Where did you put those keys again? What did you come into this room for? And do you remember what you had to remember for work? If only something like a fish oil supplement could be taken, all of your brain scraps could break through.
While the research on fish oil supplements is mixed, it’s clearer that it’s good for your brain when it comes to consuming fish oil over foods (e.g., putting salmon on your salad or grilling trout for dinner). “Overall, research shows that ingesting fish promotes cognitive health and prevents cognitive decline,” says Dr. Puja Agarwal, nutritional epidemiologist and assistant professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. And the good news is, you can potentially get these benefits with just one serving of fish a week, she says. (There’s more about how much fish you should be consuming below.)
Here’s why fish is so good for your brain. Fish oil contains certain omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), notes the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). You can consume fish oil by eating fresh fish or seafood, or by taking a supplement. (While fish oil contains two different types of omega-3 fatty acids, not all omega-3 fatty acids are fish oil.)
When it comes to your cognitive abilities, omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in the structure and function of the brain. Hence, these nutrients play an important role in combating cognitive impairment.
Does Fish Oil Help With Memory?
Yes, since the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish support brain health, these nutrients also support the functions of the brain – which of course also includes thinking and memory.
“We have pretty good evidence of fish ingestion and its role in brain health. Based on meta-analyzes and large cohorts of healthy adults, higher fish intake is linked to a lower rate of memory loss over time and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, ”says Dr. Agarwal.
In a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in May 2018 that examined data from 23,688 people from five pooled cohorts, older adults who consumed four or more servings of fish per week had less memory loss over a period of four to nine years compared to people who typically consume less than one serving a week. According to researchers, that was the equivalent of a brain four years younger than you. Another study published in JAMA in February 2016 found that moderate consumption of seafood was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s markers than lower consumption of seafood.
Fish, eaten at least once a week, is an important part of the MIND diet, which has been shown to delay age-related cognitive decline, according to a September 2015 study on Alzheimer’s and dementia.
It’s important to note, however, that previous research suggests that eating fish aids the brain’s memory and thinking centers, Agarwal says. When it comes to fish oil supplements, research so far has found no benefit in the supplements in terms of slowing cognitive decline or preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
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Does that mean fish oil makes me smarter?
The fish oil you get from eating healthy amounts of fish each week is good for your brain. That is clear. However, it is not necessarily the case that higher amounts of fish oil (or increasing fish oil consumption through supplements) will inevitably boost your cognitive abilities beyond the benefits you will get from simply getting enough fish oil from fish.
“Taking fish oil does not make you smarter or help you remember when you already have an adequate intake [of omega 3s]”Explains Dr. Hussein Yassine, Keck Medicine Endocrinologist at USC in Los Angeles and Associate Professor of Medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine
Unfortunately, more is not better when you are already at the beginning of the study. “This is not a ‘smart pill’ – you can’t take it and remember things,” he adds.
Should I be taking fish oil supplements, getting fish oil from fish, or focusing on omega-3 fatty acids?
When it comes to reaping the health benefits of fish oil, the evidence suggests that you are getting plenty of fish in your diet in order to get the most benefit from it. The American Dietary Guidelines for 2020-2025 recommend that adults eat 8 ounces of seafood per week, which is the same as two 4-ounce servings of seafood per week.
It’s worth noting, however, that this recommendation is best for overall health – and while it’s a good goal, even if you only get one serving of fish a week, the brain can still benefit.
“Research shows that when people who eat one or more servings of fish per week are compared to those who eat less, fish eaters experience less cognitive decline over the years,” says Agarwal. This research came from researchers at Rush University and was published in the May 2016 issue of Neurology.
This follows previous university research published in JAMA Neurology. It found that people who consume one fishmeal per week have 60 percent less Alzheimer’s than people who rarely or never ate fish.
“That should be encouraging as this is a simple lifestyle change to maintain brain health as you age,” says Agarwal.
Will Anyone Benefit From Taking A Fish Oil Supplement?
Overall, research on eating fish is stronger compared to taking a fish oil supplement, Agarwal says. “We’re seeing mixed results when looking at nutritional supplements,” she adds.
Dr. Yassine agrees, noting that the attempts to supplement the fish have been inconclusive overall. Going forward, he says, we need more studies looking at how fish oil supplements work and which people might benefit from a supplement. “A study I conducted found that regular over-the-counter supplements did not produce robust gains [in omega-3s] in the brain, ”explains Yassine. You need four to five capsules of an OTC supplement in cerebrospinal fluid (which, according to Yassine’s group, is a reflection of what would be in the brain) to get a sufficient boost, he explains. (That study, which included just 33 men, was published in the journal EBioMedicine in September 2020.) There seems to be something about getting these specific omega-3 fatty acids from fish themselves that has a greater effect on the brain, he says.
“Fish is complex. Even the actual DHA and EPA in fish isn’t the same as in supplements, ”says Yassine. That doesn’t mean DHA and EPA aren’t the active ingredients in fish oil supplements – they are – but that they can be packaged to be more effective in fresh fish and seafood compared to supplements, he says.
What types of fish and seafood are the best sources of fish oil? Oily fish that contain the highest amounts of EPA and DHA are best. These fish include salmon, mackerel, or trout. However, it’s important to note that all seafood, including shrimp and crab, contains some fish oil, according to Seafood Health Facts.
“Any type of fish will help. You can have a choice, but watch how you cook them, ”says Agarwal. Choose methods such as baking, grilling, and grilling when deep-frying.
A study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine concluded that cognitively healthy people who ate baked or grilled fish at least once a week had less gray matter loss (a sign of a healthier brains) than non-fish-eaters.
If fish isn’t in your diet, consider eating plant-based foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like walnuts, chia, and flax, Agarwal recommends. (These contain alpha-linolenic acid, ALA, which can be converted to EPA and then DHA in the body, but not very efficiently, so consuming foods with DHA and EPA is preferable, according to a report published in November 2020 according to the American College’s Journal of Cardiology.)
Everyone, regardless of whether they eat fish or are vegan or non-fish-eating, is advised to consume a certain amount of ALA per day. The National Institutes of Health say adult men should consume 1.6 grams of ALA per day and adult women should aim for 1.1 grams per day.
When choosing an omega-3 supplement, be it a fish oil or a vegan version, keep in mind that it cannot fix or overcome an unhealthy diet, says Agarwal.
Does Fish Oil Help With Brain Fog?
In general, “brain fog” means your thinking can be characterized as slow or “fuzzy,” says Harvard Medical School. Fish oil could potentially help you think more clearly, but maybe only if you are initially lacking in omega-3s.
A study of nearly 300 healthy women, ages 18 to 35, found that those who had the lowest levels of omega-3s (in blood samples) on cognitive tests that measured attention compared to women who had intermediate levels or high omega-3 levels scored fewer points on research on lipids in health and disease in November 2019. Although it is worth noting that in this study, these cognitive scores were only slightly higher in women with higher omega-3 levels.
Even the lowest group still had cognitive scores in the normal range, but it still shows that their brain function was not optimal.
Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, which means they can protect the brain from free radical damage that leads to disease and aging. (People with higher levels of inflammation have been found to have greater decreases in cognitive abilities with age, a study in Neurology concluded in March 2019.)
The authors of the Lipids in Health and Disease study propose in this article that this effect may aid the function and burning of neurons, and also affect the dopamine pathways involved in attention and memory.
Given the lack of solid evidence as to whether fish oil can help with brain fog, the answer to this question is still inconclusive.
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