DHA and Our Brains
DHA and DHEA, despite being similar acronyms, are two different things entirely. This article discusses DHA or docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid derived from food sources. DHEA is dehydroepiandrosterone, which is a synthetic hormone. While synthetic hormones may have beneficial uses in some cases, they are not discussed here a nutrition for optimal brain function and repair.
That being said, let’s talk about the food derived omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA.
The Importance of Omega-3’s:
DHA is one of the most important omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. First off, what is an omega-3 fatty acid? There are two essential fatty acids (EFA’s) which are alpha linoleic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid).
They are called “essential” because our bodies cannot produce them so we must acquire them from food sources. When it comes to omega-3’s, there are three main players:
- ALA (alpha linoleic acid)
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
ALA must be acquired from food sources because we can’t create it. The other two Omega-3’s are often also considered to be essential by many experts, but they are “conditionally essential” because ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA.
The problem is that our bodies’ ability to convert ALA into EPA is typically only about 10% (depending on what study you look at), and our ability to convert EPA into DHA is only about 1% of that initial 10%!
Love Your Liver
Additionally, this conversion occurs in the liver, and only works if your liver is functioning optimally.
Since we live in a world that we humans have filled with pollution, most people’s livers are dealing with a total crisis of contamination, so this conversion is likely even less!
DHA and Your Brain
As you will read, these fatty acids are very important for brain health, but because we technically can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, there is no officially set recommended daily intake.
In this article, we will talk about what these fatty acids do, how much to take, and some easy ways that we can supply these nutrients.
Why is DHA so special?
DHA is the rarest needed fat that we find in foods, and it is the final stage of the conversion process that Omega-3’s undergo in our bodies. If we can get an optimal amount from diet and/or supplementation, then it takes the pressure off our liver to convert other omega-3’s into DHA.
Much of the research on Omega-3’s show DHA specifically to have the most beneficial effects on memory, and brain health. In the Chicago study (1), a strong neuroprotective effect was observed with DHA that was not seen to the same degree with EPA.
Several studies have also shown that people with Alzheimer’s have severely low levels of DHA in key areas of the brain related to memory formation like the hippocampus (2)(3).
In another study at Rotterdam (4), it was discovered that eating even one meal per week that included fatty fish like salmon could reduce the incidence of cognitive decline and dementia by up to 60%!
DHA also helps improve cognitive abilities in aging rats who do not have a neurodegenerative disease (5). Other studies show DHA improving cognitive abilities, and learning in healthy young rats as well (6) which means that you do not have to be sick to get better from using DHA!
Many of these health benefits come from the antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory effects of DHA shown in the image below. However, many of the brain benefits, as you will soon see, come from the fact that it is a crucial structural component of the brain itself.
The next crucial piece of this omega-3 puzzle lies in fetal brain development and the first few years of our lives which are some of the most formative years for our brains and neurons.
I have often stated the importance of healthy fats because our brains are about 60% fat. I also like to remind everyone that our brains consume about 25% of our total energy and nutrition even though our brains make up only a small part of our body mass.
When we are in the womb, this energy consumption goes up to 70%! Almost all of our energy resources go to building our brain and nervous system when we are a fetus, and DHA is a crucial part of this building process.
Our Brain and Our Eyes
DHA makes up about 30% of our brain matter and approximately 50% of the retinal structure in our eyes. Adding DHA to your diet not only increases cognitive function, but it also increased visual acuity in developing humans and animals (7).
As if this were not enough of a reason to make sure you are getting enough DHA in your diet, another study found that babies born with neurological problems had low levels of DHA, and other important fatty acids, and had elevated levels of trans fats in their brains (8).
Avoid Trans Fats and Get DHA
Humans are basically just grown up babies which is why we recommend avoiding trans fats and other inflammatory fats, and adding in anti-inflammatory fats like DHA and EPA into your diet. DHA reduces inflammation by reducing the expression of Nf-kB (Nuclear factor kappa-beta) among many other anti-inflammatory actions shown in the image below.
Nf-kB is an inflammatory marker in our bodies that we can measure that can generally show us how much inflammation or oxidative stress is occurring in out bodies.
How Big of a Problem is This?
What’s pretty scary is that we in the United States have an imbalance of fats in our diets that is reaching epidemiological proportions. It is recommended that we eat a 1:1 ratio or at most a 1:2 ratio of omega-3 fatty acid to Omega-6 fatty acid.
However, the average American eats between 1:16 and 1:36 ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6. Many of us are eating too many fried foods that are cooked in rancid (oxidized) Omega-6 oils like vegetable oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, and other common polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s).
In order for our bodies to properly metabolize these fats, we need a balance of them in pretty even ratios.
Some oils like olive oil are naturally in a healthy balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6, while oils like vegetable oil (which are not actually made from vegetables, but from the seeds of grasses) are almost entirely Omega-6 fatty acids.
How Much is Enough?
The American Heart Association says that we should eat two or more servings (3.5 oz.) of fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, etc. in order to support cardiovascular health, but a dietary survey of shows that most Americans eat half that amount or less.
According to one dietary study (9), most Americans get a dose of combined EPA and DHA equalling 100-200mg per day while many experts recommend getting at least 650mg (combined EPA/DHA) per day, and I like my intake to be at least 500mg of DHA a day. More is even more beneficial as “Supplemental intakes of EPA and DHA combined at doses up to 5 g/day… do not raise safety concerns for adults.” CITE
What About Vegan Sources?
