Features

Food for Thought: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

by Benjamin Virnston

The omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and certain plant oils, are a brain-boosting food with which many people are already familiar.

Omega-3s, especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential for healthy neuronal function, which is the basis of all cognition.

Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and BRain Injury Research Center, briefly described how omega-3s are believed to affect cognition.

“Omega-3 fatty acids support synaptic plasticity and seem to positively affect the expression of several molecules related to learning and memory that are found on synapses,” Gomez-Pinilla said. “Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain function.

These fatty acids have also been studied for their ability to treat and possibly prevent the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and age-related cognitive decline.

Diets rich in omega-3s have been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, due to improved circulation and other benefits. This improved circulation aids the brain by providing it with more nutrients and oxygen, while also helping to clear waste and toxins more effectively.

If you need more convincing to integrate fish and other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids into your diet, mounting evidence suggests that they may have the potential to treat and prevent various psychological disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Unfortunately, water pollution has led to mercury contamination in many fish. Through a process called bioaccumulation, larger species, or those at the top of their respective food chains, accumulate the most mercury. For this reason, avoid or limit consumption of shark, albacore, swordfish, and other large, predatory fish. Canned tuna is safe in moderation, while salmon, pollock and sardines are virtually contaminant-free.

For vegetarians or those who don’t care for fish, there are a variety of options for increasing omega-3 consumption. However, these contain mostly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is less effective for cognitive enhancement, while still providing health benefits of its own. Fortunately, some ALA is converted by the body into DHA and EPA. The best vegetarian sources of omega-3s are kiwifruit, black raspberries, purslane, oily seeds (especially flax, chia, hemp and canola) and oily nuts (especially walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts).

Another option for those wishing to increase their intake of omega-3s are dietary supplements. Many of these products are either purified of any mercury contamination or made from contaminant-free sources, such as the smaller dish listed above and plant oils.

Donna Fernandez was convinced by her son, a Wright State University student, to begin daily supplementation with a fish oil product, after mentioning mild cognitive decline and poor circulation.

“I try to cook a lot of fish for my family, but I was worried about mercury so I decided to decrease our intake of certain risky fish and begin supplementing with fish oil,” Fernandez said. “While it certainly isn’t a miracle cure, I have noticed an improvement.”

Fish oil supplementation can interfere with the absorption of vitamin E and cause interactions with other supplements and medicines, according to an article published on the Wright State University Pharmacy’s website. Those interested in supplementing with fish oil should consult their healthcare provider.

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