Study after study has shown the link between fatty acids and brain health. In particular, some studies are showing that taking Omega-3 supplements helps fight depression and anxiety.
It’s fairly well-established that Omega-3’s promote heart health, decreasing the risk of heart attack and relieve arthritis pain.
A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 1998 found that people suffering from depression had low levels of omega-3’s in the membranes of their red blood cells.
A study in the Archives of General Psychiatry (May 1999) showed that most study participants with bipolar disorder saw an improvement in their symptoms after four months taking 10 grams of fish oil per day.
How Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help with Anxiety, Depression and Brain Function?
We don’t know for certain how they work, but some researchers think the reason has to do with the fact that our cell membranes contain omega-3’s. This might sound irrelevant, but remember that cell membranes perform a lot of important functions. Some scientists believe that improving the integrity of cell membranes makes them better able to do their jobs- one of which is to allow serotonin into the cell.
Low serotonin has long been associated with depression. Increasing serotonin levels is the basis for one of the most popular classes of antidepressant medications, called SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Increasing omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to raise serotonin levels.
A Little Background Info on Omega-3’s
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids that are important for human health. They have ridiculously long names, so they are instead referred to as ALA, EPA and DHA.
- Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
ALA is found mostly from plant food sources and the human body is technically able to use it to make EPA and DHA. The only problem with this is that the body isn’t terribly efficient at this process and as we age, the ability to use ALA to make EPA and DHA lessens.
Fortunately, there are natural sources of EPA and DHA, such as salmon or sardines. Of course, many people choose to take fish oil capsules or krill oil, which contain concentrated amounts of EPA and DHA.
The brain has high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids and depends on them heavily. Developing children, for example, rely on omega-3’s for brain formation and growth. As people get older and their brain stops growing, they still require omega-3’s to function.
Symptoms of Omega-3 Deficiency
Deficiency of omega-3’s is relatively common in the U.S. This is due in part to the typical American diet being low in omega-3’s. Signs of an omega-3 deficiency include:
- Dry skin
- Heart problems and bad circulation
- Cognitive difficulties, especially poor memory
- Mood swings
Your Ratio of Omega-3’s Should Be More than Your Omega-6 Intake
Scientists have found that the ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats in your diet is very important. Americans tend to consume more omega-6 fatty acids, but the body needs more omega-3’s than omega-6’s. Experts estimate that the average American diet has 14-25 units of omega-6 fatty acids for every 1 unit of omega-3’s. This is a big problem because it should be the other way around: an ideal diet would contain 14-25 units of omega-3 for every unit of omega-6.
Many omega-6’s promote inflammation in the body. Omega-3’s reduce inflammation.
And Your Ratio of EPA to DHA is Important, Too
When choosing an omega-3 supplement, it should contain 2 units of EPA for every unit of DHA. Both the EPA and DHA should be in the same supplement.
Obviously, this rule of thumb doesn’t hold true if you are buying flaxseed oil, which naturally only contains ALA.
Dosage of Omega-3’s or Fish Oil
When deciding on a dosage of fish oil or omega-3 capsules, always look at the amount of actual EPA and DHA in the pill. Do not compare based on the weight of the pill itself.
Which Omega-3 Supplement to Take
There is much debate over which type of omega-3 supplement is best to take. The most popular is fish oil, but flaxseed oil, krill oil and algae-based DHA are also used.
Overall, fish oil is best, but only if you make sure it doesn’t have abnormally high levels of mercury. Fish oil made from smaller fish, such as sardines or herring, has less risk of harmful mercury content. Another option is to buy a fish oil supplement that has been purified and tested by an independent lab.
Proponents of krill oil say that it is just as effective as fish oil, but has less risk of high mercury content. Some also believe that krill oil itself is superior to any other source of omega-3’s.
Flaxseed oil does not contain EPA and DHA. Instead, it contains ALA. This is also true of freshly ground flaxseed. People who prefer this form of omega-3 are often vegetarian or are allergic to other types. Although ALA is useful and the body can usually use some of it to make its own EPA and DHA, this process isn’t very efficient. It is more efficient and effective to take fish oil or krill oil.
How to Store Your Omega-3’s
It is best to store your omega-3 supplements in the refrigerator. Some brands may be put in the freezer instead.
Exposure to air deactivates omega-3’s.
Omega-3’s Improve Brain Function
Some studies have shown that omega-3’s slow age-related cognitive decline and may even protect against dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.
