Omega-3 and Mental Health

Fish really is brain food.

Studies are finding that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are essential for brain health [source: ScienceDaily]. The importance of these fatty acids becomes most obvious when they're lacking. People who don't get enough omega-3s in their diet face an increased risk of developing conditions such as dementia, depression, attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia and schizophrenia [source: ScienceDaily].

The key to omega-3's effect on the brain is thought to lie in the synapses -- the tiny gaps across which nerve impulses pass from one neuron to another. In order for those impulses to reach the receiving neuron, they need to get through the wall, or membrane, that surrounds the neuron. Cell membranes are made almost completely of fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers believe that omega-3s help keep the membrane more elastic, enhancing the flow of electrical impulses. Omega-3s also help improve blood flow in the brain [source: BBC].

Research is finding that omega-3 fatty acids have several brain-boosting benefits.

  • They improve learning and memory. In studies, children who received omega-3 fatty acid supplements did better in school, scored higher on tests of learning and memory, and had fewer behavioral problems than their peers who didn't get the supplement
  • They protect against depression, other mood disorders, and schizophrenia, and improve mood in people who already have depression
  • They fight age-related cognitive decline due to dementia [sources: ScienceDaily and Life Extension]

The benefits of omega-3s can begin before birth. DHA is passed to the fetus from the mother across the placenta, and it's found naturally in breast milk (today, DHA is also added to some infant formulas). Babies need DHA -- especially during the first two years of life -- for their brains to develop properly. One study found that babies who were born to mothers with higher blood levels of DHA scored higher on tests of attention and learning than those whose mothers had lower DHA levels [source: WebMD]. Another study found that children of mothers who took fish oil supplements during pregnancy had higher IQs than those whose mothers took a placebo [source: American Pregnancy Association].