We talk a lot about Omega 3 fatty acids on this site. This is the page where we get into the details of how, exactly, Omega 3 benefits your brain. Also, we’ll talk about the best sources of Omega 3 and how much you should be eating. Finally, we will examine the pros and cons of Omega 3 supplements and fish consumption.
HOW OMEGA 3 BENEFITS YOUR BRAIN
There are a lot of ways that Omega 3 benefits your brain. For instance, a sufficient level of Omega 3 consumption enhances your sense of smell and taste and even your ability to experience pleasure. However, we are going to focus specifically on how Omega 3 benefits your brainpower. There are three main ways this occurs. First, Omega 3 fats increase myelin, the fatty insulation that makes your brain cells work faster. Second, Omega 3 consumption prevents cognitive decline by reducing beta amyloid production, a key component of Alzheimer’s Disease. Third, Omega 3 intake increases your levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), allowing your brain to grow new neurons and learn new things faster.
1. Increasing Myelination
Myelin greatly improves the speed and efficiency of your neurons. It is often described as being like insulation on an electrical wire. Neurons that you use often gradually grow a myelin sheath. Interestingly, myelin is made 70% out of fat and these fats have an especially high turnover rate. This means you need a constant supply of Omega 3 in your diet to keep your myelin strong. Also, research has found that the turnover rate of lipids in your myelin slows down during the aging process. Because of this decline, Omega 3 benefits on myelin production may be especially important for children and young adults and may be considerably less pronounced among older individuals.
There are a number of studies showing that Omega 3 benefits are especially important during myelin production. In fact, if Omega 3 fats are not available during the early stages of myelin synthesis the process completely stops and in some cases even reverses itself. This is critical during the early years of life because the brain is making a TON of myelin during this time. You have probably noticed that most people who are true masters at something started very early on in life. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” refers to this phenomenon. One reason for this is that the brains of young people are producing myelin at a much faster rate. So any neurons that they use frequently get insulated very fast. For adults it takes much more use to build up the same amount of myelin.
2. Reducing Beta-Amyloids
Don’t worry, Omega 3 benefits the brains of older adults too. One way this occurs has to do with beta-amyloids, small proteins that cause Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloids are created when other larger proteins are “cleaved,” or cut by enzymes in your brain. They then circulate around your brain and start sticking to each other as the years go by, forming little clumps. These clumps gradually combine to form large plaques, which ultimately destroy the connections between brain cells. It gets worse too. In 2013 a team of researchers from Stanford and Harvard found that even before there are noticeable plaques in a person’s brain the beta-amyloids are already causing irreversible damage.
But numerous studies have shown that Omega 3 consumption can significantly reduce beta-amyloid levels. For instance, in one study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers fed mice either a standard diet with normal levels of Omega 3 fats or a high Omega 3 diet. After a few months the Omega 3 group had less production, accumulation, and toxicity related to beta-amyloids. In fact, total beta-amyloid levels were reduced by more than 70% in the mice who ate more Omega 3.
3. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
The third way Omega 3 benefits your brain is by boosting levels of BDNF. This is a growth factor that is found throughout your brain and nervous system. BDNF allows us to learn things by facilitating the growth of new neurons and by creating new connections between existing neurons. The reason Omega 3 benefits learning is that Omega 3 consumption increases BDNF levels. This gives your brain the ability to learn new things faster by boosting the speed at which you can grow new neurons! For more detail on how this works, check out the brain building page of the site.
BEST SOURCES OF OMEGA 3
OK, now that you are an expert on Omega 3 benefits you probably want to know what the best sources of Omega 3 are. But there’s something we haven’t told you yet. Omega 3 fatty acids are a class of nutrients, not one single thing. It wouldn’t make sense to talk about “vitamins” as if they were all the same thing, would it? Similarly, before we can talk about the best sources of Omega 3 fats we have to get a feel for the different types that exist.
Different Types of Omega 3 Fats
There are 11 types of Omega 3 fats that have been discovered. But just three are considered to be essential. These are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The Omega 3 benefits for your brain that we have been talking about are all associated with DHA and EPA. When we consider the best sources of Omega 3 fats we need to make sure we are focusing on sources that will get enough DHA and EPA to our brain.
How Much is Enough?