Omega-3’s for Schizophrenia
There have been studies showing that omega-3’s could reduce symptoms in those with schizophrenia. This has not been definitively proven, but since omega-3 supplements are generally safe, they’re worth a try if your doctor approves.
Fish Oil for ADHD
Many studies have been done, especially on children, on the effect of omega-3 supplements on ADHD symptoms. Some had positive results, while others did not. In time, some researchers have pointed out that the studies that showed no improvement in ADHD symptoms may have been using the wrong ratio of EPA to DHA. For instance, some studies gave children DHA only. This left EPA out entirely. Another reason some scientists believe these studies failed was that the source of the omega-3 supplement mattered. Using algae-based DHA supplements did not seem to be as effective as using fish oil.
Research has linked low omega-3 levels to more severe symptoms in kids with ADHD.
Omega-3 supplements are generally safe, but since each individual is different, they may not be right for you. You should always talk to your doctor before taking supplements, especially if you have any medical condition.
People who take medications that thin the blood, such as Coumadin (Warfarin), Plavix or aspirin, should be especially cautious when taking omega-3 supplements. The same is true of those who have any sort of bleeding disorder.
For those with diabetes, omega-3’s can raise fasting blood sugar. Diabetics should discuss the risks and benefits of omega-3 supplementation with a healthcare professional.
By far, the biggest concern about omega-3 supplements is the potential for heavy metal content. Mercury is a particularly big concern. Fish oil is sometimes made using large fish, such as salmon. These fish have higher mercury content than smaller fish. To avoid mercury in your fish oil, buy fish oil made from small cold water fish, such as sardines or herring. Another possibility is to purchase fish oil that has been purified and tested. The label on the bottle will usually say what type of fish it was made from, as well as whether the product has been purified and/or tested for mercury.
Nasty fishy-tasting burps make some people avoid omega-3 supplements. You can buy products that are “deodorized” to avoid fishy burps, but my personal favorites are fish oil capsules that are enteric coated. Enteric coated pills tend to cost more, but since I take 6-8 grams of triple strength stuff every day, I’m very willing to pay extra!
Giving Omega-3 Supplements to Pets
Just a note to those giving omega-3 supplements to their pets- you cannot give enteric coated capsules to pets. You can still use the fish oil inside by breaking open or cutting the capsule to pour on your pet’s food. Pets cannot digest enteric coating, so not only would the capsules be ineffective, they could cause blockages or other damage if your pet’s body can’t expel them.
- Arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the most common fatty acids in the brain
- AA, dihomogamma-linolenic acid and EPA are important in cell signaling and enzyme regulating. They are precursors of eicosanoids (prostaglandins, prostacyclins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes).
- The precursor to Omega-3’s, alpha linolenic acid, is found in seafood and in flax (linseed) oil.
- Eicosanoids are signaling molecules made by oxidizing EFA’s.
- Eicosanoids from Omega-6’s are pro-inflammatory.
- Eicosanoids are oxygenated derivatives of 3 EFA’s: EPA, AA and DGLA
- Platelet Activating Factor augments AA metabolism in phagocytes
- EPA and DGLA provide cascades that compete with AA cascades
- PUFA’s control immune response through influencing eicosanoids. They also alter membrane structure/function, change cytokine synthesis and directly activate gene transcription
- It is suspected that fatty acid intake isn’t the cause of FA deficiency in ADHD, but that people with ADHD metabolize it differently.
- Make sure to take antioxidants that can act on cell membranes and other Omega-3 destinations. Otherwise, oxidation may occur, causing bad side effects. Examples include Vitamin C, E, B complex, zinc, magnesium, biotin and bioflavanoids.
- High doses of EPA can interfere with the metabolism of Adderall.
- Proportions of fat intake have to be right to get benefit from Omega-3 supplements.
- Omega-3’s promote neural growth. Dopamine transmission is lowered in the pre-frontal cortex without them.
- 7:1 ratio of EPA to DHA is ideal.
- Get 80% of FA from Omega-3’s and 20% from Primrose oil (Omega-6).
- The minimum dose for a child with ADHD is 560 mg of EPA, so take more than that.
- A lack of Omega-3 FA makes you thirsty, have to urinate a lot, causes dry skin, dry/brittle hair and impaired immune function.
- Vitamin E helps with Omega-3 absorption.
- Both EPA and DHA effective against inflammation-related disease.