Omega-3s support mood, memory, and brain health, but most of us are deficient. Learn how to eat and supplement for a healthy omega-3 to omega-6 fats ratio.
The recognition of the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs) is one of the biggest recent advances in human nutrition.
The omega-3 fats, in particular, are one of the most beneficial groups of nutrients for brain and body health.
Omega-3s lower the risk of major chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.
They can also improve mood and memory and help protect the brain against disorders ranging from depression to dementia.
But omega-3 deficiency in diets is widespread and much of the world’s population has insufficient blood levels of omega-3s.
Omega-3 deficiency is linked to dozens of serious diseases and is estimated to be a factor in 84,000 preventable deaths per year in the US.
You need omega-3 fats to stay mentally and physically healthy.
But there is confusion about the best ways to get them from both foods and supplements.
The Top Omega-3 Benefits for Mental Health
Omega-3s are considered essential fatty acids because our bodies can’t make them.
You have to get omega-3 fats from the food you eat or the supplements you take.
The list of systemic diseases and disorders they’ve been found to help is a long one that includes heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and various kinds of cancer.
Omega-3s are found in high concentrations in the brain and nervous system where they are needed to build healthy cell membranes, reduce inflammation, promote new cell formation, form important brain chemicals, and improve nerve transmission.
" An estimated 80% of the world’s population has a subpar intake of omega-3s.
There are two main omega-3 essential fatty acids — EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
DHA is the most important omega-3 for brain health, accounting for 97% of the omega-3 fatty acids found in the brain.
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DHA is a critical structural component of the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory, language, creativity, judgment, emotion, and personality.
It is such a crucial building block that people with low levels of it actually have measurably smaller brains.
DHA also supports optimal levels of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, GABA, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.
Now, let’s take a look at what the research reveals regarding the benefits of omega-3s for specific mental health issues and brain functions.
1. Anxiety and Depression
Low levels of omega-3 have been linked to anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
Medical students facing pre-exam stress exhibited a 20% reduction in anxiety when taking omega-3 supplements.
A review of studies in people with mood disorders found that omega-3s have significant antidepressant properties.
One study found omega-3 supplementation to be an effective, fast-acting antidepressant.
After only three weeks of supplementation, an impressive 69% of study participants no longer met the criteria for being depressed.
This is huge!
Omega-3s have been found helpful for major depressive disorder.
So far, some data suggests EPA to be more effective for treating mild to moderate depression than DHA.
Eight weeks of EPA supplementation was shown to be as effective as the popular prescription antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) for treating major depressive disorder.
And when EPA was taken along with fluoxetine, the results were even better than taking either fluoxetine or EPA alone.
2. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have low blood levels of omega-3s, suggesting that supplementation could be helpful.
One study found that students given omega-3 supplements had improved reading and spelling scores, were better behaved, and showed a reduction in overall ADHD symptoms.
Another study gave children large doses of omega-3s (up to 16 grams per day) and found that supplements were well tolerated and resulted in significant improvements in inattention, hyperactivity, and defiant behavior.
If you are treating a child with ADHD with omega-3 supplements, be patient.
It can take quite a while for maximum benefits to kick in.
One study found that no significant changes occurred after 3 months, but by 6 months, notable improvements were seen in levels of restlessness, aggressiveness, academic performance, inattention, impulsiveness, and cooperation.
3. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
The use of omega-3 fatty acids for treating autism is controversial and nearly all experts agree that more studies are needed.
A decade-old meta analysis of 143 studies determined that there is currently insufficient scientific evidence to determine if omega-3 fatty acids are safe or effective for autistic spectrum disorder.
A prestigious Cochrane report concluded that there was no high-quality evidence that omega-3 fatty acids supplementation is effective for improving symptoms of autism spectrum disorder.
However, a more recent analysis of the available research determined that omega-3 supplementation is well tolerated and may offer beneficial effects to ASD patients.
4. Brain Development in Children
Omega-3 fats are essential for both new mothers and their babies.
Postpartum depression affects 15% of all new moms.
When new mothers struggling with postpartum depression were given omega-3 supplements, they showed at least a 50% reduction in symptoms according to two standard depression scales.
