviews Neuroscience after analysing all studies relating to this subject. He concluded diets high in DHA are good for the brain and can help slow the rate of cognitive decline in the elderly and also improve mood.
Omega 3 and brain fog
Feeling a little foggy in the head? Brain fog is a term for a lack of mental clarity, focus and concentration, but Omega 3 can help with this too. It’s thought to be because neurons that contain high levels of Omega 3 are better at communicating with other neurons. They do this via an electrical signal which gets passed between them. For signals to enter a neuron, they need to get through the cell membrane, which consists almost entirely of fats – about 20% of which are Omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Omega 3 and brain zaps
If you’re trying to stop taking anti-depression medication, you may have experienced ‘brain zaps’. Otherwise known as brain shivers, these unpleasant, electric-shock type sensations can bring with them tinnitus, vertigo and disorientation. There’s not even a recognised medical term for the sensory disturbance and pharmaceutical companies once denied their existence altogether, but brain zaps are increasingly being listed as a recognised symptom of the more widely known antidepressant discontinuation syndrome.
Few medical studies have been carried out to date, but many sufferers anecdotally report that using large doses of Omega 3 as a natural remedy for brain zaps has helped them. Taking amounts as high as 4,000mg of Omega 3 per day has been suggested, which is slightly more than the amount you’d get in a single teaspoon of our clinical strength Lion Heart liquid (which has 3,500mg of Omega 3). Some of our customers do exceed the recommended teaspoon dose, but it’s a good idea to check with a doctor before you do this, particularly if you’re still taking your antidepressant medication.
Can Omega 3 help with Alzheimer’s and dementia?
Thinking of taking Omega 3 supplements for dementia or to prevent Alzheimer’s? Research suggests it’s a good idea. A study reported in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that people who ate 100g of oily fish a week had an 11% lower risk of developing Alzheimer's. One theory is that Omega 3 may help your immune system clear the brain of plaque, one of the trademarks of Alzheimer's disease.
Another study in 2015, led by Dr Milan Fiala at the University of California’s Department of Surgery, studied the benefits of Omega 3 on three different groups of patients. One group had early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, two patients had pre-mild cognitive impairment and seven had been diagnosed with the disease. While the supplements didn’t cause significant improvements in those already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the researchers observed definite improvements in those with mild and pre-mild cognitive impairment. Dr Milan Fiala said “in addition to physical and mental exercises recommended by experts, this study suggests that nutrition is equally important.”
So will Omega 3 benefit your brain?
We’re all living longer, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a youthful brain with which to enjoy all those extra years?
Luckily cognitive decline isn’t inevitable and a third of all Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by simple lifestyle changes, particularly if we manage to make them in our middle years.
But besides keeping our minds busy with mental exercises and working out physically, the evidence is clear. The brain seems to prefer to run on fish oil. Isn’t it time you started taking a good Omega 3 supplement to look after and maintain your brain health?