The brain is made up of more than 60% fat, and the type of fats that we consume has a direct impact on how well it functions.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids are one type of fat that can help to improve brain health. In this blog post, we will discuss 6 reasons why your brain needs Omega 3s!
What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain function.
They are often touted as a powerful nutrient to improve the cardiovascular system. Unfortunately, few know about their importance for brain health.
Reason # One: Omega 3 fatty acids help to protect the brain from damage.
Omega-fats play a crucial role in protecting the brain from damage. They keep brain cells healthy and less prone to cell degeneration1Michael J. Weiser, Christopher M. Butt, and M. Hasan Mohajeri, Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan Nutrients. 2016 and help to reduce inflammation and prevent cell damage.2Linda E. Barlow, et al.: The Role of Omega- Fatty Acids in Preventing and Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders. Nutrients, 2015
Omega-fats reduce the risk of developing numerous types of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline..3Zaldy S. Tan, et al.: Omega-Fatty Acid Supplementation for Cognitive outcomes in Schizophrenia: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 2017
They also help people with age-related cognitive decline to improve their memory.4Catherine M. Bérubé, et al.: Omega- Fatty Acid Supplementation for Cognitive Decline and Dementia. Nutrients, 2017
Reason # Two: Omega 3 fatty acids help to improve the function of the brain synapses and prevent cell damage.
Omega-fats can improve memory by helping to support synaptic transmission within neurons.5Catherine M. Bérubé, et al.: Omega- Fatty Acid Supplementation for Cognitive Decline and Dementia. Nutrients, 2017
They also help to keep the cells of the brain healthy and functioning properly.6Hasan Mohajeri, et al.: Role of Omega- fatty acids in cognitive decline: A systematic review. Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism, 2017
Another function of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain is to promote neurogenesis and neuronal survival.
Neuronal survival is vital since it determines the number of neurons that work instead of the immature neurons from neurogenesis, whose information transmission is limited.7Simon C. Dyall, Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA Front Aging Neurosci. 2015
Reason #3: Omega 3 fatty acids improve blood flow to the brain.
Omega 3 fatty acids play an important role in keeping your brain healthy by improving blood flow.
Studies have shown higher cerebral blood circulation may improve cognitive performance. Having adequate circulation helps to maintain memory, and reduces the risk if one develops dementia in a patient.8Mark Tishler & Bryan Raudenbush: Association between omega-three fatty acid supplement use and cognitive outcomes in older adults: a systematic review protocol. BMJ Open, 2016
Reason #4: Omega 3 fatty acids improve mental performance and reduce stress.
Omega 3s are important for the production of hormones that play an essential role in keeping you calm.9Michael J. Weiser, Christopher M. Butt, and M. Hasan Mohajeri: Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan. Nutrients, 2016
They also help to improve mental performance by improving attention.10Linda E. Barlow, et al.: The Role of Omega- Fatty Acids in Preventing and Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders. Nutrients, 2015
By helping to improve mental performance you will be able to focus more easily – which is important when studying for exams! By keeping your brain healthy with omega- fats you can keep it functioning at its best throughout the years!
Reason #5: Omega-3 fatty acids help make neurons work correctly.
