The brain is the control center of the body. It helps us process a constant stream of sensory data, and makes us aware of others, our environment and ourselves. It also helps us control our muscle movements and breathing. The brain influences every feeling and thought. As we grow and age, our brains continue to change, making it crucial that we take care of them and nourish them at every stage of life.
Cognitive Health: A Continually Popular Topic
Brain health is a topic making its way into everyday conversation. Numerous stories on resolving to make better brain health decisions in the year ahead emerged in early 2016, and reports on various aspects of cognitive health continue to make their way into health and wellness outlets and even mainstream media.
In the meantime, sports-related head injuries are also making headlines. “Concussion," a 2015 American sports medical drama film, uncovered research on brain damage suffered by professional football players in the National Football League (NFL)—a topic that’s becoming increasingly popular.
But there are many things we can do, athletes and non-athletes alike, to ensure we are taking care of our brains. While wearing proper head guards and equipment, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep are key, good brain health simply starts with good nutrition.
Food for Thought
Nourishing the brain with good food is essential. Many experts suggest what is good for our hearts is also good for our heads, meaning the same foods that promote cardiovascular health may also help enhance brain function.
When it comes to brain food, fish and other products high in omega-3 fatty acids are regularly cited as being beneficial. Omega-3s are crucial for brain health, but they are not made by the body and therefore must be obtained through diet.
Eating oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and herring represent some of the best and most effective ways to get the daily dose of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are vital omega-3s that play important roles within the body. And since the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is the most common fatty acid in the human brain, it only makes sense to help fuel our minds and bodies with more of it.
Omega-3s throughout the Lifecycle
We need omega-3s throughout life to keep our brains healthy, starting as early as pregnancy. DHA is an important nutrient for pregnant and nursing women, especially since the developing brain rapidly grows during the third trimester.1 Further, during early childhood, we experience periods of rapid brain growth and development.
Omega-3 deficiency has a profound impact on brain health at every age and insufficiencies can disturb the process of brain development. Research suggests children who obtain omega-3s from diet and supplementation are more likely to experience positive behavior, high levels of concentration and successful learning patterns.2
In addition to fetal and childhood brain development, research indicates omega-3s continue to influence brain function into adulthood. Data recently published in early 2016 in Nutrients, an open access human nutrition journal, showed a positive link between higher omega-3 index levels and better processing speeds in teenagers. Results showed a higher omega-3 index was associated with higher scores and fewer errors on a variety of standardized tests.3
High intake of omega-3s has also been linked with maintaining and enhancing cognitive function among the elderly.4 To that end, adequate consumption of omega-3s is recommended to maintain memory performance and reduce the risk of developing mild memory problems associated with aging.
The Brain Prefers Omega-3s in Phospholipid Form
It is important to consider nutritional supplements to help fill the gaps with nutrients that we do not get with our regular diet. One omega-3 option is krill oil.
Krill oil contains powerful nutrients that can aid brain health, including omega-3 EPA/DHA and phospholipids. Phospholipids— which make up 60 percent of the brain by weight5 –play key roles in the proper structure and function of brain cell membranes and cell signaling. Omega-3s bound to phospholipids are shown to be preferentially transported to brain tissue compared with omega-3s delivered as triglycerides, suggesting they are a superior source of omega-3s for brain tissue.
A study published in Nature in 2014 showed omega-3s attached to phospholipids, particularly DHA, are preferentially transported across the blood-brain barrier.6 In fact, evidence suggests DHA attached to phospholipids gets into the brain three times more efficiently.
1Brenna JT, Carlson SE. “Docosahexaenoic acid and human brain development: evidence that a dietary supply is needed for optimal development." J Hum Evol. 2014 Dec;77:99-106. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.02.017.
2Kuratko CN et al. “The relationship of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with learning and behavior in healthy children: a review." Nutrients. 2013 Jul 19;5(7):2777-810. DOI: 10.3390/nu5072777.
3Van der Wurff IS et al. “Association between Blood Omega-3 Index and Cognition in Typically Developing Dutch Adolescents." Nutrients. 2016 Jan 2;8(1). pii: E13. DOI: 10.3390/nu8010013.
4Yurko-Mauro K et al. “Docosahexaenoic acid and adult memory: a systematic review and meta-analysis." PLoS One. 2015 Mar 18;10(3):e0120391. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120391. eCollection 2015.
5Bennett CN, Horrobin DF. “Gene targets related to phospholipid and fatty acid metabolism in schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders: an update." Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2000 Jul-Aug;63(1-2):47-59.
6Nguyen LN et al. “Mfsd2a is a transporter for the essential omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid." Nature. 2014 May 22;509(7501):503-6. DOI: 10.1038/nature13241.