Brain Benefits of Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for your health! Yet, an estimated 70% or more of Americans are deficient. The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are immense and they have been proven effective in the treatment and prevention of hundreds of medical conditions. Today we're going to look specifically at how omega-3 fatty acids contribute to our brain health.
Omega-3 fatty acids come in three main forms: DHA, EPA, and ALA. ALA is found in certain nuts, seeds, and pastured animal foods while EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. Most of the health benefits have been linked to EPA and DHA.
Healthy brains and nerve cells depend on omega-3s because the nervous system is made mostly of fat. But not just any fat. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are one of the basic building blocks of the brain. Your brain is 60% fat and DHA alone makes up about 15-20% of the cerebral cortex; an area of the brain responsible for memory, language, creativity, emotion, and attention. Low DHA levels have been linked to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, memory loss, and Alzheimer's. This is likely why countries with diets rich in fish have lower rates of depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and suicide.
Aside from general well-being and improved mood there are many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids related specifically to the brain. Let's take a look at some of the most widely studied.
British scientists gave a group of patients with stubborn depression a daily dose of EPA. After three months, over two thirds of the group reported a 50% reduction in their symptoms; particularly feelings of sadness and pessimism, inability to work, sleeplessness, and low libido. All of the patients had previously tried other medications without the same level of success.
Anxiety is also a very common disorder and is characterized by constant worry and nervousness. Multiple studies have shown that when people with depression or anxiety start taking omega-3 supplements, their symptoms improve.
For people who struggle with more complicated psychiatric disorders, low omega-3 levels may be partly to blame. Studies have shown that omega-3 supplements can reduce the frequency of mood swings and relapses in people with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may also decrease violent behavior.
According to other studies, seniors with higher levels of DHA had significantly lower risk for developing dementia or Alzheimer's disease. DHA also shields the brain against age-related mental decline, improving both learning and memory in older adults.
For children who struggle with hyperactivity or inattention fish oil has also shown to be promising. Several studies have found that children with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, compared to their healthy peers. While numerous studies have found that omega-3 supplements can actually reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Omega-3s help improve inattention and the ability to complete tasks. They also decrease hyperactivity, impulsiveness, restlessness, and aggression.
There has also been some interesting cases using high dose fish oil therapy in the repair and healing of traumatic brain injuries. Because the brain is literally built from omega-3 fats, it makes sense that high doses of them following an injury might support the brain's natural healing process. There are likely several mechanisms at play here. For instance, omega-3 fats are known to inhibit cell death, help reconnect damaged neurons, and activate genes that help cope with brain damage while turning off genes that promote brain inflammation.
Omega-3s exist in a delicate balance with another group of essential fats, omega-6s. The trouble is, most Americans are consuming too much of the omega-6s, and they're crowding out the omega-3s. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in many vegetable oils, such as corn and soy, that permeate processed foods. The ideal ratio between the two fats (omega-6:omega-3) would be 2:1. However the over-abundance of omega-6s in the average American diet makes that ratio look more like 20:1. This isn't to say we should be avoiding Omega-6 fatty acids. They are also important for our health. The main point is that they need to be in balance with Omega-3. And for most Americans this is not the case.
How much omega-3 should we be aiming for on a daily basis? The AI (Adequate Intake) of Omega-3 is 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women. There is no established Daily Value for omega-3s. I consider the above values to be the minimum level of Omega-3 intake. Depending on what a person's health goals are, a higher dose may be warranted.
There are actually quite a few animal and plant based sources of Omega-3s. Animal sources are high in EPA and DHA, while plant sources are higher in ALA. The problem is the ALA has to be converted into EPA and DHA in order for you to get the health benefits. This does happen in the body but not very well. It's estimated that less that 5% of ALA gets converted into EPA and less than 0.5% into DHA.
