When you hear the term “omega-3 fatty acids”, what is the first thing you think of? For most of us, it’s fish oil or heart health. We’ve known for a long time that supplementing fish oil and getting ample omega-3’s in your diet means a lowered stroke and heart attack risk, but new research shows that they have very important biological functions in the central nervous system and specifically, the brain.
Most people aren’t aware that there are nutritional risk factors for things like depression, suicide and mood disorders, and omega-3 fatty acids are on the top of that list. Studies are showing that supplementation therapy and changes in diet (along with well-rounded therapeutic support) can deliver staggering results to those who need it most.
WHAT ARE OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
In the typical person’s diet, omega-3 fatty acids are mainly obtained through eating fatty fish or taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement (aka fish oil, krill oil, etc.)
The two main types of omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are important for different reasons in the brain and are found in foods like mackerel, salmon, seabass, cod, oysters, sardines, shrimp and trout.
HOW DO OMEGA-3’S AFFECT MENTAL HEALTH?
•DHA is a major structural component of the neuron membranes in the brain. Not having enough fatty acid can lead to structural changes in the neural membrane, meaning that the way it functions may be altered or compromised.
•EPA has important physiological functions that can affect neuron activity in the brain, and epidemiological studies have shown a connection between
depression and low dietary intake of EPA.
•Studies have shown that DHA and EPA play a critical role in mood, memory, learning, our brain’s ability to communicate to cells, and even brain size later in life.
Now, there is another kind of fatty acid called ALA that the body can convert into DHA and EPA (ALA can be found in foods like flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts) but the conversion rate is quite low- only around 10%, which means eating the foods listed above is the best way to ensure you’re meeting your fatty acid needs.
What if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or just plain don’t like fish? No problem. You can take a high-quality supplement. Just make sure to look for a brand that adheres to high processing standards and has removed the heavy metals like “Nordic Naturals”.
Research has shown that supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids can be just as beneficial as getting these fatty acids through the diet, and combinations of EPA and DHA supplementation have shown beneficial in the treatment of schizophrenia, depression, borderline personality disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
When choosing your supplement, look for a daily dose of 1,000-2,000 omega-3 fatty acids. Your personal needs may vary based on your diet, lifestyle, genetics, medical history, and other factors, but a ratio of 1:1 EPA to DHA is a good place to start. Those with depression may want to take a supplement with higher amounts of EPA, as this has shown promising therapeutic results.
-- Bryna Gavin
Bryna is a Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) and holds a Master of Science in Nutrition & Integrative Health with a concentration in Clinical Nutrition from Maryland University of Integrative Health. She is passionate and diligent about the functional medicine approach and helps clients get to the root cause of imbalances to begin healing through education, guidance, and partnership. Her LA-based private practice (The Simple Leaf, LLC) serves local and worldwide clients with boutique, full-service nutrition consultations via in-home and tele-health appointments.