Did you know your brain is over 60% fat and that omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in oily fish feature heavily in our brain cells?
Studies have shown in countries where consumption of omega-3 EFAs from oily fish are high, levels of depression are lower. A study which analysised the results of ten studies looking at omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and depression concluded that the trials did clearly show an improvement in symptoms of depression and bipolar disorders, but that more larger trials were needed to confirm the findings.
Given that it is already well known that omega-3 EFAs improve cardiovascular health by helping to reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks, improve joint and skin health by reducing inflammation in the body, and reduce risk of diabetes and cancer again by reducing inflammation, the emerging findings on omega-3 fats and mood seem to be just another good reason for us to think carefully about whether we are getting enough omega-3 via our diets or supplements.
The best sources of omega-3 EFAs are oily fish and the algae that the oily fish eat. The omega-3 EFAs in these foods are in a ready to use form, perfect for our bodies. Unfortunately, large oily fish are no longer recommended in the diet due to the high levels of heavy metals they contain which are thought to contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; they also contain worrying levels of other pollutants found in the sea.
Latest advice is to only eat the smaller oily fish such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel and to avoid tuna and salmon. Some omega-3 EFAs are also found in grass-fed animals, i.e. ones raised outdoors in fields. Ideally eat oily fish twice a week and only eat outdoor raised, grass fed, meat and poultry.
There are also vegetarian sources of omega-3 EFAs; however, these need to undergo several conversions within the body before they are transformed into the key fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the forms found in oily fish and used by the body to create anti-inflammatory chemicals which bring a huge range of health benefits.
Vegetarian sources of omega 3 essential fatty acids include:
Dark green leafy vegetables such as cabbage, kale, sprouting broccoli, calvados neros etc.
Flax seeds (need to be ground first)
Chia seeds (ideally soak first)
Nuts, especially walnuts
Hemp seeds and cold pressed hemp oil
Ideally eat dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds every day to ensure a good intake of omega-3 EFAs, whether or not you are also eating oily fish.
If you don’t want to eat oily fish it may be worth taking an omega-3 EFA supplement. Quality matters as the cheaper products may not have been adequately purified to remove heavy metals and pollutants. Look for a combined dose of EPA and DHA of 800-1000mg per day. The best vegetarian supplements of EPA and DHA are the ones made from algae.
A word about Omega-6
There is also another group of EFAs, the omega-6 group. In the body we are meant to have a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 EFAs. Omega-6 fats are found in large quantities in all vegetable oils with the exception of coconut oil and olive oil. They are also found in intensively farmed animals. Most of us are consuming far too much omega-6 via processed foods, restaurant foods and home cooking where cheaper vegetable oils, meat and poultry are heavily used. Too much omega-6 will promote an excess of inflammation in the body and a wide range of health problems including arthritis, dementia, cancer, diabetes, skin conditions, chronic pain and migraines.
Only cook with coconut fat, butter and other naturally saturated fats and reduce your intake of cheap meat and processed foods as much as possible. Use olive oil in salad dressings and avoid shop bought dressings and mayonnaise which are high in cheap vegetable oils. These steps will help you to keep your intake of omega-6 fats down to a safe and appropriate level, and keep in balance your omega-3 / omega-6 EFA ratio.