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Wise up with omega-3: can omega-3 benefit brain health?

Awareness of the benefits of omega-3 and heart health is globally recognized. In fact, the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for cardiovascular disease are so well demonstrated that the American Heart Association has published statements since 1996 recommending increased fish and/ or omega-3 supplement intake. Scientists and physicians have also discovered many other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids ... and the body of research continues to grow. Among its benefits are improved brain health and function, which leads to the question about whether omega-3 has brain-boosting benefits.

Omega-3 and Brain Health

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a fatty acid that is found at high concentrations in the grey matter of the brain and is instrumental to the function of brain cell membranes, which are important for the transmission of brain signals. By making cell membranes more fluid, omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, improve communication between brain cells. As a result, a lack of omega-3 in the body can cause a communication breakdown in the brain, which is probably the last place you'd want such a failure to happen! Just like a machine, our brain needs oil--in the form of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids--to run smoothly. Unfortunately, the average diet doesn't usually contain the right balance of these fatty acids. In a typical modern diet, you'd probably get plenty of omega-6 from corn, soybean and other oils in processed food. But omega-3 oils, which are just as important, are often missing. This, in turn, leads us to question if there is any correlation between low levels of omega-3 and brain diseases? Omega-3 fatty acids are so important to the development and proper maintenance of the brain that some scientists even hypothesize that it was the ingestion of omega-3 EFAs that allowed the brain to evolve to the next stage of human development.

Can Omega-3s Aid Mental and Emotional Disorders?

The brain's need for omega-3 fatty acids is constant throughout our lives. Omega-3 deficiencies in adults have been linked to various mental and emotional disorders. In fact, some doctors even think that the epidemic levels of mental illness in modern societies can be traced back to the omega imbalance in the food supply. Low levels of DHA have been linked to memory loss, depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, autism and general learning difficulties or bad moods. It is believed that if you don't feed brain cell membranes enough of the right type of fat, neural messages can be short-circuited and garbled. That may mean a disturbance in mood, concentration, memory, attention and behaviour. Depression and bipolar disorders, in particular, have been frequently linked to low levels of DHA, as omega-3 fatty acids help to regulate moods by increasing levels of serotonin, the hormone that relieves depression and improves the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

People who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids or do not maintain a healthy balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in their diet may be at an increased risk of suffering from depression. The omega-3 fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes. They help nerve cells to communicate with each other, which is an essential step in maintaining good mental health. In particular, DHA is involved in a variety of nerve cell processes. Levels of omega-3 fatty acids were found to be measurably low and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was particularly high in a clinical study of patients hospitalized for depression. In a clinical study of individuals with depression, those who ate a healthy diet consisting of fatty fish 2-3 times per week for 5 years experienced a significant reduction in feelings of depression and hostility.

In another clinical study of 30 people with bipolar disorder, those who were treated with EPA and DHA (in combination with their usual mood stabilizing medications) for 4 months experienced fewer mood swings and less recurrence of either depression or mania than those who received a placebo. Yet, another 4-month clinical study treating individuals with bipolar depression and rapid cycling bipolar disorder did not find any evidence of efficacy for the use of EPA in these patients. Preliminary clinical evidence also suggests that people with schizophrenia experience an improvement in symptoms when given omega-3 fatty acids. However, a recent well-designed study concluded that EPA supplements are no better than a placebo in improving symptoms of this condition. The conflicting results suggest that more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for schizophrenia. Similar to diabetes, individuals with schizophrenia may not be able to convert ALA to EPA or DHA efficiently.

Omega-3 may be just as important to the elderly population as it is to newborns, as diminishing omega-3 levels may be a contributing factor to stroke and Alzheimer's disease. Many believe that one of the possible causes of Alzheimer's disease is the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, or clumps of protein, that accumulate in the victim's brain, and experts believe that beta-amyloid might be connected with inflammation of the brain's blood vessels. As omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce inflammation, they could also be an important key in the fight against this frightening degenerative disease, as has been suggested by research in Japan. Japanese studies have shown that supplemental DHA sharpens the memory in patients with dementia and depression, and improves behaviour and speech in those with Alzheimer's disease. Omega-3 fatty acids also support routine memory function in people without Alzheimer's. One study found that DHA supplementation significantly decreased the number of reference memory errors and working memory errors in both aged male rats and young rats.

Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is also linked to Parkinson's disease. A study examining whether omega-3 exerts a neuroprotective effect in Parkinson's found that it did, using an experimental model, exhibit a protective effect (much like it did for Alzheimer's disease). The scientists exposed mice to either a control or a high omega-3 diet from 2-12 months of age and then treated them with a neurotoxin commonly used as an experimental model for Parkinson's. The scientists found that high doses of omega-3 given to the experimental group completely prevented the neurotoxin-induced decrease of dopamine that ordinarily occurs. As Parkinson's is a disease caused by disruption of the dopamine system, this protective effect could show promise for future research in the prevention of the disease. For people who don't like fish, omega-3 fatty acids are also available in some plant foods, such as flaxseed and walnuts, but they are not as potent in these forms. Fish remains the best source of omega-3s, and diets lacking in essential fatty acids may need supplements. Many doctors recommend that for optimal brain function, you should consume fish at least 2-3 times a week. If your diet does not include enough of the omega-3 fatty acids or enough fish, you could consider taking supplements of fish oils or flaxseed oil.


