How omega-3 fish oil affects your brain and your mental health

Fish oil is a popular over-the-counter supplement extracted from fatty fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel and salmon.

Fish oil contains mainly two types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are well known for their benefits for heart and skin health.

However, fish oil also has an incredible impact on the brain, especially when it comes to mild memory loss and depression.

This article reviews the research on how omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil can affect your brain and your mental health.

What are omega-3 fish oil?

Man holding omega 3 and water

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats responsible for most of the benefits for the brain and mental health of fish oil.

Fish oil contains mainly two types of omega-3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA.

These two fatty acids are components of cell membranes and have powerful anti-inflammatory functions within the body. They are also well known for their critical roles in human development and heart health (1).

In the human diet, EPA and DHA are found almost exclusively in fatty fish and fish oil. Because most people do not consume the recommended amounts of fish, it is likely that many people do not get enough EPA and DHA in their diets (2).

The body can produce EPA and DHA from another omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is found in several food sources, such as nuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, canola oil, soybeans and soybean oil.

However, humans can not convert ALA to EPA and DHA very efficiently, and estimates report that less than 10% of the amount of ALA consumed is converted to EPA or DHA (3).

Therefore, taking fish oil may be a good option, especially for those who do not eat a lot of fish but still seek to obtain some of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

Summary EPA and DHA are the two main omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Because people often do not get to their recommended fish intake, fish oil supplements can be a convenient alternative to provide the health benefits of omega-3s.

How do omega-3s affect the brain?

The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are critical for normal brain function and development in all stages of life.

EPA and DHA seem to have important roles in the development of the baby's brain. In fact, several studies have correlated the fish intake of pregnant women or the use of fish oil with higher scores for their children in intelligence tests and brain function in early childhood (4, 5).

These fatty acids are also vital for the maintenance of normal brain function throughout life. They are abundant in the cell membranes of brain cells, preserving the health of the cell membrane and facilitating communication between brain cells (6).

When animals receive diets without omega-3 fatty acids, the amount of DHA in their brains decreases and they tend to experience deficits in learning and memory (7, 8).

In older adults, lower levels of DHA in the blood have been associated with a smaller brain size, a sign of accelerated brain aging (9).

Clearly, it is important to make sure you get enough omega-3 fatty acids to avoid some of these detrimental effects on brain function and development.

Summary Omega-3s are vital for normal functioning and development of the brain. Low levels of omega-3 can accelerate brain aging and contribute to deficits in brain function.

Fish oil may benefit mild memory loss

The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil play an important role in brain function and development. It is also claimed that fish oil can improve brain function in people with memory problems, such as people with Alzheimer's disease or other cognitive impairments.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia and affects brain function and quality of life in millions of older adults. Finding a supplement that could improve brain function in this population would be an important discovery that would change lives.

Unfortunately, a review of the research found no convincing evidence that omega-3 supplements such as fish oil improve brain function in people with Alzheimer's disease (10).

On the other hand, several studies have suggested that taking fish oil supplements can improve brain function in people with milder types of brain conditions such as mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or age-related cognitive decline (11, 12).

These types of conditions are not as serious as Alzheimer's disease, but they still result in memory loss and, sometimes, in other types of damaged brain function.

One study gave 485 older adults with age-related cognitive impairment, either 900 mg of DHA or a placebo every day. After 24 weeks, those who took DHA performed better on memory and learning tests (13).

Similarly, another study investigated the effects of taking 1.8 grams of omega-3 from fish oil supplements daily for 24 weeks. The researchers found improvements in brain function in people with MCI, but not benefits for people with Alzheimer's disease (12).

According to this research, it seems that fish oil supplements can be more beneficial when people start taking them in the early stages of declining brain function. If you wait too long, fish oil may be of little benefit to the brain.

Summary Studies show that fish oil does not improve brain function in people with Alzheimer's disease. However, research suggests that people with MCI or mild decreases in brain function may receive the greatest benefits from taking fish oil.

