Omega-3 fatty acids are often praised for their positive impact on physical health. They reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, are essential to the healthy development of infants and children, help control autoimmune disease symptoms, and may even protect against cancer (Harvard School of Public Health). However, one of the most promising and exciting discoveries about Omega-3 fats is their positive impact on the human brain. Researchers have discovered that Omega-3s can potentially boost mood, strengthen memory, and even improve cognitive abilities.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats, which means that though the body needs them, it is not able to make them on its own – it must get them from the foods that it takes in. These polyunsaturated fats are an important part of the cell membranes found within our bodies, controlling many of the cells’ genetic functions and generating the hormones that our bodies need to control the rigidity of artery walls, blood clotting, and more. There are three different categories of Omega-3s, including:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Where EPA and DHA come mostly from fish, krill oil and algae oil, ALAs are largely plant-based, and found in nuts, vegetable oils, flax seeds and green leafy vegetables. They also can be derived from the fat of grass-fed animals. Studies have shown that it is the impact of EPAs and DHAs from food sources including salmon, tuna, and trout that make up the greatest proportion of Omega-3 fatty acids’ impact on our tissues and overall health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids’ Role in Brain Health
The human brain’s structure is dependent on the presence of Omega-3 fatty acids. They represent roughly 8% of the brain’s weight. They are integral to both structure and function and provide vital protection against inflammation, oxidative damage, and injury. Omega-3 fatty acids begin accumulating in the brain during fetal development: higher levels have been linked to intelligence and cognitive ability, while lower levels are linked to brain dysfunctions, ADHD, and even abnormal brain development. Its presence begins to diminish as we age, and those reduced levels have been associated with the memory declines seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Importantly, studies have shown that increasing the consumption of Omega-3-rich foods has a positive impact on the cell membranes of our tissues within a matter of days, and supplementation has been proven to reverse the effects of aging, boosting memory and cognitive ability. Research has revealed numerous brain and mental health benefits from boosting levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet: (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Brain Development
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential component of the brain’s development. Research has shown that in the last three months of fetal development, Omega-3s are “selectively transferred to the fetus to meet the demands of rapid brain growth” (Medscape), and that infants that are born prematurely and before this process can take place not only have reduced brain volume, but also suffer from developmental abnormalities. Testing of children whose mothers consumed varying amounts of fish oils while pregnant revealed significant differences in IQ, fine motor skills, communication, and social development.
Beyond pregnancy, when the dietary levels of Omega-3s in healthy children between the ages of 6 and 12 have been supplemented, results have included improved reading in those who had previously been underperforming, increased attention spans, and improved cognitive ability. These results were more pronounced in those who had previously shown deficiencies in Omega-3 levels. [reference link no longer functional] Other studies showed that children who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tested as having lower levels of Omega-3s, and that fish oil supplementation led to a marked improvement in symptoms. Similar results were found among children previously struggling with dyslexia, and there have been a few promising studies showing that children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have exhibited improvement in repetitive behaviors and hyperactivity.
Omega-3 Improves Blood Flow to the Brain
Just as the brains of children are impacted by Omega-3 intake, the same has proven to be true of adults. Our brain cell membranes go through a natural deterioration process as we age, and this diminishment plays a role in the development of age-related memory loss and cognitive decline. But recent studies have shown that supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids can halt this process and even increase gray matter brain volume, and may even prevent age-related cognitive decline. They have been shown to have anti-inflammatory actions in the brains of animals, and a recent study showed that people with high Omega-3 levels have more blood flow to specific areas of the brain and scored better on cognitive tests than those with lower levels of the key nutrient. (Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease)
An important study conducted recently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found a direct correlation between the pattern of Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and the overall integrity of two key structures in the brain that are traditionally linked to age-related declines in cognitive ability. The researchers found that the structure of the frontoparietal network, which is usually associated with the ability to solve new problems, and of the fornix, which is essential to memory and which is generally the first area of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, were both much healthier and had larger cellular volume in 65-75 year olds who had high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. The group also had much higher scores on cognitive and memory tests.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Can Improve Mood and Minimize Depression
Depression and anxiety are impacted and caused by many different inputs, including genetics, stress, physiology, sleep deprivation and more. Recent research has shown that nutritional deficiencies and imbalances may also play a role in a person’s vulnerability to mood disorders, and that increasing the intake of Omega-3s may be an effective treatment tool. Supporting this theory are epidemiological studies showing that locales that have higher seafood intakes have lower levels of depression, and others showing that the risk of postpartum depression decreases significantly with increased intake of Omega-3 fatty acids. (WebMD) One study of U.S. military veteras showed a direct correlation in suicide rates among those who tested low in their Omega-3 fatty acid blood levels. Clearly there is a correlation between these nutrients and brain function. Researchers believe that this is because the Omega-3s facilitate proper messaging between nerve cells, as well as a reduction in inflammatory chemicals that have been linked to depression. (BioMedCentral)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Can Be Beneficial For Those with Brain Injuries
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, brain injuries contribute to approximately 30% of all injury deaths in the United States, and those who survive these injuries can suffer their impact for the rest of their lives. Traumatic brain injuries are a result of a blow to the head that damages brain cells, and can be a result of slip and fall accidents, automobile accidents, sports injuries and more, and can lead to symptoms ranging from confusion and impaired thinking to loss of sensation, memory, movement, and even to mood disorders and personality changes. Recent research into the treatment of concussions and traumatic brain injury has revealed that aggressive dosing of omega-3 fatty acids can provide valuable protection against inflammation, and may even lead to regeneration of damaged neural cells. (Science Daily) Other studies have shown similar benefits in the treatment of patients who have suffered both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes: treatment including infusions of Omega-3 fatty acids has led to reduced harmful after-effects of both types of strokes, as well as revascularization of blood vessels in the damaged brain.