This month’s Brain Food is omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that the majority of Americans are deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids. This deficiency has been link to mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and even suicide.
If you’re new to Brain Foods, read the first installment in the series that breaks down how your gut health can affect your brain health: part 1 and part 2. I recommend reading these two posts first before diving into this month’s feature.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of essential fatty acids that play an important role in your health. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
ALA is found mainly in plant sources such as nuts and seeds like walnuts and hemp seeds as well as plant oils such as flaxseed. DHA and EPA are found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel as well as other seafood. Vegetarian sources of DHA and EPA include pastured eggs and grass-fed, full-fat dairy products, especially ghee (source).
ALA is an essential fatty acid—meaning that your body can’t make it on its own—so you must get it from the foods you consume. Your body can convert a small percentage of ALA into EPA and then to DHA; however, this amount is insufficient so you must also get EPA and DHA from foods to increase the levels of these omega-3 fatty acids in your body. ALA may also play a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease as does marine-derived omega-3s EPA and DHA. (source).
Why are omega-3 fatty acids important your health?
Omega-3 fatty acids play a critical role in your health—effecting everything from cognitive development, Alzheimer's disease and mental illness to metabolism, immune strength, inflammatory function, pregnancy and heart disease.
Research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association of one of the largest clinical trials to date found that both plant and marine-based sources of omega-3s have complementary effects against mortality in a population with high seafood consumption. The study found that consuming omega-3s from plant-based sources may reduce the risk of all-cause mortality and marine-derived omega-3s, from fatty fish, may reduce the risk of heart-related fatalities. It’s important to note that the study found that the greatest protective effects from total mortality were observed in diets that included both plant-based and marine-derived omega-3s, as they appear to act synergistically (source). Read on below for both plant-based and marine sources of omega-3s.
Majority of Americans are currently deficient in omega-3 fatty acids
Previously, the human diet was high in omega-3 fatty acids; however, during the last 100 years, there has been a marked increase in consumption of omega-6 fatty acids (found in animal foods, refined foods and vegetable oils) and a decrease in the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (source). Today about 90 percent of Americans are deficient in omega-3s. We’re eating too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s (source).
Omega-6 fatty acids are an important essential fatty acid and are primarily used for energy in the body; however, one type of omega-6 fatty acid known as arachidonic acid (AA) produces the hormone eicosanoids. Too much consumption can increase inflammation in the body and inflammatory disease (source). Omega-3s and omega-6s exist in a ratio to one another. There’s a cap on the total amount of the two that the body can use, so they end up competing for space. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less (source); however, the Western diet has a ratio between 10:1 and 50:1 (source).
Omega 3-fatty acids and mood
There are number of studies which show that omega-3 fatty acids are proving to be effective against the treatment of depression and anxiety as well as boosting your mood and ability to handle day-to-day stress.
Research has focused on the role EPA omega-3 plays in the efficacy of reducing depression and anxiety (source). One study found that when these patients were given a high dose of EPA (greater than 2 grams of EPA per day), there was a statistically significant reduction in both anxiety and depression compared to those receiving the placebo. The degree of anxiety reduced was highly correlated to the decrease of the ratio of AA (omega-6) to EPA in the blood (source). Additionally, other studies of individuals without clinical depression or anxiety, showed an increased intake of EPA improved their ability to handle stress and generated significant improvements in mood (source).
In another epidemiological study of over 26,000 individuals using data on walnut consumption and depression from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a team of scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that depression scores were 26% percent lower for walnut consumers, compared to non-nut consumers (source).
It is important to note in this discussion that the data regarding the efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids in mental health is not 100 percent conclusive—as few nutritional studies provide this level of certainty. Additionally, some studies on omega-3 fatty acids and mood examined high dosage supplementation among participants rather than traditional dietary intake. As always, I recommend speaking with your doctor, or finding a nutritional psychiatrist, to discuss your individuals needs to determine if supplementation is necessary.
Foods containing omega 3 fatty-acids
Ghee is an ancient ayurvedic food used for thousands of years both for cooking and herbal remedies. Grass-fed ghee vs ghee from conventional cows is comprised of full spectrum short, medium and long chain fatty acids, both unsaturated and saturated. Ghee contains omega-3 fatty acids along with vitamins A, D, E and K. Ghee has little to no casein or lactose, meaning even very dairy-sensitive people can usually eat it and is great for cooking due to its high smoke point. Smoke point determines how hot you can cook a fat before it oxidizes and ghee smoke point is 485°F, making it ideal for pan-frying or baking.
One of my favorite brands of Ghee is from Bulletproof. It’s naturally sugar-free, gluten-free, non-GMO. Order it here.
Hemp Hearts (or shelled hemp seeds) are a versatile seed and will add two times more protein, 70 percent more iron and 25 percent more omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than flax seeds.
Launching later this month as part two on Omega-3 Brains Foods, I am using Manitoba Harvest Hemp Heartsin two recipes, one sweet and one savory. These hemp hearts are also just as easy to sprinkle onto a salad, cereal, in yogurt or throw them into a smoothie. In fact, I keep a small package of these hemp hearts in my lunch bag and throw them on my salad when at school.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times (two servings) a week. Salmon contains more than 1,500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per 3-oz serving of fish (source).
I recently tried Sitka Salmon Sharesfor wild-caught salmon after product was sent to me and I cannot say enough good things about this incredible company. If you’re interested in trying Sitka Salmon Shares, I have a discount code to share. Use code “KAMA19” at check out for $25 off your order (good through 5/31/2019).
Walnuts contain 2,500 mg of ALA omega-3s per 1 ounce, which is more than any other nut. Walnuts are rich in numerous phytochemicals, including high amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and offer potential benefits to brain health. Polyphenolic compounds found in walnuts not only reduce the oxidant and inflammatory load on brain cells but also improve interneuronal signaling, increase neurogenesis, and enhance sequestration of insoluble toxic protein aggregates. (source).
Mackerel are small, fatty fish. Mackerel are incredibly rich in nutrients — a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving packs 200% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for vitamin B12 and 100% for selenium. There are 4,107 mg of omega-3 fatty acids in one piece of salted mackerel (source).
An important message: The entire Brain Food Series is designed to be a guide, to share educational information that empowers you in your own wellness journey. The information in this series in not designed to take the place of a medical doctor and nor is this series designed for you to act on every single topic I share each month. Some topics may be more relevant for you than others. Lastly, the field of nutrition and nutritional psychiatry are a rapidly evolving fields, with research updated frequently. All information is intended to motivate readers to make their own nutrition and health decisions after consulting with their health care provider. Readers should consult a doctor before making any health changes, especially any changes related to a specific diagnosis or condition. No information on this site should be relied upon to determine diet, make a medical diagnosis, or determine treatment for a medical condition. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. No information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition.