Your brain controls every system in your body. Without a healthy brain, your heart can’t pump blood, your legs can’t run, and you can’t function normally.
So how does your brain perform at its best? It relies on omega-3 fatty acids — and it does this from the moment you’re born.
Omega-3 fats are the structural material of the nerve cell, says Tom Brenna, PhD, Professor of Human Nutrition, the University of Texas at Austin. They’re essential fats, meaning your body can’t make them on its own, so you need to get them either through food or supplements. Basically, as calcium is to the bones, omega-3 are to the brain.
Here’s exactly what they do for your brain and body — and how you can get more daily.
There are three primary omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs): DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid). More than 30 percent of your brain is made up of these PUFAs.
While all PUFAs are essential, research shows that DHA and EPA have a particularly strong influence on your health. DHA primarily plays a role in developing the structure of your brain, while EPA supports your heart health by reducing inflammation, keeping your triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood) in check, and maintaining a healthy blood flow in your arteries.
Both DHA and EPA are particularly important when it comes to regulating brain function. While the exact contributions of EPA vs. DHA for cognitive functioning aren’t exactly clear, studies have found a link between omega 3 and Alzheimer’s, depression, cognitive performance, and ADHD.
Further, research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine shows that omega-3 fats may reduce your muscle soreness post-workout and increase your mobility.
So what happens if you don’t get enough omega-3s? “Omega-3 essential fatty acid deficiency can negatively affect the structure and function of brain cells called neurons,” explains Joe Maroon, M.D., clinical professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh, who works with high-level athletes from the NFL and WWE. “Administration of omega-3 essential fatty acids can improve blood flow [and] the formation of new brain cells.”
Luckily, there’s an easy way to get more omega-3s in your diet. Federal and global guidelines suggest eating a variety of fish and shellfish at least twice a week, or an average of 250 to 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day. The best sources of DHA and EPA are seafood, specifically fatty fish like anchovies, herring, mackerel, tuna, and salmon. In fact, a PLoS Medicine study showed that eating more seafood could prevent an average of 84,000 preventable deaths each year.
While there are vegetarian and vegan sources of the omega-3 ALA, such as walnuts, flax and chia seeds, research shows your body doesn’t efficiently convert ALA into EPA or DHA. In this case, if you are vegan or vegetarian, you may want to consider taking an algal EPA and DHA supplement to get the omega-3s typically found in seafood.
Unfortunately, most Americans don’t meet the above dietary guidelines. “95% of the US population does not get enough omega-3s to be cardioprotective,” according to Ellen Schutt, VP-Communications and Education at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED).
For this reason, some experts recommend shooting a bit higher than the above recommendations, which is why some people are choosing to round out their diets with fish oil supplements.
Overall, most experts agree that one daily gram of EPA and DHA combined is a solid baseline dose for general health. You can find that in just about 56g of fish like salmon, sardines, tuna and oysters, for example. And if you just don’t eat a lot of fish, you should certainly consider a high-quality fish (or algal) oil supplement as well to maximize intake.
By Chris Mohr, P.H.D., R.D.