Most people will have heard that fish is good for the brain but not everyone understands just why the fatty acids found in fish are so important, and are still unaware of what happens if they don’t get enough in their diet.
A healthy brain relies on Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These long chain polyunsaturated Omega 3 fatty acids are the building blocks of the brain itself and are only found in any significant quantities in oily fish and of course fish oil. The other Omega 3 fatty acid is Alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in some vegetable oils, nuts and plants however, we cannot easily convert this into EPA and DHA which means we have to source these two directly from fish.
Most health professionals believe that DHA is the fatty acid that is most important for healthy structure and development of the brain and for vision so it is vital that there is enough DHA in the diet during pregnancy and in the first few years of a child’s life. EPA on the other hand, is essential for healthy functioning of the brain on a day to day basis, which means that throughout your life you need a constant supply of EPA.
Sadly, for most people, this just isn’t happening as our diets tend to be rich in Omega 6 fatty acids and poor in fish sources of Omega 3. Omega 6 is abundant in vegetable oils, processed foods, meats and dairy products. Furthermore, if the brain cannot get the fatty acids it needs it will rely on replacement fatty acids that just aren’t cut out for the job. It’s a bit like putting the wrong fuel in your car and expecting it to run smoothly. Many health professionals are now attributing a number of diseases and health problems to the imbalance between Omega 3 and Omega 6 in our diets and this view is backed up by an increasing number of clinical trials and studies.
If we relate this to mental health for example, people with depressive disorders, ADHD, bipolar disorder, memory problems, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, have been found to have low concentrations of Omega 3 in their blood along with a high ratio of Omega 6. Why would this have such an impact? Well, every second of our lives we are converting fatty acids into eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are hormone-like compounds that control every physiological function in the body and depending on what fatty acids are available, for example Omega 3 or Omega 6, the eicosanoids will either be anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory.
Omega 6 fatty acids are known to be pro-inflammatory, they help the blood to clot, and promote tumour growth. Omega 3 fatty acids do exactly the opposite so it isn’t hard to imagine that a diet too rich in Omega 6 and too poor in Omega 3 can have a devastating effect on both physical and mental wellbeing.
Of course if a lack of Omega 3 fatty acids can result in depression and other conditions affecting the brain then it stands to reason that increasing intake of Omega 3 might offer some therapeutic value to help treat these conditions and this is exactly what research has found. However, it must be remembered that adequate amounts of Omega 3 should be present in the diet in the first place and if this was happening, there might be fewer mental health problems today. Let’s have a look at a small sample of studies showing how Omega 3 fatty acids contribute to a healthy brain.
How Omega 3 makes a difference to brain health
Research by the University of Western Australia found that women who took fish oil supplements during the latter part of their pregnancy had babies with better hand to eye coordination, were better speakers and could understand more at the age of two and a half, than babies whose mothers who were given olive oil instead
A study by Aberdeen University and led by professor Lawrence Whalley found that fish oil helps the brain to work faster, increases IQ scores and slows down the ageing process.
The Durham trials led by Dr Madeleine Portwood have consistently found that fish oil improves behaviour, concentration and learning in the classroom.
One study by researcher Natalie Sinn in Australia found fish oil to be more effective than Ritalin for ADHD.
Hibbeln et al looked at diet in 22 countries and found an association between low fish consumption and postnatal depression.
Here in the UK, Dr Malcolm Peet found that ethyl-EPA, a highly concentrated form of Omega 3, dramatically reduces depression.
The research continues and no doubt we will be hearing more about the wonders of Omega 3 and its effect on brain power in the future. In the meantime, there is sufficient evidence to show that every single one of us can benefit by increasing the amount of Omega 3 we have in our diet. Eating more fish is a possibility but not advisable due to toxins and other pollutants in our fish. However, concentrated high-grade fish oil is a perfectly feasible and much safer way of getting enough Omega 3 to give your brain the best chance of staying oiled up and in good working order.