Here is a list of some of your best dietary sources for omega-3s (animal and plant):
- Anchovy: 1.9 g (4 oz)
- Salmon: 1.45 g (4 oz)
- Sardines: 1.34 g (4 oz)
- Mackerel: 1.25 g (4 oz)
- Grass-Fed Beef: 1.1 g (4 oz)
- Flax Seed: 3.2 g (2 Tbsp)
- Chia Seed: 2.5 g (2 Tbsp)
- Walnut: 2.3 g (1/4 cup)
- Hemp Seed: 0.882 g (2 Tbsp)
- Crab: 0.512 g (4 oz)
- Tuna: 0.33 g (4 oz)
- Grass-Fed Dairy: 0.25 g (8 oz)
- Broccoli: 0.18 (1 cup)
- Avocado: 0.15 (1 whole)
- Leafy Greens: 0.12 g (1 cup)
- Seaweed: 0.02 g (2 Tbsp)
Guidelines for Choosing Seafood
Based on the above list, it is obvious that cold-water fatty fish are you best source for Omega-3s both because of the high content but also because the Omega-3 is already in the form of EPA and DHA, ultimately making it more therapeutic. The concern though lies in the fact that fish can be high in mercury, PCBs, pesticides, and other contaminants. So it begs the question is the Omega-3 benefit we're getting from the fish worth the toxin exposure?
One of the biggest problems is that most salmon you find in the supermarket is farm-raised, even if it’s labeled wild. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), most salmon sold in US is farm-raised then incorrectly labeled “Atlantic salmon.” Since the production of one pound of farmed salmon uses over six pounds of fish, contaminants accumulate. Farmed salmon was found to contain high concentrations of dioxins and pesticides, and alarmingly more PCBs than any other protein source.
Farmed salmon also has more fat than wild salmon and a large part of these fats are unhealthy omega-6. The trend is for fish farms to replace fish oil in fish feed with less expensive vegetable oil, causing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratios to get worse.
Wild salmon contains fewer contaminants than farm-raised, and no antibiotics. The EDF recommends eating only Alaskan wild salmon, either fresh or canned, as this is the lowest in contaminants while still high in omega-3s. In addition to salmon there are some fish that are safer and healthier to eat than others. The chart compares omega-3 content versus levels of mercury. Seafood in the upper right hand corner is the healthiest by these two measures.
At least for now, it looks like the omega-3 benefits of moderate fish consumption outweigh the risks, especially if eating wild-caught cold water fish. In the Rustic Diet I recommend eating fish 2 times per week and to focus the other days on other foods high in omega-3s.
There may be times when supplementing with Omega-3s makes sense. Certainly for people who do not eat fish or have a hard time consuming enough of the other foods that are rich in Omega-3. It also might make sense to add a supplement when you're dealing with a specific health concern that we know fish oil could help with.
My first choice in supplementation is with Fish Oil. A high quality fish oil that has been tested for contaminants. I personally rely on Nordic Naturals or Carlson Labs when recommending supplements to clients. The higher quality brands also have less chance of unwanted side effects, like belching, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, etc. The other recommendation I give is to take your fish oil supplement with a meal. If you have a bleeding disorder, bruise easily, or are currently taking blood thinning medications, you will want to talk to your physician before adding a fish oil supplement.
If you're a vegan or have a fish allergy then fish oil supplementation may not be an option. The only plant-based alternative I would recommend supplementing with is Algae Oil. Algae oil is the oil derived directly from algae, which is also the same way fish get their Omega-3s. And unlike Flax Oil, Algae Oil is a great source for DHA in addition to EPA.
Take Home Message
Whew! That was a lot of information. Hopefully you made it through and now have a clearer understanding of both the benefits of Omega-3s and how to most safely consume them. As you learned, they are especially important when it comes to brain health. Omega-3 fats build brain cell membranes, reduce brain inflammation, and promote new brain cell formation. They can improve mood and memory and give you protection against brain disorders ranging from depression to dementia.
My recommendations for consistently consuming enough Omega-3s are as follows:
- Eat cold-water (wild) fatty fish 2 times per week.
- Eat grass-fed and pasture-raised animal foods.
- Eat plant-based sources of Omega-3s daily -- seaweed, leafy veggies, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, etc.
- Supplement if necessary (Fish or Algae)
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