Fish oil is the biggest selling nutraceutical supplement in the world, and for good reason. There is an incredible amount of evidence for its health benefits and, given omega-3 fatty acids are an essential component of every single one of our cells’ membranes, it’s no surprise that I believe everyone should be taking it either!
One of the key indications for fish oil is cognition and brain health. Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA for short, is a prominent fatty acid in our brain that is critical for optimal function. And this report just adds to what we know about how good omega-3 fatty acids are for our brain.
Higher Omega-3 Levels =
Less Brain Shrinkage With Age
On January 22nd of this year, the journal Neurology® published an online report that revealed an association between higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and greater brain volume in older age. “These higher levels of fatty acids can be achieved through diet and the use of supplements, and the results suggest that the effect on brain volume is the equivalent of delaying the normal loss of brain cells that comes with ageing by one to two years,” commented lead author James V. Pottala, PhD, of the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls.
The study included 1,111 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study, which was a subset study of subjects enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative. Subjects were between the ages of 65 to 80 years upon enrollment. Blood samples were analysed for red blood cell fatty acid levels (the best way to measure your omega-3 levels, also know as the Omega-3 Index) and magnetic resonance imaging was conducted a median of eight years later to evaluate brain volume.
Having a higher blood level of EPA combined with DHA was associated with larger total brain volume and hippocampal volume at the time of the MRI scans – the hippocampus is an area of the brain involved with learning. No association with ischaemic lesion volumes and omega-3 fatty acids was observed.
“In this cohort of post-menopausal women, lower red blood cell EPA plus DHA levels correlated with smaller total and hippocampal brain volumes, the former being an indication of cognitive ageing and the latter being centrally involved with Alzheimer’s disease pathology,” Dr Pottala and his colleagues conclude. “This study thus adds to the growing literature suggesting that higher omega-3 fatty acid tissue levels, which can be achieved by dietary changes, may hold promise for delaying cognitive ageing and/or dementia.”
But don’t wait until you get older to get onto taking fish oil, there are memory benefits for young adults too!
Choosing A Quality Fish Oil
Unless you are consuming deep-sea, cold water fish like mackerel, herring or sardines at least 3-4 times a week – you’re not likely to be getting enough omega-3 in your diet. Also, omega-3 from plant sources like flaxseed oil are not the same as they are in the form of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), not EPA and DHA. The conversion between ALA to the others is really poor.
I have been taking fish oil on a daily basis for about 12 years now. In that time I have examined almost every sort of fish oil that is available in the search for the best one for me, and also for my clients. Here’s what I recommend you look for when choosing a fish oil.
- Potency. Not all fish oil are created equal, and potency determines performance. Most fish oil is available in 1000mg capsules so, at first glance, they all look pretty much the same – and from that point on most people simply look at the difference in price. But you must look at the label closely to see what you’re really getting. The active components of fish oil are the EPA and DHA. Many fish oils deliver around 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA. Which isn’t bad. But it isn’t particularly potent either. It can also start to get more expensive (and annoying) if you’re trying to take therapeutic doses of EPA and DHA and are swallowing loads of capsules in the process. Ideally choose a fish oil that is offering a minimum of 300mg of EPA and 200mg of DHA in order to achieve a therapeutic dose more easily.
- Purity. This is equally as important, if not more so, than potency. Typical oceanic contaminants include dioxins, PCBs and even heavy metals like cadmium, lead and arsenic. Contaminants, like anisidine and peroxide, may also result from poor manufacturing practices. Given a fish oil supplement is taken daily, on a long-term basis, you want to make sure you know what you’re swallowing! Ask to see a certificate of analysis or contaminant report, or better yet – look for the internationally recognised purity symbol of GOED (the cleanest fish oil standard in the world).
NB: ideally select a fish oil that is enteric-coated with vegetable fibre. This means it will break down in your small intestine instead of your stomach which means you’ll avoid having it repeat on you!
DHA for Vegans
If you are a vegan, and as such will not take fish oil, may I recommend DHA from algae? Algal DHA is just as good as DHA from fish oil but is a vegan source. Because, after all, the algae is where the fish oil got their DHA from!
[Source: Higher omega-3 levels equal less brain shrinkage with age. January 22 2014. Life Extension]