The primary function of omega 3s for the brain is to regulate the transmission of information from neuron to neuron so the body can react accordingly.11Mark J Millan 1, Yves Agid, Martin Brüne, Edward T Bullmore, Cameron S Carter, Nicola S Clayton, Richard Connor, Sabrina Davis, Bill Deakin, Robert J DeRubeis, Bruno Dubois, Mark A Geyer, Guy M Goodwin, Philip Gorwood, Thérèse M Jay, Marian Joëls, Isabelle M Mansuy, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, Declan Murphy, Edmund Rolls, Bernd Saletu, Michael Spedding, John Sweeney, Miles Whittington, Larry J Young, Cognitive dysfunction in psychiatric disorders: characteristics, causes and the quest for improved therapy Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2012
Reason #6: Omega-3’s in the brain strongly influence gene expression
These essential fatty acids are responsible for regulating the transcription and translation factors within the cell’s nucleus by acting as an on/off switch.12Valentina Ciappolino, Alessandra Mazzocchi, Andrea Botturi, Stefano Turolo, Giuseppe Delvecchio, Carlo Agostoni, and Paolo Brambilla1, The Role of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) on Cognitive Functions in Psychiatric Disorders Nutrients. 2019
Essentially, these are commands sent out by the brain to the DNA to manufacture proteins for the body’s needs.13Lotte Lauritzen , Paolo Brambilla, Alessandra Mazzocchi, Laurine B S Harsløf , Valentina Ciappolino , Carlo Agostoni , DHA Effects in Brain Development and Function Nutrients. 2016
Putting it All Together
Omega-3 and Treating Mental Health Conditions
Because of these amazing benefits and flexibility of Omega 3s, it has been used by professionals to treat mild cognitive impairment, slow cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depressive symptoms
Adequate levels of these PUFAs, either in the diet or added as a supplement, help prevent or manage mental health issues such as depression, bipolar syndrome, trauma psychotic conditions, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The connection between low omega 3 and depression is well documented.
It’s been shown that most people dealing with a major depressive disorder are also deficient in omega 3 fatty acids.14Marlene P Freeman , Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder J Clin Psychiatry. 2009
Many health professionals promote omega-3 fatty acids in the diet or through supplementation to manage depressive disorders. It is generally safe for adjunctive therapy.
While many studies show inconclusive results for omega 3’s use as an antidepressant monotherapy, it certainly shows promise as part of a comprehensive plan to address depressive symptoms and even in isolation.15Lauren B Marangell , James M Martinez, Holly A Zboyan, Barbara Kertz, H Florence Seung Kim, Lucy J Puryear, A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid in the treatment of major depression Am J Psychiatry. 2003
For example, omega 3 supplementation has demonstrated effectiveness in treating postpartum depression in new mothers.16S R De Vriese 1, A B Christophe, M Maes, Lowered serum n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) levels predict the occurrence of postpartum depression: further evidence that lowered n-PUFAs are related to major depression Life Sci. 2003
This is important since children of omega-3 deficient mothers also demonstrate depressive symptoms.17William H Coryell , Douglas R Langbehn , Andrew W Norris , Jian-Rong Yao , Lilian N Dindo , Chadi A Calarge, Polyunsaturated fatty acid composition and childhood adversity: Independent correlates of depressive symptom persistence Psychiatry Res. 2017
There is compelling evidence that omega-3 can affect the severity of anxiety symptoms.18Paola Bozzatello, Elena Brignolo, Elisa De Grandi, and Silvio Bellino, Supplementation with Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Psychiatric Disorders: A Review of Literature Data J Clin Med. 2016
Omega 3 supplementation has been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and social anxiety.19James W. Jefferson, M.D., Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just a Little Shyness Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2001
Studies on humans confirmed the positive effects of elevated levels of omega-3 in both of the subjects’ anxiety symptoms.20Pnina Green, Haggai Hermesh, Assaf Monselise, Sofi Marom, Gadi Presburger, Abraham Weizman, Red cell membrane omega-3 fatty acids are decreased in nondepressed patients with social anxiety disorder Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2006
Bipolar disorder is another form of depressive illness. Its symptoms include energy and mood levels at extremes.
