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Omega-3s in fish oils important for brain health

by Doris Penner

Many of you grew up taking a daily cod liver oil pill, at least in winter, which likely made your mother feel somewhat comforted as she sent her children out into the cold mornings. If that was your experience, you, no doubt, received health benefits, some of which have come to light only in the last several decades. In the past, fish oils were taken for vitamins A and D which, indeed, are a good reason to ingest them, but more recently, it is the omega-3 fatty acids in the oils that have received publicity. How important is it that we include omega-3 fatty acids consistently in the diet, and are fish oils the only source?

Omega-3s belong to a broad group of fats known as polyunsaturated fats with specific members called “fatty acids” (PUFAs). One of the simplest omega-3s is alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, which cannot be manufactured by the body and thus must come from the diet. Either we consume it, or there will be a deficiency.

What is significant is that under the right circumstances, ALA is transformed by the body into other more complex omega-3s. The best-known ones are EPA and DHA (short forms for complicated names) both of which have multiple functions in supporting body systems and reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.

Important metabolic roles

Let’s examine more closely the role these three omega-3’s play for optimum health. There are basically two important metabolic roles for ALA—the first is to produce energy for cells and the second is its function as the primary building block for EPA and DHA.

It should be noted that the most crucial role for omega-3 fatty acids including EPA and DHA are in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke; however, omega-3s have other important functions which have not been investigated to the same extent. EPA, for example, is the backbone of prostaglandins which act as hormone-like messengers which are critical to balancing the process of inflammation and repair. Thus an adequate amount of EPA in the body positively affects blood flow which is especially important to brain function.

DHA is particularly important to the function of the nervous system including the brain. Drops in brain DHA levels are associated with cognitive impairment or slower neurological development, especially in children. Deficiencies of DHA in nervous system function are implicated in raising the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and problems in the reasoning ability of children.

Limited studies have been performed to determine if omega-3’s might curb conditions such as ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyspraxia (poor physical coordination), dyslexia and learning disabilities. Although some children have shown improvement while given capsules of omega-3s in controlled studies, the results need more research.

Best sources are plant oils

The important thing is for both children and adults to make sure they ingest adequate amounts of omega-3s. Keep in mind that ALA must come from the diet; the best sources are plant oils such as flaxseeds and walnuts, either whole or chopped or as oils extracted from these foods. Very good sources are fish such as salmon and sardines as well as canola and soy oils, while vegetables and fruits such as spinach, Brussels sprouts, green beans, romaine lettuce, squash, strawberries and raspberries as well as fish including cod, tuna, shrimp and halibut contain ALA in lesser amounts.

It should be noted that beef, dairy and eggs may provide varying amounts of ALA with larger amounts found in foods from animals that have been pasture-fed on a variety of grasses and legumes. Again, the importance of a varied diet is obvious since the body cannot do an effective job of converting ALA to EPA and DHA without a satisfactory supply of nutrients including vitamins B3, B6 and C and minerals zinc and magnesium.

While omega-3s such as EPA and DHA can be created from ALA if all the right nutrients are present, you can help your body along by ingesting these particular ones in your diet. To our advantage, the best food source of both EPA and DHA are cold water fish including salmon and sardines (which are also an excellent source of ALA). Thus you can see the significance of eating these so-called fatty fish at least two times a week.

One issue that must be addressed is that many people and children in particular, are not fond of fish. While it is important to get omega-3 fatty acids from food, a supplement should be sought if the diet is low in omega-3s to ensure one is ingesting adequate amounts.