Omega-3s are crucial for brain and nervous system development in infants and children.
Getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy has been associated with numerous benefits for the child, including reduced risk of cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, and ADHD.
5. Brain Injuries
According to emerging science and clinical experience, aggressive intake of omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for brain injuries.
Michael D. Lewis, MD, is a leading expert on nutritional interventions for brain health, particularly the use of omega-3 fatty acids for the prevention, management, and rehabilitation of concussions and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
He founded Brain Health Education and Research Institute, a nonprofit organization, and is the author of When Brains Collide: What Every Athlete and Parent Should Know About the Prevention and Treatment of Concussions and Head Injuries.
He has treated brain injury patients with large quantities of omega-3s with impressive results.
You can see his Omega-3 Protocol for Brain Injury here.
6. Cognitive Decline and Memory Loss
Numerous studies support that seniors with higher levels of omega-3s, specifically DHA, have a significantly lower risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s.
It seems that there are benefits to getting some omega-3s from your diet instead of relying totally on supplements.
Simply eating fish once a week increases the amount of gray matter in the brain.
Eating a diet high in fish and omega-3 oils, along with fruit and vegetables, has been found to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
7. Psychiatric Disorders
Many major psychiatric disorders have been linked to omega-3 deficiency.
Research confirms that the following disorders can benefit from omega-3 fats supplementation:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- borderline personality disorder
- suicidal behavior
Military suicides have been linked to a lack of omega-3 fats.
Veterans with low blood levels of DHA are 62% more likely to commit suicide than those with higher levels.
In fact, a low DHA level is a stronger predictor of suicide than battle-related stress.
A Core Omega-3 Fats Benefit: Reduced Inflammation
You might be wondering how omega-3s can alleviate so many different kinds of conditions.
One of the main ways omega-3s work is by effectively reducing chronic inflammation.
- Alzheimer’s disease
- autoimmune diseases
- bipolar disorder
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- digestive diseases
- heart disease
But there’s another group of essential fatty acids that you need to know about that can promote inflammation — the omega-6 fatty acids.
The Ideal Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
We need some omega-6 fats in our diet, but most of us consume way more than is healthy.
Our distant ancestors ate a 1-1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.
Ideally, we should be eating at most 2-4 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats.
A diet with a 10-to-1 ratio is considered detrimental to health.
But the average American eats 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats!
The major source of omega-6 fats in our diet is from vegetable oils like canola, safflower, and soy oils.
The Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, which is widely considered the healthiest way to eat, has a healthy balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
There is still some debate as to which is more important — the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats or the absolute intake of omega-3s.
But either way, experts agree.
The Best Omega-3 Fats Food Sources and Why Quality Matters
I could simply give you a list of foods high in omega-3s, but getting your omega-3s from food is not so simple.
There are a lot of variables to consider in fulfilling your omega-3 fat requirement from food.
How much omega-3 you can obtain from food depends on numerous factors, including the quality of the food source and which omega-3 form occurs in any given food.
(Don’t worry about trying to remember all the details that follow. There’s a concise summary at the end of this article.)
Plant vs Animal Food Sources of Omega-3s
The first big-picture item to consider is whether you should get your omega-3s from plant or animal food sources.
Omega-3 fats are found in both plants and animals, but each contains different forms of omega-3.
Animal sources are high in health-promoting EPA and DHA.
Plants, on the other hand, contain abundant alpha-
ALA gets converted in the body to EPA and DHA, but not very well.
In fact, a minuscule amount gets converted.
Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA and less than 0.5% is converted to DHA.
This makes plants generally a poor source of omega-3s.
(We’ll elaborate on this point shortly.)
The Best Land Animal Sources of Omega-3 Fats
Meat, poultry, and eggs can be good sources of omega-3s depending on how the animals are raised.
Just like us, animals can’t manufacture omega-3 fats; they get them from the food they eat.
Until about 60 years ago, domesticated animals spent their lives grazing on wild grasses and other natural omega-3 food sources.
This major change in our food supply is largely responsible for our current epidemic of omega-3 deficiency.
