Omega-3 and Brain Health: Is this Natural Nutrient the next Nootropic?
Posted on August 24
The importance of Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is something which is greatly understood. Research over the decades has shown their many health benefits including lowering cholesterol and promoting brain, heart and eye health. More recent studies have shown that Omega-3 also functions to improve mood, memory and even cognition – the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding. For this reason, there is ongoing research into whether Omega-3 fatty acids can be considered ‘nootropic’ – a word used to describe drugs, supplements and other substances that have been proven to improve brain function. Read on to find out more about the rise of nootropics and how this amazing nutrient could benefit not only your physical but also your mental health.
Before we get to the good bit, lets make sure we understand the basics by answering these 3 questions…
What are Nootropics?
A term coined by a Romanian Chemist in the 1970s, the word Nootropic is used to categorise all substances which have been shown to improve cognitive function. This can be an overall improvement in cognitive performance, or can relate to specific functions such as memory, creativity and motivation. We are interested in how specific nutrients can promote brain activity in healthy individuals. It all sounds a bit science-y, but remember all food contains nutrients which affect the body and of course your brain is just part of your body.
What is Omega-3?
Omega-3 is a family of fatty acids inclusive of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). None of these can be made in the body and so it is essential that we get them from our diet or take supplements. Omega-3 is commonly (and mistakenly - more about this later) known as ‘fish oil’ because fish are rich in Omega-3. Other dietary sources include seafood, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, tofu and soya products.
We use ALA from our diet to make the other two fatty acids, but this is a slow and limited process that yields only small amounts. Therefore, it is better to eat foods which are high in EPA and DHA, not just ALA. Unfortunately, due to lifestyle, diet and toxicity factors, it is estimated that only 0.5% ALA from our diets goes on to be converted into DHA. Therefore, for those not taking supplements it is highly likely that they are deficient. DHA is the most abundant Omega-3 found in the brain and is essential for brain development, health and function for all ages.
Hopefully this next question will now make sense!
What are the Nootropic Benefits of Omega-3 DHA?
Because of it’s specific functions in the brain, much research into the potential for Omega-3 acids to be nootropic has focused on DHA. Many recent studies have shown that high levels of DHA can improve cognitive function and brain activity. All of these studies use supplementation rather than food sources, as this is the most reliable way to ensure good circulating levels in the body. Let’s take a look at some of the evidence supporting the nootropic benefits of DHA supplementation.
- Increase Brain Speed and Improve Short-term Memory – A 2014 study found that a 30-day DHA supplementation period increased brain performance in simple tasks. Scientists used MRI scanning to assess brain activity during working memory tasks, investigating the effects of DHA on our short-term memory. They found that following the supplementation the subject’s brains worked ‘less hard’ and achieved a better cognitive performance than before supplementation. In other words, achieving adequate intakes of DHA could enhance neurocognitive functioning and improve short-term memory.
- Preventing Memory Loss in Alzheimer’s –Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause of Dementia. It starts with the loss of neurons in the brain, which over time causes brain atrophy (the brain wastes away). Research has shown that looking after your brain can help to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. When we eat foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids they cross the blood-brain barrier to then function in the brain. A study in 2016 investigated the potential of microalgae in treating Alzheimer’s, due to their high DHA and EPA content. Results showed that diets supplemented with Omega-3 can replace membrane fluidity in the brain and prevent oxidative damage to neurons. Amazingly, the microalgae Omega-3 supplement was found to prevent memory impairment, improve antioxidant status and repair neuronal injury in subjects with Alzheimer’s.
- Essential for Brain Development – DHA is rapidly accumulated in the brain during pregnancy. The adequate supply of DHA to the developing brain is largely dependent on the dietary intake of the mother. During infancy, DHA must be consumed to ensure optimal brain development. Research has shown that consuming DHA during pregnancy helps to extend the length of gestation and so prevent the likelihood of a premature birth. One study found that consuming 1g DHA per day during pregnancy enhanced brain development and increased the child’s IQ long-term.
As Nootropics is a relatively new field of research, it is hard to say conclusively whether DHA falls into this category or not. There is certainly evidence to show that high levels of DHA are beneficial for brain health, specifically in improving memory and cognitive function. As ever, further studies will provide more evidence to support this. What is clear is that this nutrient is essential and that we are not getting enough of it in the modern diet.
Meeting your DHA Requirements with Nothing Fishy Microalgae Omega-3 Supplements
You can get enough Omega-3 from your diet if you eat plenty of oily fish, nuts and seeds, but for most of us these are not staple foods. What’s more, those who do not eat fish are very unlikely to meet their requirements. The good news is that recent technological innovations have made it possible for us to harvest Omega-3 directly from microscopic algae plants in the ocean. These plants convert the sun’s energy into Omega-3 and it is only when fish eat these that they also become a good source of the fatty acids. So, Omega-3 isn’t ‘fish oil’ after all.
We grow our algae in purified pools of water in Switzerland, and extract the algal oil to provide a rich source of DHA that is free from heavy metals and toxins, doesn’t harm or kill fish and is 100% vegan and natural. With 200mg DHA per capsule, supplementing your diet with nothing fishy Omega-3 is a reliable, convenient and ethical way to ensure you are meeting your daily requirements and getting the amazing health benefits of DHA.
- Bauer, I., Hughes, M., Rowsell, R., Cockerell, R., Pipingas, A., Crewther, S. and Crewther, D. (2014). Omega-3 supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 29(2), pp.133-144.
- Olasehinde, T., Olaniran, A. and Okoh, A. (2017). Therapeutic Potentials of Microalgae in the Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. Molecules, 22(3), p.480.
- Lassek, W. and Gaulin, S. (2013). Maternal milk DHA content predicts cognitive performance in a sample of 28 nations. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 11(4), pp.773-779.
- Noel, K., Hoffman, J., Ellis, L., Yurko-Mauro, K., Cella, C., Sercus, B. and Nalysnyk, L. (2005). DHA and cognitive function in the elderly: A systematic review of the literature. Alzheimer's & Dementia, 1(1), p.S62.