By Dr. Mercola
Omega-3 fats found in fish oil, krill oil, and oily fish like sardines and anchovies play an integral role in brain health. Sixty percent of your brain is made up of fat.
The omega-3 fat DHA alone makes up about 15 percent to 34 percent of your brain's cerebral cortex, depending on your age (the older you are, the more DHA). It's found in relatively high levels in your neurons – the cells of your central nervous system – where it provides structural support.
Because your brain is literally built from omega-3 fats, it makes sense that it would play an integral role in brain function. But in addition, omega-3s also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and these are thought to be responsible for some of their therapeutic effects on mental health.
In 1999, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Stoll published a study showing that omega-3 fats improved the course of illness in people with bipolar disorder.1
In 2001, he published the book The Omega-3 Connection, which was among the first works to bring attention to and support the use of omega-3 fats for depression.
Then, in 2010, researchers from the Orygen Youth Health Research Center in Australia found that supplementing with animal-based omega-3s for 12 weeks reduced the risk of psychosis development in those at high risk for over one year.
The beneficial effects remained even after the supplements were no longer being taken – a benefit that has not been seen with antipsychotic medications.2
Last month, a follow-up to the 2010 research was published, and it showed even more promising results for the role of these beneficial fats in mental health.
Omega-3s May Protect Against Psychosis
The new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, revealed that omega-3s may delay progression to psychosis among patients at high risk for much longer – a period of at least seven years.3
Among the patients taking omega-3s for 12 weeks, only 10 percent transitioned to psychosis during the study period. The rate of transition among the non-omega-3 group was 40 percent.
Further, those in the placebo group had a more rapid progression time to psychosis compared to those in the omega-3 group. Those taking omega-3s also had significantly improved overall symptoms and psychosocial functioning. According to the study:4
“Long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are essential for neural development and function.
As key components of brain tissue, omega-3 PUFAs play critical roles in brain development and function, and a lack of these fatty acids has been implicated in a number of mental health conditions over the lifespan, including schizophrenia.
We have previously shown that a 12-week intervention with omega-3 PUFAs reduced the risk of progression to psychotic disorder in young people with subthreshold psychotic states for a 12-month period compared with placebo.
We have now completed a longer-term follow-up of this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, at a median of 6.7 years. Here we show that brief intervention with omega-3 PUFAs reduced both the risk of progression to psychotic disorder and psychiatric morbidity in general in this study.
The majority of the individuals from the omega-3 group did not show severe functional impairment and no longer experienced attenuated psychotic symptoms at follow-up.”
Why Omega-3s Are a Welcome Alternative to Antipsychotic Drugs
Antipsychotic medications are among the most powerful and side effect prone drugs in medicine, which is why finding a natural alternative is all the more important.
The side effects caused by these drugs include, ironically, psychotic symptoms (like hearing voices or paranoia), aggressive behavior, hostility, seizures, heart attack, delayed puberty, and more. Oftentimes the side effects are far worse than the symptoms for which they're prescribed, and rival illegal street drugs in terms of their dangerous risks to health.
In children, the long-term effects are often largely unknown, while in the short term, we've seen shocking increases in violent and aggressive acts committed by teens taking one or more antipsychotic drugs.
While it’s known that early intervention may help those at risk of developing psychosis, starting on a course of antipsychotic drugs if you’re still healthy poses serious risks.
This is not so for omega-3 fats, which are so good for you that I recommend virtually everyone increase their intake, even if you don’t have mental health challenges.
However, among people with schizophrenia, supplementation with omega-3 fats appears to be particularly important. According to Current Psychiatry:5
“Essential fatty acid deficiency and resulting lipid membrane abnormalities have been hypothesized to play a role in schizophrenia onset. Moreover, epidemiologic data suggest an association between high fish consumption and positive outcomes in patients with schizophrenia.”
Multiple clinical trials have been conducted that show supplementing with omega-3s among people with schizophrenia leads to significant improvement in symptoms and quality of life – and the improvements remained even after the supplements were discontinued.
Even among patients already taking antipsychotic drugs, adding an omega-3 supplement led to greater improvements.6
How Fish Oil Helps Your Brain
As mentioned, the omega-3 DHA molecule has unique structural properties that provide optimal conditions for a wide range of cell membrane functions, and grey matter in your brain is a particularly membrane-rich tissue.
One study revealed that people who consumed baked (or broiled) fish at least once a week had more gray matter in their brain. Specifically, compared to those who didn’t consume fish on a regular basis, regular fish eaters had 14 percent greater gray-matter volume in the area responsible for cognition and more than 4 percent greater volume in the area responsible for memory.7
In fact, the introduction of high-quality, easily digested nutrients from seafood into the human diet coincided with the rapid expansion of grey matter in the cerebral cortex – a defining characteristic of the modern human brain.
Research is showing that degenerative conditions can not only be prevented but also potentially reversed with omega-3 fats. For example, in one study 485 elderly volunteers suffering from memory deficits saw significant improvement after taking 900 milligrams (mg) of DHA per day for 24 weeks, compared with controls.8
Another study found significant improvement in verbal fluency scores after taking 800 mg of DHA per day for four months compared with placebo.9 Furthermore, memory and rate of learning were significantly improved when DHA was combined with 12 mg of lutein per day.
