When it comes to the benefits of omega-3 supplementation with fish oil, there’s absolutely no conflict between mind and heart—the evidence shows it’s one mighty supplement that benefits both.
What Are the Benefits of Omega-3 Supplements?
First, the most important fact to remember about omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) is that they are indeed essential, meaning that your body needs to get them from your diet. Unfortunately, with today’s modern diet, which is light on omega-3-rich foods (fish, grass-fed meats, nuts, seed and dark leafy greens) and heavy on foods with saturated fats and oils (corn, safflower, soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, peanut, etc.) that are rich in omega-6 EFAs—we are falling short. Way short.
A Harvard School of Public Health study published in 2011 found that omega-3 deficiency is likely the sixth biggest killer of Americans, and maybe the underlying factor of roughly 96,000 premature deaths each year!1
Our brains, hearts, and bodies appear to suffer when we don’t get enough of these healthy fats. In terms of brain and heart health, omega-3s derived from wild cold water fish oil (or grass-fed animal fat and other kinds of seafood) are best because they are loaded with two particular brain- and heart-healthy EFAs called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Literally, thousands of scientific studies have been conducted using fish oil rich in these two nutritional dynamos—with mostly promising results.
Your Brain Needs Fat
Fat plays an important structural role in our brain cell membranes, which are fatty by nature. In fact, DHA makes up a full quarter of all brain fat, and it is the brain’s preferred fat for building brain cell membranes. DHA’s shape is highly flexible, which is needed for efficient cellular communication. However, when your brain doesn’t get adequate amounts of DHA through the diet, it’s forced to use inferior fats, such as saturated and trans fats. Brain cell membranes can become more rigid with these less flexible fats, which can slow information processing and overall brain function.
In an omega-3 deficient world, some pretty cool stuff can happen when the brain gets enough DHA. A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study of healthy young adults whose diets were low in DHA found that supplementation with the fatty acid improved memory and reaction time.2 DHA also benefit seniors experiencing mild memory problems associated with aging. After one year, elderly subjects taking a DHA-concentrated fish oil supplement showed significant improvements in short-term and working memory compared to those taking placebo.3 Memory is just one aspect of cognitive function that Omega-3 supplementation supports, however. A meta-analysis of 10 randomized controlled trials found it also enhances attention and processing speed.4
But let’s not forget EPA. Although it doesn’t play the structural role that DHA does, it helps support mood and emotional balance. It’s thought that EPA may help by reducing inflammatory processes in the brain and by balancing out metabolic pathways. A recent meta-analysis of 19 different trials in people with blue mood “demonstrated a significant clinical benefit of omega-3 …treatment compared to placebo.”5 In this regard, EPA appears to be more effective than DHA.6 Omega-3 supplementation has also been found effective in people who are prone to mood swings and helps alleviate occasional stress.7,8,9
Omega-3 Supplements Benefit Brain & Heart
With World Heart Day upon us on September 29, it would be remiss not to mention the numerous heart-healthy benefits to be had from EPA and DHA.
Seriously, when health authorities such as the American Heart Association recommend at least two oily fish meals per week (which equates to roughly 500 mg per day of EPA and DHA), a full gram per day for those with coronary heart disease—and even more for those with high triglyceride levels—there’s good reason.
- Let’s start with inflammation. Studies indicate that DHA and EPA from fish oil may support healthy inflammation levels in the body.10 Keeping inflammation levels in check supports a healthy vascular system.
- Then there’s blood pressure and heart function. Research has also correlated adequate amounts of DHA and EPA with healthy blood pressure levels.11 And while still inconclusive, some studies have shown that EPA and DHA may play a role in healthy heart rhythm.12
- Last, let’s not forget triglycerides. Having a high level of triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid) in your blood, can increase your risk of heart disease. A very strong body of research suggests that DHA and EPA help to maintain healthy triglyceride levels.13
For omega-3 deficient Americans concerned about heart health, this is really good news. Taking an EPA- and DHA-rich fish oil supplement and/or simply eating more fish may make a difference. A study published just this month found that omega-3 deficient subjects with cardiovascular disease showed reduced cardiovascular risk factors and improved lipid profiles after a period of supplementation with DHA and EPA.14
What to Look for in High-Quality Omega-3 Supplements
If you want the heart and health support benefits that taking a quality fish oil supplement high in EPA and DHA can bring, keep these shopping tips in mind:
- Because fish can accumulate toxins such as mercury, dioxins, and PCBs, it’s extremely important that the product be highly purified.
- Fish oil spoils easily; look for a product that is manufactured according to the highest quality standards.
- Choose a product that has high amounts of EPA and DHA. Some inferior quality brands are lacking in one or the other or sometimes both. Look for at least 500 mg of each.
Here’s to a sound mind and a strong heart!
1Danaei G, et al. The preventable causes of death in the United States: comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors. PLoS Med. 2009 Apr 28;6(4)
2Stonehouse W, et al. DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 May;97(5):1134-43.
3Lee LK, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid-concentrated fish oil supplementation in subjects with mild cognitive impairment (MCI): a 12-month randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013 Feb;225(3):605-12.
4Mazereeuw G, et al. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive performance: a meta-analysis. Neurobiol Aging. 2012 Jul;33(7):1482 e17-29.
5Grosso G, et al. Role of omega-3 fatty acids in the treatment of depressive disorders: a comprehensive meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. PLoS One. 2014 May 7;9(5):e96905.
6Martins JG. EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Oct;28(5):525-4
7Sarris J, Mischoulon D, Schweitzer I. Omega-3 for bipolar disorder: meta-analyses of use in mania and bipolar depression. J Clin Psychiatry. 2012 Jan;73(1):81-6.
8Buydens-Branchey L, Branchey M, Hibbeln JR. Associations between increases in plasma n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids following supplementation and decreases in anger and anxiety in substance abusers. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psych. 2008 Feb 15;32(2):568-75.
9Buydens-Branchey L, Branchey M. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease anxiety feelings in a population of substance abusers. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2006 Dec;26(6):661-5.
10Duda, MK, et al. Fish oil, but not flaxseed oil, decreases inflammation and prevents pressure overload-induced cardiac dysfunction. Cardiovasc Res. 2009 Feb 1;81(2):319-27.
11Miller, PE, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Hypertens. 2014 Jul;27(7):885-96.
12Ramadeen, A, et al. How Are n-3 LCPUFAs Antiarrhythmic? A Reassessment of n-3 LCPUFAs in Cardiac Disease. Cardiol Res Pract. 2012;2012:746709.
13Bradberry JC, Hilleman DE. Overview of omega-3 Fatty Acid therapies. P T. 2013 Nov;38(11):681-91.
14Shaikh NA, et al. Efficacy of a unique omega-3 formulation on the correction of nutritional deficiency and its effects on cardiovascular disease risk factors in a randomized controlled VASCAZEN® REVEAL Trial. Mol Cell Biochem. 2014 Sep 4. [Epub ahead of print]
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