Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Is Fish Really “Brain Food”?

Is Fish Brain Food

Fish may not really be “brain food” after all,  scientists say.  Although previous studies have seemed to show that omega-3 fatty acids – which are found in abundance in certain fatty fish like salmon and mackerel – might be good for thought and memory, a new study published online in the September 25, 2013  issue of Neurology appears to contradict this claim, at least in older women.

For the study, 2,157 women between the ages of 65 and 80, who were participating in the Women’s Health Initiative study of hormone therapy, were given yearly tests of their thought and memory.  On the average, these yearly tests were conducted over a period of six years.  The women were also given blood tests to assess their levels of omega-3 fatty acids before the study began.

When the researchers examined the data, they found that there was virtually no difference between the cognitive skills of the women with high levels of omega’3s and those with low levels.  Nor did their thinking skills decline at a different rate over time.

A previous literature review conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2012 also seems to confirm this finding.   For their study, the Cochrane research team looked at the data from three high-quality clinical trials comparing omega-3 fatty acids with sunflower oil, olive oil or regular margarine, none of which are high in omega-3 fatty acids.  These studies included 3,536 people over the age of 60 who participated in the trials between six and 40 months.  None of the participants experienced any benefit from taking omega-3 fatty acids rather than the placebo oils.

However, study author Eric Ammann, MS, of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, says that he does not recommend that anyone change their diet based upon his study.  There is still much to be done in ferreting out the exact relationship of omega-3 fatty acids to cardiovascular and brain health.  We do know that even if foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish and nuts, are not really “brain food,” they are beneficial to health in many other ways.

For example, many doctors now prescribe a highly purified form of omega-3 fatty acids called Lovaza to their patients who have high triglycerides.  Although triglycerides are necessary for fueling the body, high levels have been linked to heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Omega-3 fatty acids are quite effective in lowering this substance back to normal levels.

Other potential, but not entirely proven, benefits of omega-3 fatty acids include depression treatment, heart disease prevention and relief from the painful inflammation of arthritis.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish as well as certain seeds and nuts.

They are considered to be essential fatty acids because they cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained from food.

The American Heart Association recommends that people eat at last two servings of fish per week for general health and heart disease prevention.  For those who do not like or cannot eat fish, experts often recommend a dose of about 0.5 to 2 g daily of an over-the-counter fish oil preparation.  The FDA recommends that you do not exceed 3 g daily due to possible increased risk for bleeding.

Of course, if you would like to try increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake in the hopes that fish really is “brain food,” there is no proof that it will harm you; and, it might help.

Written by:  Nancy Schimelpfening

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet

Omega-3 Fatty Acid for the Prevention of Cognitive Decline and Dementia

Eating Fish, Nuts May Not Help Thinking Skills After All

Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression


2 Responses to "Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Is Fish Really “Brain Food”?"

  1. Danica   October 25, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    It can really help in improving the activities of the brain and heart. Good thing that omega 3 fatty acids are included in New Zealand Mussels. This supplement is also useful in treating arthritis.

  2. Cow Cow   September 26, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    These studies are very weak.

    In many of these studies, they don’t consider enteric coatings and the dosage. I suspect most aren’t going to see much advantage depending on dosage along with how it’s ingested. If you want fish oil to be absorbed similar to eating fish, then it needs to be (properly) enteric coated. They never consider that in these flawed studies.

    That said, I agree that a healthy diet and exercise trumps everything else and most supplements aren’t incredibly helpful or are even detrimental. Supplements require much more further study, but studies like these are fairly worthless.


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