By Crystal H. Shelton, Senior Scientific Researcher
With the start of the new school year, it’s important to make sure you and your children are taking full advantage of the benefits omega-3s have to offer. The cardiovascular benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are well-known, and there is certainly no shortage of information or research documenting the valuable role of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in inflammation, cholesterol and triglyceride health and blood flow. However, omega-3s also have far-reaching effects on other areas, specifically mood, cognition and the nervous system.
DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, serves as a very important structural component of the brain’s phospholipids, as well as lipids in the nervous system. DHA accumulates rapidly in the human brain during the third trimester of pregnancy, and this build-up results in rapid brain tissue development and growth during this stage. It plays a significant role in maintaining brain health by supporting normal neural function, and playing a key role in the structural development of neural and synaptic membranes. Inadequate availability of DHA or other polyunsaturated fatty acids during fetal and infant development is thought to be a factor in the development of behavioral, functional and neurological disorders. A research group conducted an in-depth review of over 258 references discussing the importance of DHA in the development of cognition and other brain functions. Their report found positive associations between concentrations of DHA and neurodevelopment. The brain’s need for DHA continues through adult life, as reports show the brain’s cortex continues to undergo active synaptic turnover (an area where DHA has proved critical). Other studies have also pointed out DHA’s effect on mood and stress. One placebo-controlled double-blind study reported that supplementation with DHA appeared to lower aggression levels during periods of stress, while another noted DHA minimized hostility during stressful periods when compared to the placebo.
Similarly to DHA, EPA is an important fatty acid which supports cardiovascular health and promotes the wellbeing of the brain and nervous system. While DHA is an essential component in brain development, EPA appears more focused on behavior and mood. Studies have documented EPA’s effect on improving symptoms of major depression such as mood, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and insomnia. Other studies have also pointed out improvements in aggressive behavior and depression in those with personality disorders. Levels of eicosapentaenoic acid are very low in depressed patients,and other studies have reported that countries with high rates of fish oil consumption have low rates of depressive disorder. The reason for this is not fully understood but the association is noteworthy.
While DHA and EPA are beneficial individually, the combination provides the most benefits for cognitive function and mood health. In a clinical study assessing cognitive performance in healthy adults, the DHA/EPA group improved significantly when compared to the placebo. Results were especially notable with attention and reaction time, anxiety, fatigue, depression and confusion. The authors concluded that “DHA/EPA supplementation can improve higher brain functions – sense of wellbeing (vigor), reactivity, attention, cognitive performance and mood – in young, healthy adults.” Reports of dementia risk and cognitive decline and their associations to omega-3 consumption have been reported in a number of research papers. Overall cognitive performance or cognitive decline is related to omega-3 consumption, whereas those who eat more fatty acids have a better cognitive performance and vice versa. Other studies have shown the success of these fatty acids on helping with aggression. As with depression, there are also numerous reports of low omega-3 levels within the body in those suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Since many adults and children aren’t obtaining these vital fatty acids from their diet, supplementation is very important — especially as the new school year begins!
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Sinn, N., et al. Oiling the brain: a review of randomized controlled trials of omega-3 fatty acids in psychopathology across the lifespan. Nutrients. 2: 128-170, 2010.