Grass-fed beef and bison, pasture-fed pork and lamb, and free range chicken and their eggs contain significantly more omega-3s than their mass-produced counterparts.
And, of course, wild game is still an excellent source of omega-3s.
The Best Fish Sources of Omega-3 Fats
Fish is sometimes referred to as “brain food” largely due to its high omega-3 content.
But there are many concerns about high levels of mercury, PCBs, pesticides, and other contaminants found in fish.
Click on the links to learn more since the source and the species matter when it comes to fish quality.
Omega-3 Benefits vs Risks of Eating Fish
Do the benefits of the omega-3s found in fish outweigh the risks of eating them?
Let’s look at the case of salmon, the most popular cold water fish.
Most salmon you’ll find in the supermarket is farm-raised, regardless how it’s labeled.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a consumer watchdog group, most salmon sold in the US is farm-raised, then incorrectly labeled “Atlantic salmon.”
The EDF top choice is Alaskan wild salmon, either fresh, frozen, or canned, since it is low in contaminants and high in omega-3s.
Wild salmon contains fewer contaminants than farm-raised and no antibiotics.
There are some big problems with farm-raised salmon.
Since the production of one pound of farmed salmon requires up to five pounds of feeder fish, contaminants accumulate in the farmed salmon.
Farmed salmon has more fat than wild salmon and, unfortunately, a large part of these fats are the unhealthy omega-6 kind.
The trend is for fish farms to replace fish oil in fish feed with less expensive vegetable oil, so going forward we can expect the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in farmed fish to continue to become even more unbalanced.
Farmed salmon was found to contain high concentrations of dioxins and pesticides and, alarmingly, more PCBs than any other protein source.
The chart below compares omega-3 content to the levels of mercury found in various kinds of seafood.
Seafood in the upper right hand corner is the healthiest by these two measures.
The information used to compile this infographic comes from a Report of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on the Risks and Benefits of Fish Consumption issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO).
So, at least for now, the bottom line is that the omega-3 benefits of moderate fish consumption (1-2 times per week) outweighs the risks, especially if you stick with wild-caught, cold water fish.
The Best Plant Food Sources of Omega-3
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is the omega-3 fat found in highest concentrations in plant foods.
The best food sources of ALA include flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and soybeans.
Nut and seed oils such as flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, pumpkin seed oil, and walnut oil also contain ALA.
But these oils are also high in inflammatory omega-6 fats.
You can see in the chart below how the presence of ALA omega-3s (in orange) is accompanied by large amounts of omega-6s (in blue).
Poor ALA conversion into omega-3 fats, plus the presence of omega-6 fats, makes even the best plants poor sources of omega-3s.
How to Choose an Omega-3 Supplement
If you’re thinking that it’s hard to get the omega-3 fatty acids you need from food alone, you’re right.
This is why an estimated 80% of the world’s population has a subpar intake of omega-3s.
Those who do get adequate omega-3 in their diets live in places where they eat a lot of cold-water fish, like Japan and Scandinavia, and populations that have not yet adopted an industrialized diet.
For most of us, supplementation is the answer.
Let’s take a look at the most popular sources of omega-3 supplements — fish oil, krill oil, algal oil, and flaxseed oil — to see how they compare.
Fish Oil — The Original Omega-3 Supplement
Fish oil is one of the most popular nutritional supplements and one of the most widely studied.
Americans spend billions of dollars a year on it.
The US National Institutes of Health lists over 36,000 published studies on it.
Proven brain health benefits of fish oil include improvements in:
- attention disorders
- bipolar disorder
- blood flow
- cognition in the elderly
- dementia (decreased risk)
- mood and general well-being
- stroke (both preventative and therapeutic)
Other proven health benefits of fish oil include:
- decreased inflammation and pain of rheumatoid arthritis
- normalized triglyceride, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels
- increased bone density
- reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, macular degeneration, and diabetes
Krill Oil — Possibly Better Than Fish Oil
Until recently, fish oil has been the omega-3 supplement of choice.
But now there’s an alternative that may be superior, krill oil.