Early detection and management is the key since the condition may eventually progress to manic-depressive psychosis or even suicide.21Pnina Green , Haggai Hermesh, Assaf Monselise, Sofi Marom, Gadi Presburger, Abraham Weizman, Red cell membrane omega-3 fatty acids are decreased in nondepressed patients with social anxiety disorder Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2006
Detecting trait markers early on is one way to manage it. One trait marker is low levels of omega-3 fatty acids common in both unipolar and bipolar patients and their first-degree relatives.22Kuan-Pin Su, MD, PhD,corresponding author, Ping-Tao Tseng, MD, Pao-Yen Lin, MD, PhD, Ryo Okubo, MD, PhD, Tien-Yu Chen, MD, Yen-Wen Chen, MD, and Yutaka J. Matsuoka, MD, PhDcorresponding author, Association of Use of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids With Changes in Severity of Anxiety Symptoms JAMA Netw Open. 201823Paul J. Harrison,corresponding author Andrea Cipriani, Catherine J. Harmer, Anna C. Nobre, Kate Saunders, Guy M. Goodwin, and John R. Geddes, Innovative approaches to bipolar disorder and its treatment Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016
There is conclusive evidence that depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder can improve with omega-3 as adjunctive therapy.24S Sobczak , A Honig, A Christophe, M Maes, R W C Helsdingen, S A De Vriese, W J Riedel, Lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and increased omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in first-degree relatives of bipolar patients Psychol Med. 2004
However, there is not enough evidence that it can lessen mania symptoms.25Erika F H Saunders, Christopher E Ramsden , Mostafa S Sherazy , Alan J Gelenberg , John M Davis , Stanley I Rapoport , Omega-3 and Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Bipolar Disorder: A Review of Biomarker and Treatment Studies J Clin Psychiatry. 201626Jerome Sarris , David Mischoulon, Isaac Schweitzer, Omega-3 for bipolar disorder: meta-analyses of use in mania and bipolar depression J Clin Psychiatry. 2012
A low concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain increases the chances of depression and schizophrenia, as proven in clinical trials.27Michelle Healy-Stoffel, MD, PhD and Beth Levant, PhD, N-3 (OMEGA-3) FATTY ACIDS: EFFECTS ON BRAIN DOPAMINE SYSTEMS AND POTENTIAL ROLE IN THE ETIOLOGY AND TREATMENT OF NEUROPSYCHIATRIC DISORDERS CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2018
Dopamine works as a neurotransmitter. When the signaling system is damaged, it can result in various problems, foremost of depression and other psychiatric disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and ADHD.28Laura Lachance, MD, Drew Ramsey, MD, Food, Mood, and Brain Health: Implications for the Modern Clinician Mo Med. 2015
Evidence shows that PUFAs are essential to maintain brain health since fat composes about 60% of the brain’s makeup29Michelle Healy-Stoffel, MD, PhD and Beth Levant, PhD, N-3 (OMEGA-3) FATTY ACIDS: EFFECTS ON BRAIN DOPAMINE SYSTEMS AND POTENTIAL ROLE IN THE ETIOLOGY AND TREATMENT OF NEUROPSYCHIATRIC DISORDERS CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2018, and they are crucial components of the brain’s neuronal membranes.30Malcolm Peet , Caroline Stokes, Omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of psychiatric disorders Drugs. 2005
The brain does not synthesize PUFAs, so diet and supplementation play a huge role to maintain the right amounts of PUFAs.31Samuel S. Shina, and C. Edward Dixon, Oral Fish Oil Restores Striatal Dopamine Release After Traumatic Brain Injury Neurosci Lett. 2011
Omega-3 fatty acids also function for neuroprotection by stimulating the brain’s neurotrophic factor to promote neural growth and development.32Joyce C McCann , Bruce N Ames, Is docosahexaenoic acid, an n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, required for development of normal brain function? An overview of evidence from cognitive and behavioral tests in humans and animals Am J Clin Nutr. 200533Samuel S. Shina, and C. Edward Dixon, Oral Fish Oil Restores Striatal Dopamine Release After Traumatic Brain Injury Neurosci Lett. 2011
By increasing antioxidant enzymes and releasing their anti-inflammatory functions, omega-3 slows down damage and helps improve overall brain motor function.
