Feeding the Brain: How important is Omega-3?

Discover why Omega-3 fatty acids are a powerhouse nutrient for your brain. From boosting cognitive function to improving mental wellbeing, learn how to harness the benefits.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a powerhouse for your brain
Omega-3 fatty acids are a powerhouse for your brain


Did you know that there’s an invisible ally you can enlist in your quest for optimal brain health? It’s nestled within your food, ready to boost your cognitive prowess, memory recall and emotional wellbeing. Enter the world of Omega-3 fatty acids – a group of essential fats offering a host of health benefits, with an impressive repertoire that makes them particularly significant for your brain.

Why are Omega-3 fatty acids essential?

Every day there are new discoveries in the field of nutritional neuroscience, highlighting how your dietary choices can impact your brain’s health. Amidst this intriguing line-up of nutrients, Omega-3 fatty acids emerge as a standout. They claim the limelight for their powerful role in bolstering brain function and safeguarding against cognitive decline. With the increasing prevalence of mental health issues and age-related cognitive diseases, understanding and incorporating Omega-3 fatty acids into your diet has never been more vital.

Separating the wheat from the chaff can be daunting in this ever-evolving landscape of brain health and nutrition. That’s where this article comes in, offering an easy-to-navigate guide to Omega-3 fatty acids, shedding light on their importance for your brain, and helping you make more informed dietary choices.

What exactly are Omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that your body can’t produce on its own. That makes them what nutritionists refer to as ‘essential fats’. Your body needs these essential fats to function correctly, but you must get them from your diet or supplements. They’re vital for numerous body functions, such as maintaining healthy skin and hair, promoting heart health and crucially, for our discussion here, supporting brain health.

The term ‘Omega-3’ comes from the chemical structure of these fats. Without delving too deep into the science, the ‘3’ in Omega-3 refers to the position of the first double bond in the chemical structure, counting from the end of the molecule.

Salmon is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids
Salmon is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids

Where are Omega-3 fatty acids commonly found?

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a variety of foods. You’re likely most familiar with them in the context of fish, and for a good reason. Fatty fish like mackerel, salmon and sardines are particularly rich sources of Omega-3s.

However, let’s not forget about plant sources! Foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts also offer a substantial amount of these beneficial fats. If you’re on a plant-based diet, these sources can help ensure you’re still getting enough Omega-3s.

Moreover, Omega-3s are also found in fortified foods and dietary supplements. These can be a valuable addition for those who find it challenging to get enough Omega-3s through food alone.

What are the different types of Omega-3 fatty acid?

Omega-3 fatty acids come in several forms:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): This type of Omega-3 plays a vital role in reducing inflammation in the body.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): DHA is integral for brain health, particularly for brain development in infants and cognitive function in adults.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): This is the most common Omega-3 fatty acid in our diets. The body can convert a small amount of ALA into EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. ALA is found in plant foods like flaxseeds and walnuts.

The type of Omega-3 matters because EPA and DHA are the forms most readily used by the body. While ALA does provide some benefits, our bodies could be better at converting ALA to the more beneficial EPA and DHA forms. Therefore, it’s generally recommended to include direct sources of EPA and DHA in your diet, especially for brain health benefits.

Why are Omega-3 fatty acids crucial for brain health?

As we’ve just learned, when it comes to nurturing your brain, Omega-3 fatty acids are vital. It’s a fascinating story too, beginning with the composition of your brain itself. You see, nearly 60% of your brain is fat, and a significant portion of this fat consists of Omega-3 fatty acids. Specifically, one Omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is the primary structural component of your brain and retina.

Think of DHA as the building blocks your brain needs to function optimally. Without sufficient DHA, your brain cells’ structure and function can be compromised. Ensuring you get enough Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, in your diet is like providing your brain with the right quality bricks to build strong, healthy walls.

Omega 3 helps slow the brain's ageing process
Omega 3 helps slow the brain’s ageing process

What specific benefits do Omega-3 fatty acids offer for cognitive function and mental wellbeing?

