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How omega-3 deficiency affects your brain's health

How omega-3 deficiency affects your brain's health

Studies have shown that healthy omega-3 levels may influence brain function in people with more mild types of cognitive impairment or age-related decline and may help promote a positive mood.

Most people don’t realize that, with a few exceptions, most of the global adult population is experiencing an unprecedented deficiency of omega-3 (eicosapentaenoic acid; EPA and docosahexaenoic acid; DHA) dietary intake and, therefore, of functional physiological status (1). 

The forces behind this trend include reduced consumption of fatty fish, reductions of omega-3 levels in farmed fish, and that a percentage of the population does not supplement their diet with these essential fats. Making the problem worse is the significant dietary presence of omega-6 fatty acids in processed foods (1, 2). Hundreds of years ago, the human diet contained roughly 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids; the ratio is now more in the range of 20:1. The issue is that omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation while omega-3 fatty acids tend to be anti-inflammatory.

Specific to brain and neurological health, the omega deficiency has severe consequences for our brain structure, function, and overall health. Our brains are dependent on omega-3, especially DHA, as DHA is a major component of brain tissue. DHA comprises 40 percent of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain and 60 percent in the retina of the eye (4, 5, 6).

DHA is transported to the brain by the bloodstream, so the amount of DHA present in our blood helps determine if our brain and eyes receive adequate levels for proper function and longevity. Since humans do not efficiently synthesize DHA, we need to get DHA from food or supplementation in sufficient amounts throughout our life for the proper build-up and maintenance of our brain (3). 

Additionally, some brain health issues such as atherosclerosis or major depression are associated with types of inflammation in the brain (7). High levels of omega-3 fatty acids in blood have been shown to mitigate development of inflammation and facilitate its resolution (8). Omega-3s help control inflammation by three primary mechanisms:

  • Reducing the levels of pro-inflammatory fats in cell membranes
  • Conversion of cellular omega-3 fats in to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and pro-resolving mediators (resolvins, merasins, lipoxins, and protectins)
  • Downregulation of pro-inflammatory genes (Nutrigenomic effect)

The best way to consume omega-3s

Conventional nutrition research posits that intake of omega-3s automatically determines the body’s omega-3 status. But it is important to emphasize that in order for fat to be optimally absorbed, fat digestion needs to be initiated by release of emulsifying bile salts as well as pancreatic lipase enzymes (9). This occurs effectively only in the presence of food. Therefore, in order to maximize health benefits and truly get your money’s worth, supplemental omega-3 should be consumed with meals (10).

Of course, if you are eating healthy, clean, fatty fish, your omega-3s are coming along as part of the nutritional profile of your meal!

Eight percent omega-3 in key cells is the magic number

Across multiple studies, an Omega-3 Index (level of omega-3 in your red blood cells as a percentage of total fats) in the range of 8 percent, is shown to be optimal in supporting brain structure maintenance, function, and longer-term health prospects.

A review of recent findings:

  • In a study of individuals aged 67 years on average, who were free of clinical dementia, total brain volume correlated with Omega-3 Index, as did cognitive functions like visual memory, executive function, and abstract thinking (15).
  • In a study of women aged 65 years or older and free of dementia, the Omega-3 Index correlated with total brain volume measured eight years later (16). Also, the progression to dementia was much less likely and occurred later in life in those with a higher Omega-3 Index (14).
  • In younger individuals, the Omega-3 Index correlated with executive function and cognitive flexibility (17, 18) while in the oldest individuals yet studied, aged 88 years and above, cognitive impairment was four times more likely with a mean Omega-3 Index below, 8 percent (11).
  • A recent meta-analysis also identified low levels of EPA and DHA as a risk factor for cognitive impairment (19, 20).

At all ages studied, there is robust support for an Omega-3 Index target range of 8 to 11 percent for optimal brain structure, function, and health.

Key takeaways for supporting optimal brain health

Eat more fatty fish, wild caught and healthy farm-raised fish (please note that recent research shows the omega-3 levels are dropping in most farmed fish).

Supplement with a high-quality omega-3 supplement (know the manufacturer, know who does the third-party purity testing), target at least 1-gram total omega-3 per day.

Consume an anti-inflammatory dietary approach that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains, low fat proteins, and avoid pro-inflammatory fats and simple sugars.

Get exercise often, stay hydrated, get your sleep, banish stress, smile more often, read books, learn a new language.

Regardless of your activity level, omega-3s are essential to your health. Our fish oils—or, as we like to call them, Nature’s Marine Superfoods—are made using only wild-caught Alaskan cod and salmon and retain all of the beneficial nutrients the fish have to offer. Be sure to read more on the difference between frozen and fresh fish and the health benefits of our fish oils.


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