Some of the studies on Omega 3 benefits for brainpower have used doses in the neighborhood of 1000mg of DHA per day. However, these studies used higher amounts than are needed because they were delivering their Omega 3 fats in the form of supplements. These are not absorbed in the same way as fats that are consumed from eating food. So how many milligrams should we eat per day to get these Omega 3 benefits? And should we take supplements? If not then what are the best sources of Omega 3 fats to consume?
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In fact, the American Dietetic Association (ADA), a leading global authority on nutrition, has reviewed all of the research and concluded that the best sources of Omega 3 fats are foods, not supplements. Omega 3 eaten in food is absorbed differently in the body so if you get your Omega 3 fats from eating food it is not necessary to eat a gram of DHA a day. Actually, that can be unhealthy. The ADA recommends consuming a total of 500mg of EPA and DHA combined per day. This is consistent with the recommendations of other health agencies around the globe.
If you see recommendations to consume more Omega 3 fats than this, be skeptical. Anyone who tries to tell you to eat excessive levels of Omega 3 fats is probably trying to sell you supplements. A recent article in the Washington Post included interviews with prominent nutrition scientists from around the world. Every single one said that there is virtually no scientific evidence that it is a good idea to take fish oil pills. So why do you see websites across the internet suggesting you take crazy amounts (like 3.5 grams per day)? Simple: money. The fish oil industry has exploded during the past decade with Americans currently spending more than $1.2 Billion each year on these unproven supplements. The best sources of Omega 3 fats are not pills, they are foods. Focus on getting 500mg per day of EPA and DHA from your diet. No pills. Let’s see how to do that in the next section.
How to Get Enough
Different types of Omega 3 are found in different foods. For instance, DHA is found almost exclusively in fatty seafood. Oily fish like salmon and herring is very high in DHA. You might think this means we are going to suggest eating a lot of fish. However, we actually do not recommend that. You will see why in a minute. EPA is found in fish also as well as in other animal products. ALA is found in plant-based sources like nuts, seeds, and grains.
You might be wondering why we are even talking about ALA. Didn’t we discover earlier that DHA is the most important in terms of Omega 3 benefits for your brain? Yes. However, as the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out, ALA is converted to EPA and DHA in the body. The rate of this conversion is somewhat modest. Studies show that 5-10% is converted to EPA and 2-5% is converted to DHA. However, let’s do a bit of math. Yay!
Check out the list of foods above. This list shows some of the best sources of Omega 3 fats. Because these are plant-based sources they contain almost exclusively ALA. Lets say you throw a serving of flax seeds in your breakfast smoothie. A serving of flax seeds is just two tablespoons (about 30 grams) and it contains over 6 grams of Omega 3 fats. Even if we assume you are at the low end of ALA conversion (5% for EPA and 2% for DHA) this converts to over 300mg EPA and 122 mg DHA in your body. You have almost reached your 500mg for the entire day just by putting two scoops of seeds in your smoothie.
That is how easy this is! Drink your smoothie with a bowl of oatmeal and a handful of walnuts and you have already crushed your goal of 500mg before 7am (or whatever time you eat breakfast). Plus, this smoothie is also packed with flavonoids, another crucial brain building nutrient.
But don’t worry if this sounds like a lot of math. We have done all the hard work for you! Our free brain building recipes on the Brainfood Kitchen section of the site already include insane amounts of the best sources of Omega 3 fats. You can get all the Omega 3 benefits while eating insanely delicious food.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH FISH?
It is impossible to talk about the best sources of Omega 3 fats without bringing up the subject of fish. Should you eat fish? It is undoubted that fish are a great source of DHA, especially fatty fish. However, studies have found that fish consumption does not lead to the same Omega 3 benefits we have been discussing. In fact, eating just 3-4 serving of fish per month is associated with a 5% reduction in cognitive functioning. How could this be?
The problem with fish is that it tends to contain pollutants like methylmercury. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin. It impairs just about every aspect of brain functioning. Think about it. We know that DHA is good for your brain and fish contain a lot of it. So for fish consumption to actually lead to reduced brainpower means that the neurotoxic effects of mercury are so strong that they outweigh all of the Omega 3 benefits.
Also, mercury is a fat soluble substance. This means that it is not excreted in your urine but actually continues to build up in your body for years. In order to get the recommended 500mg a day of DHA and EPA you would have to eat 8 ounces of fish per week. Continue this for your entire life and the effects will add up to some very significant cognitive impairment. It isn’t worth it. Especially when you can get the same amount of Omega 3 fats by just putting a couple spoons of flax seeds into your daily smoothie or a few handfuls of walnuts on your salad.