Your brain is made up nearly 60 percent fat, meaning it’s more fat than anything else.1 Omega-3 fatty acids are the essential fatty acids most important for brain development, health, and function, with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) playing the primary role.
Because of its use in proper neural function, maintaining neural connections, and modulating production of neurotransmitters, dietary DHA can help promote a positive mood and optimal cognitive abilities.2
DHA is so important for optimal brain health and function that many refer to omega-3 fatty acid supplements as all-natural nootropic —supplements that can promote cognitive health and abilities. Read on to learn more about how omega-3 fatty acids and the benefits they offer to humans of all ages.
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) have two major classes: Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Both of these PUFAs are essential fatty acids, meaning that you must get them from your diet.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA and EPA are mainly found in fish, seafood, and algae, while ALA is found primarily in nuts and seeds. While ALA can convert into DHA and EPA in the body, the efficiency of this conversion is thought to be quite low.3
Because DHA and EPA are important for many aspects of human health including heart health and brain function, getting enough of them through diet or supplementation is a must.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
With omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, making up much of the brain, it should come as little surprise that consuming enough of them offers cognitive and mood benefits while deficiencies are tied to learning deficits and mood troubles.4
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Highlighted below are some of the top cognitive and mood-boosting benefits that omega-3 fatty acids have the potential to offer.
Enhance Memory and Cognition
Memory issues can occur at any age and countless experiments have found benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on human memory and cognitive function.
In one study, researchers examined 280 participants between 35 and 54 years without neuropsychiatric disorders who weren’t taking fish oil supplements. They measured their levels of omega-3 fatty acids and examined multiple measures of cognitive function. They found that those with higher DHA levels performed better on tests of working memory, vocabulary, mental flexibility, and nonverbal reasoning when compared to those with lower DHA levels.5
This study also found that a greater intake of omega-3 fatty acids early in life was associated with improved brain development and decreased risk of cognitive disorders later in life. These findings suggest that optimal omega-3 intake, particularly DHA, throughout life may lead to improved cognitive function.
Some mood troubles are associated with inflammation, with a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio tied to inflammation.6 It’s hypothesized that by reducing inflammation, increased omega-3 consumption may help boost mood and balance emotions.
Encourage a Healthy Stress Response
High levels of inflammation in the body are correlated with an increased incidence of anxiety and stress. Researchers found that healthy adult students who were given omega-3 supplements experienced a 20 percent reduction in anxiety and a 14 percent decrease in interleukin 6 production (a marker of inflammation) when compared to students given a placebo.7
Reduce Risk of Age-Related Cognitive Decline
As people age, the risk of memory problems and neurodegenerative diseases increases. In one study, low plasma DHA levels were correlated with an increased risk of memory loss. By improving brain health and function, it’s hypothesized that adequate DHA consumption may result in slower cognitive decline and provide protection against related neurodegenerative diseases.8
Do People Eat Enough Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Consuming enough omega-3 fatty acids can help protect your cognition and balance your mood. So this begs the question, are you eating enough omega-3 fatty acids?
There is one simple answer to this question: no, the vast majority of people don’t get anywhere near the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
It’s believed that the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in a person’s diets is one to one. Unfortunately, the Western diet—high in processed foods, vegetable oils, meat, and dairy, and low in fish, nuts, seeds—is low in omega-3 fatty acids and high in omega-6 fatty acids.9
Balancing Omega-3 Consumption
Try to cut down on foods high in omega-6 fatty acids while also increasing how much omega-3 that we consume. There are two ways to boost how many omega-3 fatty acids your consume. You can either increase the omega-3 foods that you eat or take a quality omega-3 supplement.
Step 1: Cut Down on Foods High in Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, and soybean oils should be avoided when possible.10 You might be thinking, “but I never use those at home.” Sadly, it’s not actual oil-use at home that is our main exposure.
It’s processed foods, particularly prepackaged snacks like chips and baked goods and fast foods, that use these oils as one of their primary ingredients. You can read the label to try and find healthier oil sources, such as olive oil, or try to stick to more snacks that you make at home and don’t add these oils into.
Step 2: Add in Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While it appears to be important to include ALA, DHA, and EPA in your diet, studies tend to examine DHA and EPA when finding heart-health and brain-health benefits.11
It is mainly cold-water fish that’s high in DHA and EPA. Some of the best sources include:
- Wild-caught Atlantic salmon
- Atlantic Herring
- Atlantic Mackerel
- Rainbow trout
You’ll find ALA in plant foods, with high quantities found in:
- Chia seeds
It’s recommended to consume 2-3 servings of cold-water fish each week to get enough omega-3 fatty acid in your diet.
Given the critical role that omega-3 fatty acids play in optimal brain function and general well-being making sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids through your diet is important. If you know or suspect that you’re not receiving adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids through diet alone, supplementation to remedy this is fast, safe, and easy, but the health benefits are far-reaching and will ultimately benefit your health and well-being in the long term.
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