Omega-3 and Health Claims

Despite several years of research, the regulatory position of omega-3 is still very much in the open. In 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave "qualified health claim" status to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) n-3 fatty acids, stating that: "Supportive but not conclusive research shows that the consumption of EPA and DHA [n-3] fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease." In the UK and in Europe, omega-3 hasn't yet reached this "qualified health claim" status. Currently, regulatory agencies, both in the US and Europe, do not accept that there is sufficient evidence for any of the other suggested benefits of DHA and EPA other than for cardiovascular health, and further claims should be treated with caution, including brain function claims. Nevertheless, the Canadian Government has recognized the importance of DHA omega-3 and permits the following biological role claim for DHA: "DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, supports the normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves." As awareness has increased regarding the importance of omega-3 fatty acids to brain health, so the number of products available in the market has increased and the number of food products enriched with omega-3 fatty acids claiming brain health benefits has also increased. But what is the science behind the claims? Is the scientific data supporting the benefits of omega-3 for brain health valid? Or is it all pure speculation and marketing manipulation from the food Industry? Well, we believe that there must be a valid reason why fish is known as "brain food."



The implications of omega-3 deficiency for the brain are profound and span the entire human lifecycle, beginning with pregnancy, premature birth and the potential neurological complications that may result from omega-3 deficiency. Babies who are bottle-fed or born from omega-3-deficient mothers will lack the essential fatty acids that are necessary for optimal cognitive and visual development. Children deprived of omega-3s may be less able to pay attention and control impulsive behaviour, and may be at higher risk of depression. Teenagers and adults with omega-3 deficiencies may be more prone to hostility or violence. In ageing, the loss of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain may result in a higher risk of stroke, memory problems or dementia. Individuals of any age with inadequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and body may also be at higher risk of depression, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric disorders. Although the regulatory authorities have not recognized the science behind omega-3s and brain health, the studies are there to be seen, and those lobbying for this recognition will no doubt continue to push forward. At Principle Healthcare, we recognize and believe in the benefits of omega-3 for brain function; for this reason, we offer a range of high quality omega-3 supplements, specially formulated to supply our customers with the best that omega-3 can provide. So, if you're omega-3 deficient, it's time to wise up. After all, if eating more fish oil can help to keep your brain sharp and help you hold on to those precious memories as you grow older, it seems like a smart choice to make.


(1.) M. Bousquet, et al., "Beneficial Effects of Dietary Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid on Toxin-Induced Neuronal Degeneration in an Animal Model of Parkinson's Disease," FASEB J. 22(4), 1213-1225 (2008).

(2.) Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Summary Table of Biological Role Claims Table 8-2 (www. shtml).

(3.) W.S. Fenton, et al., "A Placebo Controlled Trial of Omega-3 Fatty Acid (Ethyl-Eicosapentaenoic Acid) Supplementation for Residual Symptoms and Cognitive Impairment in Schizophrenia," Am. J. Psychiatry 158(12), 2071-2074 (2001).

(4.) S. Frangou, et al., "Efficacy of Ethyl-Eicosapentaenoic Acid in Bipolar Depression: Randomised Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Study," Br. J. Psychiatry 188, 46-50 (2006).

(5.) D.F. Horrobin and C.N. Bennett, "Depression and Bipolar Disorder: Relationships to Impaired Fatty Acid and Phospholipid Metabolism and to Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, Immunological Abnormalities, Cancer, Ageing and Osteoporosis," Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fatty Acids 60(4), 217-234 (1999).

(6.) K.M. Silvers, et al., "Randomised Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial of Fish Oil in the Treatment of Depression," Prostaglandins Leukot. Essent. Fatty Acids 72, 211-218 (2005).

(7.) United States Food and Drug Administration, " FDA Announces Qualified Health Claims for Omega-3 Fatty Acids ( NEW01115.html).

(8.) A. Ueki, "How Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Affect Alzheimer's Disease?" Bull. Japan. Neurochem. Soc. 44(2/3), 167 (2005).

(9.) S. Gamoh, et al., "Chronic Administration of Docosahexaenoic Acid Improves Reference Memory-Related Learning Ability in Young Rats," Neuroscience 93(1), 237-241 (1999).

For more information

Kattia Silva Correia, BSc, MSc, PhD, Regulatory Affairs Manager and Madeline Spear, Ecommerce and Direct Marketing Manager

Principle Healthcare Ltd

Airedale Business Centre, Millennium Road

Skipton BD23 2TZ, UK.

Tel. +44 1756 792 600
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Title Annotation:brain health
Author:Correia, Kattia Silva; Spear, Madeline
Publication:Nutraceutical Business & Technology
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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