Omega-3 fatty acids are a hot topic in the world of nutrition right now, and for good reason. These healthy fats are in the spotlight because they are food for your thoughts… literally. Omega-3 fatty acids can have an amazing impact on the way a brain develops early in life and whether or not it stays healthy later in life. And that’s not all omega-3s can do for you.

There are three specific kinds of omega-3s, DHA, EPA and ALA, each with their own unique properties. Without going into too much information that only a clinical researcher would need to know, DHA is the longest fatty acid, and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is the shortest, and the form found in flaxseed and most plants that provide omega-3 fats in the diet. More importantly, DHA is a one of a kind fatty acid; there is nothing else like it.

About 60 percent of the human brain is comprised of fatty substances; fully 25% of that is made up of DHA, designed to be a primary building block of the brain. If about a quarter of the fat in your brain is made of DHA, doesn’t it make sense to include as much of it in your diet as possible? It should, because there is a lot to be gained from including more DHA in your diet.

After following hundreds of young children from birth to up to six years of age, researchers in the United Kingdom concluded that the children who were breastfed had much better vision. It’s likely that the difference in vision is a result of intake of DHA, a major fatty acid in the retina. Breast milk from a healthy mother contains higher concentrations of DHA than formulas.

Other studies have linked breastfeeding to intelligence, again most likely because of higher levels of DHA being passed to the infant that aren’t available in unfortified formulas.

A new study found that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) showed significant improvement in their behavior when they consumed from 8 to 16-gram doses of EPA and DHA for just eight weeks.
These large amounts were what were found to be necessary to balance the omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio in their blood.

DHA isn’t just for infants and young children. There is plenty to be gained from DHA at the opposite end of the age spectrum too. Remember, DHA makes up a quarter of all brain lipids. Just making a point to include plenty of it in your regular diet may be an easy way to help keep your brain young. Over the past several years there has been a virtual explosion of research and information linking adequate DHA intake to a reduced risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies with cancer cells in the laboratory have also shown that DHA added to the cell culture can trigger cell death in cancer cells, but not in normal cells. EPA has a similar, but weaker effect.

A Tufts University study found that by increasing levels of DHA in the bloodstream it is possible to significantly decrease the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. After nine years of follow-up studies researchers concluded that the patients with the most DHA in their blood experienced a 47 percent lower risk of developing dementia. The participants with the most reduced risk reported eating on average about three servings of fish per week.

More than just food for your brain, DHA helps protect eyesight too by acting as a vital building block for your retinas. To help ensure healthy vision for the rest of their lives, many doctors and nutritionists suggest that children should eat more DHA-rich foods.

Diets rich in DHA may protect vision in the elderly too, specifically protecting against age-related macular degeneration both wet and dry types.

DHA also helps to reduce the production of inflammatory chemicals and is found in abundance all throughout the nervous system. DHA works to help transmit information to and from the brain from all areas of the body. Throughout your entire life DHA will be playing critical roles all over your body, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.

LDL (“bad”) cholesterol tends to rise as we age, partly because the saturated fats we consume have negative effects that build up over time. DHA may support the cardiovascular system, reducing risk of disease by lowering triglyceride levels, reducing cholesterol particle size and raising HDL “good” cholesterol levels.

Evidence of the DHA-Cholesterol link can be seen in Eskimo populations. Traditionally, the Inuit and Yupik people tend to have very low rates of cardiovascular disease despite diets high in fat. Researchers believe a high intake of DHA-rich fish to be responsible for protecting against disease.

Protecting the cardiovascular system should start at an early age by learning to exercise and eat healthy. It may become especially important to care for your heart as you age, and DHA helps to do just that.

As the numerous benefits of DHA are becoming better known, more and more foods are being fortified with this precious fatty acid. Regardless, by far the best natural source of DHA is fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and tuna. Fish oil supplements are also good sources. Vegetarians can fill their DHA requirements with supplements of DHA extracted from especially cultured algaes.

DHA and other fats in the brain are delicate and need to be protected with antioxidants. If the first step in protecting your brain is including more omega-3s in your diet, the second step should be to eat more antioxidant-rich foods. Adding a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to a diet rich in fish and/or fish oil supplements is a sure way to help protect you from the inside out. But be sure to avoid the large long-lived fish at the top of the ocean food chain, which contain high levels of toxic mercury—shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.