Clinical studies demonstrate omega-3 fatty acid administration remarkably improves brain function and memory in those who have PTSD.34Laiali Alquraan, Karem H. Alzoubi, Hana Hammad,1 Suzie Y. Rababa’h,and Fadia Mayyas, Omega-3 Fatty Acids Prevent Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder-Induced Memory Impairment Biomolecules. 2019
However, earlier clinical trials on PTSD had different results, especially controlling depression, anger, and hostility.35Kaplan Zeev, Matar Michael, Kamin Ram, and Cohen Hagit, Possible deleterious effects of adjunctive omega-3 fatty acids in post-traumatic stress disorder patients Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2005
People with ADHD have been shown to have lower omega-3 fatty acids and a higher n-6/n-3 ratio.36Syed Amir Ashraf, Mohd Adnan, Mitesh Patel, Arif Jamal Siddiqui, Manojkumar Sachidanandan, Mejdi Snoussi,and Sibte Hadi6, Fish-Based Bioactives as Potent Nutraceuticals: Exploring the Therapeutic Perspective of Sustainable Food from the Sea Mar Drugs. 2020
Not only did it improve the mood and behavior of children with ADHD37Anja Königs and Amanda J Kiliaan, Critical appraisal of omega-3 fatty acids in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder treatment Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016
and lower IQ, but it also improved the visual acuity of these children.
The downstream effect also increases the learning potential of these children.38Jane Pei-Chen Chang, Kuan-Pin Su, Valeria Mondelli, and Carmine M Pariante1, Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Youths with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials and Biological Studies Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018
Omega-3 PUFAs also show therapeutic potential for children with ADHD as it improves the cell membrane fluidity, function, and neurotransmitter release.39James J DiNicolantonio , James H O’Keefe, The Importance of Marine Omega-3s for Brain Development and the Prevention and Treatment of Behavior, Mood, and Other Brain Disorders Nutrients. 2020
Types of Omega 3 Fatty Acid
There are three types of Omega- fatty acids:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plant-based foods.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) are found in animal-based foods and fish oils.
The human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but the conversion process is not very efficient.
This leads many experts to recommend that we consume fish or fish oil regularly for brain health benefits.40Bryan Raudenbush, Mary Ann Pentzler, Richard Everson-Rose & Mark Tishler: Association between omega-three fatty acid supplement use and cognitive outcomes in older adults: a systematic review protocol. BMJ Open, 2016
EPA and DHA
Studies show that supplementing with DHA and EPA works effectively to improve cognitive function, attention, behavior, and working memory function.41Valentina Ciappolino, Alessandra Mazzocchi, Andrea Botturi, Stefano Turolo, Giuseppe Delvecchio, Carlo Agostoni, and Paolo Brambilla1, The Role of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) on Cognitive Functions in Psychiatric Disorders Nutrients. 2019
These essential fatty acids make up the majority of the fat cells of the brain.42Laura Lachance,MD, Drew Ramsey, MD, Food, Mood, and Brain Health: Implications for the Modern Clinician Mo Med. 2015
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is one form of omega-3 fatty acids that help the brain function well.
It is known to play a massive role in keeping neurons in peak condition, which is also suitable for overall neurotransmission.43Arne Reimers and Hanna Ljung, The emerging role of omega-3 fatty acids as a therapeutic option in neuropsychiatric disorders Ther Adv Psychopharmacol. 2019
It helps keep inflammation at bay to prevent depression and other neurological and psychiatric illnesses.
Overall, EPA is a safe and effective treatment for mental disorders44Joseph Firth Scott B. Teasdale Kelly Allott Dan Siskind Wolfgang Marx Jack Cotter Nicola Veronese Felipe Schuch Lee Smith Marco Solmi André F. Carvalho Davy Vancampfort Michael Berk Brendon Stubbs Jerome Sarris, The efficacy and safety of nutrient supplements in the treatment of mental disorders: a meta‐review of meta‐analyses of randomized controlled trials World Psychiatry. 2019, but like any supplement, always refer to your physician before taking any supplements as some may interfere with medications.
