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Crucial Brain Fats

What You Need To Know About Omega 3, DHA, And EPA

written by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. December 11, 2018
Crucial Brain Fats

The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are associated with many aspects of brain health. I recommend supplementing with these beneficial fats; most modern diets are low in DHA and EPA unless fish is consumed regularly. In fact, research has confirmed that vegans tend to have a low omega-3 index.1

DHA is concentrated in the membranes of brain cells; there, DHA provides structure to the membrane and is involved in signaling connectivity between cells, and neurotransmitter production, among other important actions. EPA and DHA have some common functions and some distinctive ones. DHA is most often associated with brain development, learning and cognition and EPA with mood and behavior and anti-inflammatory effects.2-5

DHA is Necessary For Early Brain Development

DHA is a building block of human brain and eye tissue. Sufficient levels of DHA throughout life are important for vision and learning.2,6  Maternal stores provide the developing baby with the DHA for brain and eye development, and after birth, the DHA is provided by breast milk. There is some evidence that having higher DHA levels, or taking DHA supplements during pregnancy and nursing, benefits the child’s cognitive development and intelligence.7,8  Similarly, in randomized controlled trials, infants exposed to DHA-containing formula have similarly shown cognitive improvements at 9 months of age compared to those whose formula did not contain DHA.9

Omega-3 Supplementation Showed Improved Learning and Attention in Childhood and Adolescence

Although the time between birth and 2 years represents the phase of the brain’s largest growth, brain development is not complete after age 2; it continues through childhood and into the late twenties.2,10 The majority of omega-3 supplementation trials in children have reported improvements in measures of school performance (such as reading, spelling or learning ability) or behavior.2

One interesting study used functional MRI to view activity in the brains of young boys (8-10 years of age) who took either placebo or a DHA supplement for 8 weeks. The boys who took DHA showed increased functional brain activity during a cognitive task, and their level of activation correlated directly with their blood DHA levels.11 This study suggests that DHA helps the learning process in children. This research has significant implications since early academic success helps to build confidence and set the stage for future college and career performance. Another study on teens (age 13-15) in the Netherlands found that higher blood omega-3 levels correlated with better scores on cognitive tests.12

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