Omega-3 fatty acids play multiple roles in supporting cognitive function and mental wellbeing. Here are a few key benefits to bear in mind:

  • Mood Regulation: A number of studies suggest that Omega-3 fatty acids can help regulate mood and may play a role in managing conditions such as anxiety and depression.
  • Memory Enhancement: Regular intake of Omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to improved memory, especially in older adults.
  • Neuroprotection: Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, have been shown to provide neuroprotective benefits, potentially reducing the risk of cognitive decline.
  • Anti-inflammatory Actions: These fatty acids are well-known for their anti-inflammatory properties, which may help to protect the brain from damage and ageing.

How does the brain use Omega-3 fatty acids to maintain optimal performance?

The incredible thing about Omega-3 fatty acids is not just their presence in the brain but also how your brain utilises them. DHA, as an integral part of brain cell membranes, influences the fluidity, permeability and function of these membranes. Essentially, it helps your brain cells to communicate more effectively with each other.

Moreover, the anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3 fatty acids help to protect your brain from harmful inflammation. As part of the brain’s defence mechanism, these fatty acids help to limit inflammation, repair damage and restore normal brain function following injury or disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also involved in neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons, and the formation of synapses, the vital junctions where messages are transmitted from one neuron to another.

What does science say about Omega-3 fatty acids and brain health?

There’s a rich seam of scientific research on the profound effects of Omega-3 fatty acids on brain health. Numerous studies suggest these healthy fats are crucial to cognitive function and overall mental wellbeing. You might be surprised to learn just how impactful these fats can be.

For instance, a meta-analysis discovered a significant correlation between Omega-3 supplementation and improved symptoms of depression[1]. So, your mood may actually be influenced by these vital fats.

In another exciting research paper, the potential of Omega-3 fatty acids in mitigating cognitive decline was explored. A systematic review found that regular intake of Omega-3 fatty acids is associated with reduced risk of cognitive decline[2]. That’s a compelling reason to ensure a good supply of these healthy fats in your diet.

How has the understanding of Omega-3’s impact on the brain evolved over time?

Over the past few decades, the understanding of Omega-3’s impact on brain health has significantly evolved. Initially, the focus was primarily on Omega-3’s role in heart health. But as the research unfolded, its crucial role in brain health surfaced.

Researchers initially focused on DHA, as it is a primary structural component of the human brain and retina. Its positive influence on brain development, especially in early childhood, was a key finding.

But with time, it became evident that Omega-3s influence not only structural, but also functional aspects of brain health. The scope of research expanded to include mental health conditions, neurodegenerative diseases and even the intricate links with sleep and mood.

From providing building blocks for brain cells to influencing our mental wellbeing, the journey of discovering Omega-3’s role in brain health has been, and continues to be, an enlightening one. It’s clear that these fats are far more than just a healthy food choice; they’re an essential ally for your brain.

Incorporating omega 3 into your diet has never been easier
Incorporating omega 3 into your diet has never been easier

What are some of the best food sources of Omega-3 fatty acids?

Luckily, these vital fats are abundant in several tasty and versatile foods, making adding them to your meals simple. Some top-notch sources include:

  • Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel and sardines are all brimming with Omega-3s. These fish are an excellent addition to your plate if you enjoy seafood.
  • Chia seeds: These tiny powerhouses pack a punch of Omega-3 and are easy to sprinkle onto yoghurts, smoothies or salads.
  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil: Both are a great source of Omega-3, especially for those following a plant-based diet.
  • Walnuts: A handful of walnuts can significantly contribute to your daily Omega-3 requirement.
  • Hemp seeds: Another plant-based favourite, hemp seeds are rich in Omega-3s and have a delightful, nutty flavour.

Remember to try different sources and aim for a diverse intake to maximise benefits and enjoyment.

Are there differences in the bioavailability of Omega-3 from different food sources?