Krill are small shrimp found in the waters of the Antarctic.
Krill oil is more bioavailable and more readily absorbed than fish oil.
The DHA molecules in krill oil are attached to phospholipids, which facilitate their passage through the intestinal wall and increase their uptake into the brain.
Since krill oil is absorbed more efficiently, you can achieve similar benefits to fish oil with lower doses.
It’s also easier to digest and is less likely to leave a fishy aftertaste.
Krill oil is also an excellent source of astaxanthin, an extremely potent antioxidant that naturally keeps krill oil supplements fresh.
Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that gives shrimp its pink color and makes krill capsules red.
Astaxanthin readily crosses the blood-brain barrier, allowing it to easily neutralize free radicals and halt oxidative damage to brain cells.
Note that krill oil should be avoided if you’re allergic to shellfish.
Algal Oil Shows Potential
Algal oil is extracted from algae and may provide a viable vegetarian alternative to fish and krill oils.
Algal oil supplements generally contain DHA and EPA in a ratio of 2 to 1.
One benefit of algal oil is that it may contain fewer contaminants like mercury.
One study found that taking algal oil for 14 days produced similar blood levels of DHA and EPA as eating cooked salmon.
Another study found that women who took algal oil also had an increase in DHA and EPA levels.
And while it seems likely that algal DHA will deliver the same health benefits as DHA from fish oil, experts suggest that more studies are needed before this is known for sure.
Flaxseed Oil — Skip This!
Flaxseed oil has a low conversion rate of ALA to the more effective EPA and DHA.
Studies show that flaxseed oil does not increase blood levels of DHA, the most important omega-3 for your brain.
So flaxseed oil for brain health is really not a contender.
Omega-3 Supplement Dosages
There is no US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for omega-3 fatty acids in general or for the individual omega-3s, eg, EPA and DHA.
Most research studies have found that participants benefited from 500 to 1,000 milligrams of total omega-3s per day, so this is a basic dosage rule of thumb.
Experts generally recommend 500 to 1,000 mg of total omega-3s per day to maintain health and avoid deficiency, but therapeutic doses (to raise low levels or treat a health condition) up to 3 grams are generally considered safe.
Note that many studies use dosages much higher than the general recommendations.
Noted Harvard neurology researcher Datis Kharrazian, PhD, DHSc, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, recommends 5 grams of fish oil daily for patients with issues like depression, bipolar disorder, or memory loss, with the emphasis on DHA rather than EPA.
When considering dosages, you need to consider the total amounts of EPA and DHA, not the total amount of fish oil or krill oil.
You can determine whether you are consuming adequate omega-3s with this omega-3 quiz found on AlwaysOmega3s.com, a not-for-profit educational organization.
Omega-3 Supplement Side Effects and Interactions
Omega-3 supplements are considered generally safe, but there are some exceptions.
Drugs.com lists over 70 omega-3 drug interactions.
If you regularly take aspirin or a blood-thinning drug like warfarin, talk to your doctor before taking any omega-3 supplement, since fish oil is known to increase the chance of bruising or bleeding.
Fish oil can decrease blood pressure, so taking it with high blood pressure medications may cause blood pressure to drop too low.
In some rare instances, fish oil can worsen the symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder.
And, of course, don’t try fish oil or krill oil if you are allergic to seafood!
Benefits of Omega-3 Fats for the Brain: Take the Next Step
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are some of the most important nutrients for brain and body health and function.
But deficiency is rampant in the general population due to dietary choices and the nutritive degradation of our food supply.
Here’s what you need to know to get the omega-3 fats you need to be healthy:
- Do not rely on plant sources for omega-3 fats. Plants are not reliable sources of EPA and DHA, the most important omega-3 essential fatty acids.
- To get the maximum benefits of omega-3s from animal sources, look for items labeled wild-caught, grass-fed, pasture-raised, or free range.
- The omega-3 benefits of moderate fish consumption can outweigh the risks, especially if you eat wild-caught, cold water fish.
- Most people benefit from a high-quality omega-3 supplement. The most popular form is fish oil, but there’s evidence that krill oil may be an even better choice.
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