Interestingly, research suggests that the unsaturated fatty acid composition of normal brain tissue is age-specific, which could imply that the older you get, the greater your need for animal-based omega-3 fat to prevent mental decline and brain degeneration.
A study in the journal Neurology reported that "older women with the highest levels of omega-3 fats, found in fish oil, had better preservation of their brain as they aged than those with the lowest levels, which might mean they would maintain better brain function for an extra year or two."10,11
Still, omega-3s are also incredibly important for brain health during development -- in utero and during childhood and adolescence. One study of 8- to 10-year-old boys looked at how DHA supplementation might affect functional cortical activity, and the results were quite impressive.
The data indicated there were significant increases in the activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex part of the brain in the groups receiving supplemental DHA. This is an area of your brain that is associated with working memory. They also noticed changes in other parts of the brain, including the occipital cortex (the visual processing center) and the cerebellar cortex (which plays a role in motor control).12
What Are the Best Sources of Omega-3 Fats?
Making sure you’re getting enough omega-3 in your diet, either from wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies or a high-quality omega-3 supplement like krill oil, is absolutely crucial for your optimal health, including your mental health.
While a helpful form of omega-3 can be found in flaxseed, chia, hemp, and a few other foods, the most beneficial form of omega-3 – containing two fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which are essential to fighting and preventing both physical and mental disease – can only be found in fish and krill. Because, nearly all fish, from most all sources, are severely contaminated with environmental pollutants like toxic mercury, you have to be very careful about the types of seafood you consume when trying to increase your omega-3 fats. A general guideline is that the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated.
Sardines, in particular, are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fats, with one serving containing more than 50 percent of your recommended daily value.13 Other good options include anchovies, herring, and wild-caught Alaskan salmon. You’re probably aware that if you don’t eat a lot of fish, you can supplement your diet with omega-3 fats by taking fish oil. Less widely known is that you can also get your omega-3s from krill oil, and it may, in fact, be preferable to do so.
Why might you be better off with krill? The omega-3 in krill is attached to phospholipids that increase its absorption, which means you need less of it, and it won't cause belching or burping like many other fish oil products. Additionally, it contains almost 50 times more astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant, than fish oil. This prevents the highly perishable omega-3 fats from oxidizing before you are able to integrate them into your cellular tissue.
In laboratory tests, krill oil remained undamaged after being exposed to a steady flow of oxygen for 190 hours. Compare that to fish oil, which went rancid after just one hour. That makes krill oil nearly 200 times more resistant to oxidative damage compared to fish oil! When purchasing krill oil, you'll want to read the label and check the amount of astaxanthin it contains. The more the better, but anything above 0.2 mg per gram of krill oil will protect it from rancidity. To learn more about the benefits of krill oil versus fish oil, please see my interview with Dr. Rudi Moerck, a drug industry insider and an expert on omega-3 fats.
5 Tips to Support Your Mental Health
My heart goes out to you if you or someone you love is struggling with mental illness. The solutions offered below will often help you to overcome your battle in the long run, but in no way are they meant to minimize the complicated puzzle of mental illness, or the extreme toll it can take on family units and in some cases extended circles of friends.
Whether you’re facing schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, or another mental condition, these strategies have nothing but positive effects and are generally very inexpensive to implement. Plus, they can be used for both children and adults alike, and work great when implemented with your entire family involved.
- Exercise – If you suffer from depression, or even if you just feel down from time to time, exercise is a MUST. The research is overwhelmingly positive in this area, with studies confirming that physical exercise is at least as good as antidepressants for helping people who are depressed. One of the primary ways it does this is by increasing the level of endorphins, the "feel good" hormones, in your brain.
- Address your stress – Stress can worsen symptoms of mental illness as well as trigger relapses. Meditation or yoga can help. Sometimes all you need to do is get outside for a walk. But in addition to that, I also recommend using a solid support system composed of friends, family, and, if necessary, professional counselors, who can help you work through your emotional stress. The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is also often effective.
- Eat a healthy diet – Foods have an immense impact on your mood and ability to cope and be happy, and eating whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental health. Avoiding fructose, sugar, and grains will help normalize your insulin and leptin levels, which is another powerful tool in addressing positive mental health. In addition, scientific evidence increasingly shows that nourishing your gut flora with the beneficial bacteria found in traditionally fermented foods (or a probiotic supplement) is extremely important for proper brain function, and that includes psychological well-being and mood control.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride has successfully demonstrated the power and effectiveness of this theory. In her England clinic, she successfully treats children and adults with a wide range of conditions, including autism, ADD/ADHD, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders, immune disorders, and digestive problems using the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) Nutritional Program, which she developed.
- Support optimal brain functioning with essential fats – I also strongly recommend supplementing your diet with a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat, like krill oil, or eating sardines, anchovies, or wild-caught Alaskan salmon regularly to ensure you have an adequate intake of omega-3 fats.
- Get plenty of sunshine – Making sure you're getting enough sunlight exposure to have healthy vitamin D levels is also a crucial factor in treating depression or keeping it at bay. Vitamin D deficiency is actually more the norm than the exception, and has previously been implicated in numerous psychiatric and neurological disorders.