As you embark on your journey to better brain health, it’s essential to consider not just the Omega-3 content in foods, but also its ‘bioavailability’. This term describes how well a nutrient is absorbed and used by your body.

For Omega-3 fatty acids, the form in which they appear in foods can make a difference. For instance, the Omega-3 found in fatty fish is in a form called EPA and DHA, which are readily used by your body. On the other hand, the Omega-3 in plant sources like chia seeds and flaxseeds is in a form called ALA, which your body must convert into EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, this conversion is limited, meaning less of the Omega-3 ends up being utilised.

What about Omega-3 supplements?

Omega-3 supplements can be a vital addition to your health regimen in several situations. Are you one of those whose diet isn’t abundant in Omega-3 rich foods? Perhaps due to dietary restrictions, allergies or simply a dislike for certain foods? Here’s where these supplements can be a game changer.

Vegetarians, vegans or those allergic to seafood might find meeting Omega-3 requirements tricky, as fish and seafood are the principal sources of these essential fats, especially in their more bioavailable forms of DHA and EPA. But don’t worry, Omega-3 supplements derived from algae (a great vegan option), can help fill this nutritional gap.

Additionally, if you have certain health conditions, such as heart disease, high cholesterol or inflammatory diseases, your Omega-3 needs may be higher. In these cases, supplementation can be a wise choice, but always under the guidance of your healthcare professional.

Finally, during periods of increased demand such as pregnancy or breastfeeding, Omega-3 supplements, including those derived from algae, can prove beneficial.

What should I look for when choosing a high-quality Omega-3 supplement?

Your quest for a high-quality Omega-3 supplement should involve a keen eye for detail. Here’s what you should consider:

  • Purity and authenticity: Always opt for supplements that have undergone rigorous third-party testing, ensuring their freedom from contaminants and authenticity in Omega-3 content.
  • Form of Omega-3: Omega-3 supplements, whether fish oil or algal oil, can come in different forms – triglycerides, ethyl esters, or phospholipids. Current evidence hints that your body may absorb the triglyceride form better.
  • Ratio of EPA to DHA: These are the key types of Omega-3s you’ll come across. Your health needs might require a higher ratio of one over the other, so take note of their proportion in your supplement.
  • Sustainability: In an era where sustainability matters, it’s worth considering omega-3 supplements that are ethically and sustainably sourced.

What potential side effects or precautions should be considered when taking Omega-3 supplements?

While Omega-3 supplements, including fish oil and algal oil, are typically safe, some individuals may experience mild side effects like burping, unpleasant breath, heartburn, nausea or loose stools. These can often be managed by taking the supplement with meals.

It’s also essential to know that Omega-3 supplements can interact with certain medications, especially those influencing blood clotting. So, check with your healthcare provider before starting a supplement regimen.

Bear in mind, too, that some fish oil supplements can be high in vitamin A, which can pose risks if consumed excessively, particularly during pregnancy. Always adhere to label instructions and the advice of your healthcare provider to stay safe.

To summarise, Omega-3 supplements, be they fish oil or vegan-friendly algal oil, can effectively ensure you’re getting these crucial fats in adequate amounts. Just remember to choose high-quality products and heed potential side effects and interactions.


  1. Liao Y, Xie B, Zhang H, He Q, Guo L, Subramanieapillai M, Fan B, Lu C, McIntyre RS. Efficacy of omega-3 PUFAs in depression: A meta-analysis. Transl Psychiatry. 2019 Aug 5;9(1):190. doi: 10.1038/s41398-019-0515-5. Erratum in: Transl Psychiatry. 2021 Sep 7;11(1):465. PMID: 31383846; PMCID: PMC6683166.
  2. Martí Del Moral A, Fortique F. Omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive decline: a systematic review. Nutr Hosp. 2019 Aug 26;36(4):939-949. English. doi: 10.20960/nh.02496. PMID: 31215788.

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