ALA can be found in many vegetarian and vegan sources like flax, hemp, and chia seeds while EPA and DHA (the important conditionally essential fatty acids) are primarily found in animal foods like fatty fish and eggs.
If you are a vegan, then I highly recommend supplementing EPA and DHA. Luckily, there is one vegan source of EPA and DHA that is cold-pressed from algae. You can find our favorite vegan omega-3 supplement (including EPA and DHA) by clicking on the image below.
This is our favorite salmon supplier: Vital Choice
What If You Are Deficient in Omega-3’s?
Bear in mind that this recommendation is if you are healthy, and not deficient in Omega-3’s! You may require far more under certain circumstances.
In addition to supporting a healthy brain, Omega-3’s have also been shown to have beneficial effects on obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular health (10).
A National Health Crisis
When we combine all of this data, we can clearly see that EPA and DHA are much more essential than we once thought, and that most people in the U.S. are not getting enough which is leading to a lot of complications.
There was a study done at Harvard that was funded by the Center for Disease Control. It was estimated that approximately 96,000 deaths every year were caused by diseases related to omega-3 deficiency (mainly cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease)!
Food First, Supplement Second
In our opinion getting these nutrients from your diet is the best option because there are other amazing nutrients found wrapped up in food sources of Omega-3’s that you will not get with a supplement.
However, if you live on the go like most of us, or cannot eat fatty fish, and/or eggs for some reason, then we highly recommend getting a supplement just to cover all of your bases. Below are some of the suppliers we love for fish, and fish oil.
Vital Choice and JJ Virgin
We have taken great care to select only the highest quality fish products from pristine fisheries with very low contamination from toxins that are all too common in your average store bought fish.
We also choose companies that fish sustainably in order protect our environment from further degradation. All of the fish oils we recommend are molecularly distilled to remove neurotoxins like mercury, and are held to international quality standards that are validated by third party laboratories.
You can learn more about the product that I.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.
(1) Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, et al. Consumption of fish and omega-3 fatty acids and risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Arch Neurol. 2003 Jul;60(7):940-6.
(2) Soderberg M, Edlund C, Kristensson K, Dallner G. Fatty acid composition of brain phospholipids in aging and in Alzheimer’s disease. Lipids. 1991 Jun;26(6):421-5.
(3) Prasad MR, Lovell MA, Yatin M, Dhillon H, Markesbery WR. Regional membrane phospholipid alterations in Alzheimer’s disease. Neurochem Res. 1998 Jan;23(1):81-8.
(4) Kalmijn S, Launer LJ, Ott A, Witteman JC, Hofman A, Breteler MM. Dietary fat intake and the risk of incident dementia in the Rotterdam Study. Ann Neurol. 1997 Nov;42(5):776-82.
(5) Morris MC, Evans DA, Tangney CC, Bienias JL, Wilson RS. Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study. Arch Neurol.2005 Dec;62(12):1849-53.
(6) Gamoh S, Hashimoto M, Sugioka K, et al. Chronic administration of docosahexaenoic acid improves reference memory-related learning ability in young rats. Neuroscience. 1999;93(1):237-41.
(7) McCann JC, Ames BN. Is docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, required for development of normal brain function? An overview of evidence from cognitive and behavioral tests in humans and animals. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Aug;82(2):281-95.
(8) Dijck-Brouwer DA, Hadders-Algra M, Bouwstra H, et al. Lower fetal status of docosahexaenoic acid, arachidonic acid and essential fatty acids is associated with less favorable neonatal neurological condition. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2005 Jan;72(1):21-8.
(9) Kris-Etherton PM, Taylor DS, Yu-Poth S, et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the food chain in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):179S-88S.
(10) Lorente-Cebrián S, Costa AG, Navas-Carretero S, Zabala M, Martínez JA, Moreno-Aliaga MJ. Role of omega-3 fatty acids in obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular diseases: a review of the evidence. J Physiol Biochem. 2013. Jun 22.
Thank you Zach.
I met Zach at our local fresh food market about a week ago. Zach was busy but stopped what he was doing to spend some time educating me on proper nutrition and specifics in regard to meeting my goals. Appreciate you spending the time with me. I look forward to being healthier.
Zach knows his stuff!
Dr Perlmutter apparently had been looking through the data on the BlueZone cultures [ those people are not only more likely to pass 90 years old — over 30% likely — but they are vigorously healthy -vs- a dozen prescriptions and decrepit like in western medicine land] … Perlmutter commented that the average intake of olive oil [evo] was an astounding PINT PER WEEK PER PERSON… that’s about 1oz/meal x2meals per day… and that would amount to a LOT of omega 3… about 400mg/day [courtesy of wikipedia]…. the rest of their diet was lots of veggies and fish, [other meat varied by locale] whether they were mediteranean, central american, or far east… and to cap off the commonalities, i’ll point out — since no one else will — that they all lived in climates that were under 1000 heating degree days per year, even the 7th Day Adventists are predominately southern USA…. not like Ohio’s 5000 HDD per year.. so who knows how many oz/day you’d need in northern climates… more fuel needed in the cold, just ask any stray cat in our naturopathic rescue work, lol… ttyl
You’re awesome, MJ! As always, thank you for your brilliant contributions!