Understanding the Importance of Omega-3 for Brain & Mental Health
There has been a lot of discussion regarding the harmful effects of fats on our health. However, the reality is that not all fats are bad for you. Fats are essential for many bodily functions, including brain health.
They are an integral component of each cell's membrane and are crucial to metabolism. It serves as an energy source, aids in vitamin absorption, and cushions important organs, acting as a shock absorber. Fats are classified into trans (bad), saturated (bad), and unsaturated (good) fats. Our body is able to produce most of the fats internally except for Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, and hence they are termed "essential fatty acids". For overall health, a balanced diet of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are required.
Unfortunately, industrialization and food processing or refining have caused an imbalance in this intake. A decrease in Omega 3 consumption can create an assortment of health risks as it has been linked to heart health, immunity, bone health, and even brain function. Let's examine in greater detail how Omega 3 fatty acids enhance brain health.
What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats (PUFA, or polyunsaturated fatty acids) that are needed for the optimum functioning of the body. It is an essential nutrient that needs to be provided through diet or supplements.
There are 3 main types of Omega 3 fatty acids namely Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic Acid( DHA).
ALA is present in plant oils such as flaxseed, canola oil, and soybean oil, along with walnuts and chia seeds, while both DHA and EPA are obtained from animal sources. Although EPA and DHA are obtained from marine sources like fish, the omega-3 fatty acids were originally produced by microalgae. When fish eat phytoplanktons (aquatic microorganisms that photosynthesize like plants) that consume microalgae, they tend to store these omega-3 fatty acids in their tissues. And that’s how fish obtain their omega-3 fatty acids.
ALA is most commonly obtained through plant sources and is a precursor for EPA and DHA, i.e. it helps in producing the other two important fatty acids such as EPA and DHA. However, this conversion process is inefficient, and the EPA and DHA produced are negligible.
EPA and DHA are both marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids that play a pivotal role in brain development, brain function, and brain protection. Both of these omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained through dietary sources, supplements, or by consuming ALA, which is then converted into EPA and DHA. EPA is involved in regulating mood-related disorders and certain inflammatory responses in the body, while DHA, apart from being an integral part of the retina and skin cells, is crucial for neurological development and the prevention of age-related brain disorders.
Role of Omega 3 Fatty Acids in Brain Health
Nearly 60% of the brain is fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for maintaining brain health at all ages, starting from the moment a kid first begins to form its brain tissue in the mother's womb until old age. Our brain cells, called neurons, are covered with a protective fatty layer called the myelin sheath. Damage to this sheath can lead to loss of coordination, vision impairment, muscle spasms, and muscle weakness, and may cause diseases like multiple sclerosis, optic neuritis, Guillian-Barre syndrome, etc. Omega-3 acid supplementation has been found to be beneficial in reducing myelin sheath damage, improving nerve cell recovery, and restoring its functions.
Role of DHA during neural development of fetus:
DHA plays an important part in the brain development of the fetus and a deficiency of these fatty acids could lead to preterm (early) birth. One of the reasons for spontaneous preterm deliveries could be inflammation, and DHA may help prevent the same owing to its anti-inflammatory properties. Early birth could also result in incomplete development or an underdeveloped brain.
Boosts cognition in kids and adults:
Pregnant mothers who consumed omega-3 fatty acids regularly, either through a seafood diet or supplements, demonstrated better neurodevelopment in their children. Indicators such as IQ levels, language development, cognition, fine motor skills, communication skills, problem-solving and developmental milestones, and behavioral patterns were analyzed. Researchers have found a direct link between DHA supplementation and frontal activation. The frontal lobe is the front part of the brain, which is responsible for problem-solving and emotional expression in kids and grows rapidly between 7-9 years of age.
Not just kids, but omega-3 fatty acid supplementation has been observed to improve cognition in young adults. In one of the studies, it was observed that the participants' brains worked less hard and showed improved cognitive performance when supplemented with Omega 3 fatty acids. This supplementation was linked to the activation of the primary motor cortex of the brain, which improves its overall functioning.
Helps with mood disorders:
Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA, which have the ability to cross cell membranes and interact with mood-related molecules, have been crucial in regulating mood-related disorders like anxiety, stress, and depression by maintaining the health of brain cells, enhancing neuron functions, preventing brain cell death, and acting as anti-inflammatory agents. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is beneficial for depressed children and adults.
Additionally, it has been successful in lowering the occurrence of postpartum depression in expectant mothers. Using omega-3 supplements is a safer alternative since women do not feel comfortable using medications like antidepressants during pregnancy or nursing.
Protects against Parkinson’s disease:
A balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids is essential for good health. Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be 4:1. Modern diets high in vegetable oil or animal fat have created an imbalance in this ratio, causing omega-6 fatty acids to outnumber omega-3 fatty acids by a factor of ten. High amounts of omega-6 fatty acids may serve as fertile ground for the development of Parkinson’s disease, as excess omega-6 fatty acids are known to promote inflammation. Thus supplementing with Omega 3 fatty acids may balance out this ratio and protect the brain against Parkinson’s disease.
Prevents Alzheimer’s disease:
Low dietary intake of DHA has been associated with the development of neurological disorders such as cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies also indicated the beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acids on Alzheimer’s disease. This effect could be due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3 fatty acids are also known to prevent cell death and promote the generation of nervous tissues, thereby protecting against Alzheimer’s disease.
What is the Best Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Your body doesn't produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own. So, you need to get the required amount from your diet. 5-10% of the total calories you consume must contain omega-3 fatty acids. And you can meet this amount by consuming the richest source of omega-3, which is fish.
Marine Sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids-
Fish consumption is not practical for everyone especially those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are therefore vegetarian sources like:
- Canola Oil
- Chia seeds
- Flaxseed Oil
- Soyabean oil
Omega 3 in Supplements
Now that you understand the importance of feeding your brain properly, make sure to add the necessary omega-3 fatty acids in the right proportion for that brain boost. Omega 3 for women may be extremely crucial and beneficial, especially during their pregnancy and lactation phases. When selecting Omega-3 supplements, go for pure-grade fish oil with maximum omega-3 content that is also mercury- and lead-free. You may also opt for extra-virgin (more content in a smaller version) omega oil. Some supplements also use delayed-release technology to deliver the nutrients over a span of 8 hours. These 2-in-1 omega 3 capsules combine the most powerful nutriscience with fast-absorbing fish oil & slow-release plant-based curcumin beadlets.
Your body may not be able to provide omega 3 to your brain on its own. Apart from keeping your brain in good health, optimum intake of omega-3 fatty acids will also support your heart health, immune system, and eye health and prevent inflammation in the body. Since a healthy diet is not enough, make sure to add an omega-3 supplement to your daily diet as well to improve your overall well-being. You can also check with your doctor if you still have doubts.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids & the Important Role They Play (clevelandclinic.org)
7 Things To Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids | NCCIH (nih.gov)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids - Health Professional Fact Sheet (nih.gov)
12 Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Cleveland Clinic
Dietary omega 3 fatty acids and the developing brain - PubMed (nih.gov)
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