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Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supports a Healthy Brain

By Connie Wan, P.h.D | September 11th, 2017

There is mounting evidence that a diet containing omega-3 fatty acids not only helps prevent cardiovascular disease but may also help prevent depression. New research has shown that increasing omega-3 consumption reduces incidence of neurological and immune disorders. The relation of omega-3 fatty acids — mainly DHA (docosahexaenoic acid and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) — and depression has been revealed in several studies worldwide.

In a large Finnish study of fish consumption and depressive symptoms, published in Psychiatric Services in April 2001, Tanskanen, et al. demonstrated that the likelihood of having depressive symptoms was significantly higher among infrequent fish consumers than among frequent fish consumers.1 The researchers theorized that the human brain is adapted to Paleolithic diets of our ancient ancestors, whose diet comprised equal proportions of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fats (found in corn and soy seed oils). In the past 100 years, Western diets have lowered the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 to about 1:25; simultaneously, the prevalence of major depression has increased.

In the 2003 Rotterdam Study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Tiemeir, et al. found that elderly persons with depression had a fatty acid composition different from that of non-depressed persons.2 Percentages of omega-3 fatty acids were significantly lower, and the ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 were significantly higher in subjects with depressive disorders than in control subjects.

Dr. Joseph R. Hibbeln from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), discovered that omega-3 fatty acids may influence serotonin functionality in the brain. In a letter published in The Lancet in April 1998, he reported that among healthy volunteers, low plasma concentrations of DHA predict low concentrations of a marker of brain serotonin turnover. Low concentrations of serotonin are strongly associated with depression and suicide.3

DHA is a primary building block in the gray matter of the human brain and in the retina of the eye, and is present in every cell in the body.  The fatty acid is essential at every stage of human life, beginning in utero. DHA together with its precursor EPA must be derived from foods because human body cannot produce its own supply.   Fish and nutritional supplements (using either fish oil or plant oil as the omega-3 source) tend to provide an ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s (10:1). Supplementing your diet with Omega-3 fatty acids sources and therefore bring the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 to an ideal balance is essential for maintaining a healthy brain.

Thanks for reading.

Journal References:

  1. Tanskanen A. et al. Fish Consumption and Depressive Symptoms in the General Population in Finland, Psychiatric Services 2001; 52 (4): 529-531.
  2. Tiemeier, H. et al. Plasma fatty acid composition and depression are associated in the elderly: the Rotterdam Study, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003; 78 (1): 40-46.
  3. HibbeIn, J. Fish consumption and major depression, The Lancet 1998; 351:1213.

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