Fish oil could improve depression

Finding treatments for depression and other mental health disorders remains a priority for public health, and the desire for nonmedical interventions to improve symptoms is likely to increase.

People have long thought that fish oil is related to improvements in mental health, but does research support this claim?

A recent review of clinical studies concluded that taking fish oil supplements improved depressive symptoms in people with depression, with effects comparable to those of antidepressant medications (14).

However, the greatest improvements in depressive symptoms seemed to occur in people who were also taking antidepressants. In addition, people tended to see greater effects when the fish oil supplement contained higher doses of EPA (14).

It is still unclear how EPA and omega-3 improve depressive symptoms.

Researchers have suggested that it may be related to its effects on the serotonin and serotonin receptors in the brain. Others have proposed that omega-3 fish oil could improve depressive symptoms through anti-inflammatory effects (15).

Additional evidence suggests that fish oil may improve other mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder.

However, more high-quality research is needed before the medical community can make definitive recommendations (16, 17).

Summary Fish oil supplements, especially those that contain higher amounts of EPA, can improve depressive symptoms in people with depression. It seems they have the greatest effects on those who are already taking antidepressant medications.

Fish oil does not improve brain function in healthy people

This article has analyzed the effects of fish oil on Alzheimer's disease and mild decreases in brain function, but many wonder about its effects on people with normal brain function.

Observational studies report that eating more omega-3 fatty acids from fish correlates significantly with better brain function. However, these studies evaluated fish consumption, not fish oil supplements.

In addition, correlational studies like these can not prove cause and effect (18).

Most of the highest quality controlled studies agree that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil does not seem to improve brain function in healthy individuals without memory problems.

In a study of 159 young adults, taking supplements containing 1 gram of fish oil per day did not improve brain function, compared to a placebo (19).

Similarly, several studies in older adults have shown that taking fish oil supplements did not improve measures of brain function in people without memory problems (20, 21, 22).

Summary Clinical studies have shown that healthy people with normal brain function did not see improvements in brain function after taking fish oil supplements.

Should you take fish oil for your brain?

Depending on the best research available, you may consider taking fish oil if you have experienced a slight decrease in brain function or if you have been diagnosed with depression.

There could be other health reasons for you to take fish oil supplements, but these two groups of people will probably see the most benefits in terms of mental and brain health.

There are no official recommendations regarding the amount of omega-3 fish oil you must take to see the benefits on brain function and mental health. The amounts used in the research varied from one study to another.

The US Food and Drug Administration UU It has set a safe upper limit for the intake of omega-3 fatty acid supplements at 3,000 mg per day. The European Food Safety Authority has set its recommendation a little higher, at no more than 5,000 mg per day (23, 24).

Taking 1,000-2,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil daily is probably a good starting point that is well below the recommended upper limit. People with depression should choose fish oil supplements with higher amounts of EPA.

It is very important to carefully read the labels when evaluating fish oil supplements. A capsule of 1,000 mg of fish oil may contain less than 500 mg of real omega-3 fatty acids, but this may vary from one brand to another.

In general, fish oil supplements are considered safe at doses in which they were mentioned above.

However, as always, you should inform your doctor before starting with fish oil supplements. Due to its possible effects on blood clotting, this is especially important if you are currently taking blood thinning medications or if you have surgery to follow.

Summary People with depression or with a slight decrease in brain function may consider taking 1,000-2,000 mg of omega-3 fish oil daily. Because fish oil supplements can affect blood clotting, talk to your doctor before you start taking them.

The bottom line

EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil that are vital for the functioning and normal development of the brain.

People with depression or a slight decrease in brain function should consider taking omega-3 from fish oil, as they may see improvements in their symptoms and brain function.

Unfortunately, research has shown that fish oil has no effect on people with normal brain function or people with Alzheimer's disease.

Taking 1,000-2,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil per day can be a good place to start. Your daily dose should not exceed 3,000 mg.

Although fish oil is often praised for its benefits for heart health, it also has incredible effects on the brain and mental health that deserve some attention.



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