The right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is needed for normal functioning of the brain. Without this balance, there will be behavioral and cognitive changes that reflect right from the fetal stage.
Omega 3 Benefits to the Brain:
Omega 3 Benefits : Fetus and Infants
DHA one of the long-chain omega-3 fats has a critical role to play in brain development. Just as calcium is integral for bone development, omega-3 benefits to brain cannot be exaggerated. Here are some of the key benefits of DHA for a baby:
- Has a hand in the architecture of baby’s brain
- The nerve cell communication matrix is built by DHA
- Chemicals that control memory, mood and concentration are influenced by DHA
- Proper growth of brain cells that influence the way they communicate is called neuroplasticity. DHA has a positive role to play in this also.
- The quantity of omega-3 that pregnant mothers consume – especially DHA and EPA – affects baby’s intelligence, attention, development and reduces risk of contracting diseases.
- Low levels of DHA in mother and child can result in decreased language and learning ability, greater instances of SIDS, increased chances of inflammatory diseases later in life like hypertension, allergies and diabetes, greater problems with vision and reduced hand-eye coordination.
Neuropsychiatric Disorders : Omega-3 benefits to brain especially in helping to reduce symptoms of neuropsychiatric disorders are seen here:
Omega 3 helps fight Depression : An alarming deficiency in consumption of omega-3 and a simultaneous increase in the consumption of omega-6 have increased incidences of depression throughout the western world. A recent publication in the ‘British Journal of Psychiatry’ has proved that omega-3 supplements improve symptoms of depression in 3 out of 4 patients.
Effective dosage of 1-2g of omega-3 per day can improve symptoms of depression. Lower levels of seafood consumption and lower levels of DHA in breast milk can cause higher postpartum depression rates in women. Children in the 6-12 age groups who suffered from depression were given omega-3 supplements and showed marked improvement.
A lot of studies have found that not only are anti-depressants not very effective but they also produces many dangerous side effects. What these patients do not realize is that their mood swings and other personality disorders can be controlled by eating foods rich in omega-3 fats. A study of 100 subjects found that those on fish oil supplements showed improved mood and behavior. They had lower blood pressure levels that cause depression. The psychological effects of omega-3 are less studied and more research is required.
Studies are mixed as to the true benefits of omega-3 for depression. This is a serious illness. So, do not try to fix it on your own but seek medical help.
Omega 3 is beneficial in Bipolar Disorder : A landmark study conducted by Andrew Stoll of Harvard University in 1999 established omega-3 benefits to brain especially with respect to bipolar disorders. Patients were divided into groups and along with their prescribed medication, one group was given a placebo and the other a fish oil supplement. At the end of the study period, the group on the fish oil supplement had reduced symptoms of bipolar disorder. It is believed that omega-3 prevents interference from arachidonic acid that is produced due to excess consumption of omega-6 fats. This role of omega-3 is similar to that of mood-stabilizing drugs. Another major benefit is that omega-3 also helps to reduce inflammation of the brain that causes both depression and mania.
However a 4 month long clinical study that treated patients with rapid cycling bipolar disorder and bipolar depression did not find any reduced symptoms with intake of fish oil supplements.
Omega 3 for Schizophrenia : Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder affecting millions and characterized by loss of emotional responses like a normal person, hallucinations and lack of drive. Some studies say that schizophrenia symptoms can be manifest in the fetus due to a low-grade infection. Patients who suffer from schizophrenia have lower levels of omega-3 in the brain that can lead to inflammation. Studies have found that patients on fish oil supplements demonstrated positive results.
A recent study found that a placebo had similar effect as an EPA supplement on those with this condition.
Borderline Personality disorders : BPD patients given 1g of EPA / day for 8 weeks showed lesser symptoms of unstable moods, depressive and aggressive symptoms.
ADHD : Some studies found that kids with ADHD had lower levels of omega-3, and taking these supplements did improve behavior. Other studies however showed mixed results.
Benefits in Cognitive Decline : A few studies demonstrated that less amounts of omega-3 fatty acids meant that those people were at greater risk of contracting cognitive dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Now that we have seen some of the specific omega-3 benefits to brain, here are some studies that can further demonstrate this.
The Brain Ages Better With Omega-3
Researchers are studying the possible effects of omega-3 deficiency and memory problems and other brain related issues. 1575 elderly people free from dementia underwent an MRI brain scan and their mental capacity was evaluated. The results demonstrated that those with lower omega-3 levels (especially DHA) had lower brain volumes. They also scored lower on tests such as abstract thinking, visual memory and processing.
Brain Health in Children
Here is a study conducted among school children in Britain that demonstrates the ability of omega-3 – especially fish oils – in boosting brain power. A nine year old boy studying at a school in Durham was falling behind in his schoolwork – especially reading. He became part of a group of 100 children given omega-3 capsules for 6 months. Over the next few months, he demonstrated a marked improvement in behavior. His academic problems vanished and he raced through library books.
The omega-3 supplements he and other children with similar problems were given contained fish oils found in mackerel, sardines and salmon and also in vegetarian options like canola. Omega-3 can improve brain function by helping to improve blood flow.
From the above points we see that omega-3 benefits to brain affect optimum brain functioning since it keeps cell membranes fluid and healthy. 60% of the brain is made up of fatty tissues. Hence of all the organs in the body, it is most susceptible to deficiency in omega-3 fats. The right amounts of omega-3 in the body prevented brain cells from shrinking that results in depression, improves production of chemicals like serotonin critical for brain functioning and stabilizes the brain cells just like mood-stabilizing medications but without some of the side effects.