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Fish Oil on the Brain

Basic Fish

Considering how good fish oil is for the brain, you would think fish would be a lot smarter. Good fish oil is comprised of Omega-3 fatty acids. These are what we call essential fatty acids because the body cannot produce enough for its own needs so we have to either eat foods containing them or supplement.

There are 4 Omega-3s that we need EPA, DHA, DPA and ALA. They have very long names. EPA has gotten a lot of attention because it is very good at reducing systemic inflammation and cardiovascular health. Most of the supplements you find on the shelf of health food stores will be either all EPA or a blend of EPA, DHA, and maybe ALA.

DPA is getting more attention in research. It is an intermediary between EPA and DHA which means the body can convert it into either one. It has some of the benefits of both EPA and DHA for cardiovascular health, reducing inflammation, may be related to depression and schizophrenia and oxidative damage to the brain. Taking DPA with EPA and DHA actually increases the absorption of EPA and DHA and helps balance the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio. Currently DPA is available as a supplement and is found in some Omega-3 blends, but I think we will be seeing more and more of it as research continues.

Brain Fish

The brain is about 60% fat. DHA makes up about 40% of that as one of the main ingredients of the cell walls or membranes. It is about 97% of the Omega-3 fatty acids in the brain. When we consider diseases or degeneration of the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, MS, dementia or even mild cognitive decline and memory loss, they are all a function of nerves not communicating with each other properly. This failed communication most often has brain inflammation at its root cause. DHA is anti-inflammatory within the brain so it is neuroprotective. Supplementing with DHA has been shown to lessen all of the above issues.

 If you are deficient in DHA and the brain needs it to control inflammation, the brain will start pulling it from the cell walls of neurons. This makes those neurons less responsive and resilient and can even kill them, which leads to more inflammation.

Increasing DHA levels in the brain have many benefits. For example, with concussion aka mild traumatic brain injury, a very sudden cause of brain inflammation, studies have shown that supplementing before a mTBI[1] with DHA or right after mTBI[2] lessens the damage to neurons and neuron death. It helps restore levels of chemicals that help neurons connect, so head injured rats recovered their able to learn and remember better than those without DHA. It lessens microglial activation[3], a type of brain cell that when activated makes the brain more susceptible to becoming inflamed.  Even 30 days after injury DHA helps restore energy production in the neurons lessening ongoing damage. If you think of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases as traumatic brain injury over a long period of time, you can see how using DHA preventatively would be very beneficial.

How much Fish

So you may be asking yourself, “Why don’t you tell me how much of each Omega-3 I should be taking?” And the answer is, “Because I do not know.” And here is why I don’t know.

There really is no established dosage. Most of the titles of studies on head injury and fatty acids end in the words, “in rats”. Recommendations for general health usually recommend a 1:1 or 2:1 EPA to DHA ratio and range anywhere from 500 to 5000mg total Omega-3s per day. EPA is more important for general inflammation, but if you care more about brain health, the focus should be on DHA. For general maintenance and well-being I like to recommend a formula that has 650mg of EPA and 450mg of DHA. In cases where there is brain inflammation, I like to add 1200mg or more of a liquid form of DHA.

Of course, a lot depends on quality. When you purchase your Omega-3 fatty acids, do make sure that you get them from a reputable company. Studies have shown that some Fish Oil supplements have other fats in them or oxidized, aka rotten fats. One of the main functions of the fish oil is as an anti-oxidant. You can see how they wouldn’t work well if already oxydized.[4]

If you take a high dose of Fish Oils and get crampy or have a lot of fish tasting burps, it could mean that the oil is spoiled or your digestive system is not able to digest fat well. This could mean an issue with your pancreas or gall bladder or the connection between your brain and digestive system the Vagus nerve. Keeping your fish oils in the fridge may help and always take them with food. You may need a new bottle or different brand of oils or a liquid form. If that doesn’t work, reduce what you are taking. Still having trouble? Try gargling and singing, it stimulates the Vagus nerve. I guess fish are gargling pretty much all the time. Maybe they are smarter than we think after all.

Aiguo Wu, Zhe Ying, and Fernando Gomez-Pinilla Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acids Normalize BDNF Levels, Reduce Oxidative Damage, and Counteract Learning Disability after Traumatic Brain Injury in Rats, Journal of Neurotrauma 2004 21:10, 1457-1467.

James D. Mills, Kevin Hadley, Julian E. Bailes, Dietary Supplementation With the Omega-3 Fatty Acid Docosahexaenoic Acid in Traumatic Brain Injury, Neurosurgery, Volume 68, Issue 2, February 2011, Pages 474–481,

Aiguo Wu, Zhe Ying, and Fernando Gomez-Pinilla The Salutary Effects of DHA Dietary Supplementation on Cognition, Neuroplasticity, and Membrane Homeostasis after Brain Trauma, Journal of Neurotrauma 2011 28:10, 2113-2122.

Lloyd D. Harvey, Yan Yin, Insiya Y. Attarwala Administration of DHA Reduces Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress-Associated Inflammation and Alters Microglial or Macrophage Activation in Traumatic Brain Injury.

R. Preston Mason,Samuel C.R. Sherratt Omega-3 fatty acid fish oil dietary supplements contain saturated fats and oxidized lipids that may interfere with their intended biological benefits. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, Elsevier, 29 January 2017.

Balance Chiropractic
880 Las Gallinas Ave. Ste. 6
San Rafael, CA 94903
Phone: 415-499-3399

The chiropractic office of Dr. Jonathan Smith of Balance Chiropractic in San Rafael, Marin County, 94903 , specializes in gentle, effective chiropractic methods that bring your body to its highest level of health creating infinite possibilities.

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