Another essential omega-3 acid form is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
DHA is innately abundant in the brain, making up 90% of its total lipids, but it needs replenishment to keep it optimum.45Michael J. Weiser, Christopher M. Butt, and M. Hasan Mohajeri, Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan Nutrients. 2016
It’s especially helpful in brain development as it plays a role in membranes’ structure in the central nervous system.46Simon C. Dyall, Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA Front Aging Neurosci. 2015
DHA has been shown to improve cognitive function, enhance memory, and boost social behavior.47Valentina Ciappolino, Alessandra Mazzocchi, Andrea Botturi, Stefano Turolo, Giuseppe Delvecchio, Carlo Agostoni, and Paolo Brambilla1, The Role of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) on Cognitive Functions in Psychiatric Disorders Nutrients. 2019
Many psychiatric, neurological, and neurodegenerative illnesses display impaired cognitive functions due to low DHA levels in the brain.48Simon C. Dyall, Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA Front Aging Neurosci. 2015
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Abundant in plant fats and oils, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids49Laura Lachance, MD, Drew Ramsey, MD, Food, Mood, and Brain Health: Implications for the Modern Clinician Mo Med. 2015
and known as arachidonic acids (AA).
Unfortunately, high omega-6 fatty acids in the body resulting from a diet high in vegetable oils can cause inflammation and, ultimately, disease if left unchecked.50E. Patterson, R. Wall, G. F. Fitzgerald, R. P. Ross,and C. Stanton Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids J Nutr Metab. 2012
Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are anti-inflammatory. They stimulate the proper functioning of the brain and the nervous system.51Erika F H Saunders, Christopher E Ramsden, Mostafa S Sherazy , Alan J Gelenberg , John M Davis , Stanley I Rapoport , Omega-3 and Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Bipolar Disorder: A Review of Biomarker and Treatment Studies J Clin Psychiatry. 2016
Omega 3’s increases the erythrocyte levels in the blood of patients with hepatitis C, which lowers the incidence of interferon-induced depression.52Ekta Franscina Pinto and Chittaranjan Andrade, Interferon-Related Depression: A Primer on Mechanisms, Treatment, and Prevention of a Common Clinical Problem Curr Neuropharmacol. 2016
This demonstrates the antiinflammatory effects of omega-3, as mentioned above.53E. Patterson, R. Wall, G. F. Fitzgerald, R. P. Ross,and C. Stanton, Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids J Nutr Metab. 2012
Omega 3 to Omega 6 Ratio
To further illustrate the importance of the proper ratio of omega-6 versus omega-3, a study on rats given high omega-3 fatty acids showed reduced stress and anxiety when put in the open field and elevated plus-maze.54Rebecca Wall R Paul Ross, Gerald F Fitzgerald, Catherine Stanton, Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids Nutr Rev. 2010
On the contrary, high levels of omega-6 fatty acids even induced higher corticosterone levels in the rats, as demonstrated by their increased anxiety when subjected to the elevated plus-maze.55Kuan-Pin Su , Hsueh-Chou Lai , Hui-Ting Yang , Wen-Pang Su , Cheng-Yuan Peng , Jane Pei-Chen Chang , Hui-Chih Chang , Carmine M Pariante , Omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of interferon-alpha-induced depression: results from a randomized, controlled trial Biol Psychiatry. 2014
The imbalance in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids shows that it can affect a unipolar or bipolar depressed patient’s mood.
The study conducted on first-degree relatives of patients with bipolar depressive condition proved that lower omega-3 fatty acids are often associated with a more melancholy mood, even if the subject himself does not suffer from bipolar disorder.56Cai Song , Xuwen Li, Brian E Leonard, David F Horrobin, Effects of dietary n-3 or n-6 fatty acids on interleukin-1beta-induced anxiety, stress, and inflammatory responses in rats J Lipid Res. 2003
Therefore, it is imperative to strike a proper balance in the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 intake.57S Sobczak 1, A Honig, A Christophe, M Maes, R W C Helsdingen, S A De Vriese, W J Riedel, Lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and increased omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in first-degree relatives of bipolar patients Psychol Med. 2004
The recommended balance is a 1:1 or 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to achieve the desired effects.
Unfortunately, most people who eat a “western” diet are well above this ratio at 16/1 omega-6/omega-3.58A P Simopoulos, The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids Biomed Pharmacother. 2002