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Omega-3s indicated for mood and cognitive health

From supporting the health of women and children to potential perks for an array of brain health indications, omega-3 DHA and EPA can be hero ingredients for dietary supplement formulations.

Bente Foss

July 5, 2023

6 Min Read
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At some point in life, most people think about brain health. Common questions include, “Am I doing enough to better myself for longevity?” or “What else can I do to protect my cognitive function as I age?” In fact, it’s been so much on people’s minds that consumers are taking action; year-over-year (YOY) data comparing mood and calming supplement sales from May 2020 to April 2021 grew 70% in the retail channel alone. Furthermore, Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ) reported that in 2020, the stress management category—which includes mood and mental health—as well as the sleep category broke $1 billion in sales, marking a 36.6% increase for sleep and a 29.4% jump in mood and mental health.

Another interesting topic in the report is who buys these supplements. The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) reported that men and women purchase stress and sleep supplementation at nearly equal rates. However, differences exist in the root causes of stress for both sexes. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported—and a study supported—that women are more affected by depression than men; this may be due to how females’ bodies physically respond to stress, their menstrual cycles, sleep cycles, pregnancy, postpartum and/or menopause. Although no clear evidence explains the exact reasons, it seems a need exists to accommodate these specific concerns.

A silver lining from the pandemic was the increasing normalcy of mental health discussions, especially as these issues impact people of all ages and backgrounds. When consumers turn to the natural products industry for help, many common ingredients can provide options, such as CBD, multivitamins, vitamin D, herbs and botanicals. More recently, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are gaining popularity to help support mood and stress.

DHA has long been recognized as an essential polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) critical for brain and nervous system growth and development. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain, and its levels increase from the perinatal period up to 18 years.

During infancy and breastfeeding, the mother is a child’s sole source of DHA. Low maternal intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been correlated to lower verbal intelligence, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism and impaired social behavior in children. Many guidelines worldwide recommend that pregnant women consume at least 200 mg of DHA daily to optimize pregnancy outcomes and fetal health. Human breast milk is estimated to contain 0.32% DHA, corresponding to 0.06 to 1.4% of the total fatty acids. In 2019, the EU regulations for infant and follow-on formula made a switch from allowing DHA as an ingredient in these formulas to a mandatory addition. Omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in determining the length of gestation and in preventing perinatal depression.

Over the last decades, a large body of research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA may offer significant health benefits throughout life. EPA and DHA are built into the cell membranes and from there, act directly by affecting membrane fluidity (affecting nutrition in the cells) or indirectly via bioactive metabolites that regulate physiological processes in the human body. EPA and DHA supplementation has yielded promising results for psychological conditions such as aggression, mood disorders and depression.

A meta-analysis published in 2016—including intervention and observational studies, and 7,173 participants—concluded that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation might reduce aggressive behaviors in both child and adult populations. Another more recent meta-analysis, including 26 studies and more than 2,000 subjects, demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids had clinical benefits on depression symptoms when compared with the placebo. In this study, EPA- formulations with an EPA dosage less than or equal to 1 g/d gave these results, whereas DHA-pure and DHA-major formulations did not exhibit such benefits. Other studies have found inverse associations between omega-3 fatty acid intake levels of both EPA and DHA and depressive symptoms.

In addition to omega-3’s potential in mood support, supplementation with these essential fatty acids (EFAs) may positively affect learning, behavioral disorders and memory.​ Specifically, one recent study found that DHA (reflecting its dietary intake) is associated with attention performance in typically developing adolescents. Improvements in spelling, attention, hyperactivity, cognitive problems and reduced oppositional behavior were also observed in 6- to 13-year-olds with ADHD supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids for up to one year. In another clinical trial, 176 healthy adults ages 18 to 45 were given a daily dose of 1.16 g DHA for six months, improving memory and memory reaction time compared to those subjects whose habitual diets were low in DHA.

Sleep is a concern for many people living in a stressful world. Studies have shown an association between intake of omega-3s and sleep. In a clinical trial including 84 healthy young adults (25-49 years) omega-3 supplementation was linked to increased sleep quality as compared to placebo. It is suggested that one of the mechanisms by which omega-3 may help sleep is by altering the release of melatonin. It will be quite interesting to follow the research in this field going forward.

As people get older, their diet and intake of nutrients often change for the worse. And because it’s believed that the concentration of omega-3s in the brain decreases as people age, the risk of suffering from the negative consequences of neurodegeneration can increase.

According to a review, older adults with age-related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment seem to benefit from supplementation with omega-3, in particular DHA. A large study from 2012, including 900 men and women over a nine-year follow-up period, reported a 47% lower incidence of dementia among the individuals with the highest levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA in their blood.

It is important to note that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are poorly synthesized in the body, and therefore dietary sources are needed to ensure sufficient intake. Since EPA/DHA is predominantly found in fish or marine sources, many people look to fish oil supplementation to ensure that their intake is adequate. According to several national and international bodies, this recommendation is typically one to two servings of fish per week, equal to 200-500 mg EPA + DHA per day (EFSA  2010; FAO/WHO 2008; National Institutes of Health 2019; NHMRC 2017).

The range of potential benefits of omega-3s for mood, learning and cognitive function—coupled with the growing market—indicate that developing products with the recommended daily dose of EPA and DHA should be a no-brainer.

To read additional content on the brain health market, download our complimentary “Brain games: Ingredients for mood, balance, performance” digital magazine.

Bente Foss is the chief technology officer at GC Rieber VivoMega, where she’s worked for nearly a decade leading the R&D and quality teams. Foss has a doctorate in organic chemistry and an engineering degree in medical laboratory technology. In her early career, she developed novel, therapeutic anti-inflammatory analogues from carotenoids. Most of her later career has focused on developing marine oils and omega-3 concentrates for human consumption.

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About the Author(s)

Bente Foss

Chief Technology Officer, GC Rieber – VivoMega

Bente Foss, Ph.D., is the chief technology officer at GC Rieber VivoMega, where she’s worked for nearly a decade leading the R&D and quality teams. Foss has a doctorate in organic chemistry and an engineering degree in medical laboratory technology. In her early career, she developed novel, therapeutic anti-inflammatory analogues from carotenoids. Most of her later career has focused on developing marine oils and omega-3 concentrates for human consumption.

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