We’ve heard a lot about Omega-3 fatty acids in recent years, as a general category in nutrition and supplements. I’m just going to focus on DHA today because it has the best benefits for the brain of the Omega-3s. Honorable mention goes to EPA (another Omega-3), discussed briefly as well.
Featured in: The Top 10 Brain Supplements
Amazing Benefits of DHA
DHA is a component of every cell in your body and critical fatty acid for brain growth and eye health. It is the primary fatty acid found in the brain, meaning it is a building block for the brain. It has been found that pregnant women and infants need DHA for proper brain development and a lot of infant formulas now have added DHA. This fatty acid is also critical for eye development and neural development.
Researchers have found that DHA is also critical for a healthy aging brain. DHA helps improve memory, learning, and verbal fluency in people with mild memory problems (Bjarnadottir, 2019). Low levels of DHA are linked to diseases of the brain like dementia and Alzheimer’s. And just general memory problems. If you aren’t eating much seafood and you are experiencing memory issues, you probably need to either eat more seafood or get DHA (and EPA) in a supplement.
Researchers found that people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a form of dementia, have lower amounts of DHA in their brains and livers while EPA is elevated. Hm.
The brain, eyes, and sperm have the highest concentrations (and therefore need) of DHA in the body.
We, of course, have heard about the positive effects on cholesterol levels and thereby heart health. Omega-3s may lower total cholesterol in the blood and increase the good cholesterol, HDL. It might help reduce blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. Not having enough Omega-3s is linked to heart disease.
DHA helps activate a membrane protein in the rods of your eyes, rhodopsin. “Rhodopsin helps your brain receive images by changing the permeability, fluidity, and thickness of your eye membranes” (Bjarnadottir, 2019). Studies show that DHA and EPA may prevent Age-Related Macular Degeneration or halt further progression of the disease.
DHA has anti-inflammatory characteristics and may make it more difficult for cancer cells to grow or survive.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA):
Some clinical trials with DHA and EPA on RA patients with half taking omega-3 supplements along with their usual medications and the other half taking placebo and medications showed the DHA/EPA group showed clinical improvement while the placebo group did not. Neither group reported any reduction in pain or stiffness in the morning (NCBI, 2019).
Where Does DHA Come From?
Omega-3 fatty acids come primarily from plant or seafood sources. One essential Omega-3 is ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is already in our diets in plant-based foods. Since it is so available in our diets, we won’t focus on that one.
DHA (and EPA) are sourced from fish and shellfish, especially Krill, oils primarily. But it’s actually coming from the algae that the fish eat. We don’t have a lot of access to algae in our diets, but we can eat more fish. The seafood with the highest levels of DHA and EPA is Salmon. Farmed salmon has a bit more than wild-caught. Next best seafood sources are sardines (canned), sea bass, herring, mackerel, trout (wild-caught), oysters, and canned tuna. Researches have found that Krill oil contains a much higher bioavailability than Omega-3s in fish oils.
There are some algae and DHA supplements too if you can’t or don’t want to eat fish several times a week, or if you’re vegan.
The body can produce tiny amounts of DHA and EPA using ALA, but we would never get enough of what we need with the low production it yields.
Science of DHA for the Brain
Whether you want to know all the science of it or not, it is interesting to know that DHA and EPA are considered ‘long-chain fatty acids’. (ALA is considered a short chain fatty acid). This refers to the long chain of carbon atoms they are composed of. DHA and EPA have a carbon-carbon double bond located three carbons from one end of the chain. Omega-6 fatty acids have a double bond six carbons from the end. (I always wanted to know why they are called Omega-3 and Omega-6.)
Interesting but not as relevant to know as much as what DHA does for us. That’s where we’re headed next.
How DHA Functions in the Body
DHA is a component of the phospholipids that form the structures of cell membranes (NBCI, 2019). It helps the speed and quality of signals between nerve cells which helps… Everything. It makes the membranes and gaps between cells flow smoother, making connections faster. Hardly a surprise it helps our brains function better. It makes it easier to retrieve memories and thoughts flow more quickly into words.
Inflammation is the leading cause of most health problems of today: heart disease, diabetes, dementia and Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and on and on. Being an anti-inflammatory, DHA should be on your list of must-have supplements (or getting more fish in your diet). Your health (and brain) might depend on it.
DHA can thin your blood, so speak to your doctor if you have any blood disorders or taking blood thinners. Further, it is also recommended stopping taking Omega fatty acids a week or two before having surgery.
Interestingly, It is recommended taking Curcumin along with DHA as it helps with the absorption of DHA. Another benefit of Curcumin! (Read the article on Turmeric/Curcumin here).
Hopefully, you know a lot more about DHA and long-chain fatty acids (Omega 3s) than you did before. The experts who have studied brain function in depth promote DHA and highly encourage all of us to include it in our diets (in the form of fish) or supplement. I’m adding a link to a supplement company I highly believe in for you.
Thank you for visiting mywellbrain.com. Please respond below with questions, comments, or your experience with DHA and fatty acids.
Bjarnadottir, A. (2019). DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid): A Detailed Review. healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/dha-docosahexaenoic-acid
Swanson, Block, and Mousa. (2012) Omega-3 Fatty acids EPA and DHA: Health Benefits Throughout Life. NCBI, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3262608/
US Department of Health &Human; Services, National Institutes of Health. (Updated 7/9/2019). Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/a link
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