Smart, Happy Brains Need More Omega-3s

Sometimes a supplement comes along and changes your life. It’s like an aha! moment in a bottle. It could be as simple as noticing you’re not getting sick anymore (or not as often) after taking vitamin D every day, it could be realizing that you have more energy after beginning a daily B-complex vitamin, or it could be that feel-good, mood-boosting, memory-enhancing effect that happens after starting fish oil. Something just clicks. But if the latter isn’t true, or it seems like fish oil is falling short of its brain-boosting promises, it’s possible that you’re just not taking enough to reap the full benefits of the mighty omega-3s. Especially given our society’s over consumption of omega-6s (which are pro-inflammatory and make it harder for the omega-3s to efficiently do their good work) in relation to omega-3s, it’s no wonder we’re out of whack, hence the need for even more fish oil.

Phenomenal Fish Oil

Need a quick rundown on what makes fish oil so stellar? Here it goes: The omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and fish oil, that we need for optimal health are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are critical to the growth, structure, and functioning of the brain from infancy to adulthood and impact brain health in big ways. The brain itself is a fatty organ made up of 60 percent fat. EPA and DHA make up 20 percent of the brain cells' membranes, and the synapses in the brain, the junctions where brain cells communicate with each other, contain even higher concentrations, with DHA making up about 60 percent.[1] [2]


Numerous studies show that omega-3 fatty acids are instrumental in the prevention of mental illnesses, such as mood and anxiety disorders.[3] In fact, countries with high consumption of fish in the diet appear to have a lower prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) and bipolar disorder.[4] [5] On the flip side, patients with MDD, for example, have significantly lower levels of EPA and DHA in the blood and in brain tissue.[6] [7] [8] This is the case in postpartum depression and in social anxiety disorder as well, where lower levels of DHA and total omega-3 fatty acid levels are associated with both.[9] [10] In elderly patients, lower DHA and higher omega-6 fatty acid ratios are also associated with depressive disorders compared to their healthy counterparts.[11]

fish cartoon

There’s evidence and a pattern of consistency within the findings of numerous studies conducted all over the world that shows a correlation between higher omega-6 consumption and lower omega-3 consumption and poor mental health, including aggressive behaviors, ADD, and even a higher tendency to commit crime.[12] [13] That brings me to something we shouldn’t gloss over. In America, we consume copious amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6s in comparison to omega-3s. Over the last century, there has been a dramatic shift in the composition of our diets in which the essential fatty acids in the brain have been flooded out by competing omega-6 fatty acids, largely from industrial oils like soy, corn, and sunflower in the form of junk food and processed foods. Consider this: In the early 1900s, soybean oil accounted for only .02 percent of all calories consumed in the US, but by the year 2000, that number had grown to a whopping 20 percent. And that number continues to grow a few percentages points almost every year.[14] In 2020, Americans consumed about 10.43 million metric tons of soybean oil.[15]


Time and time again, studies in which participants supplemented with omega-3 fish oil have seen benefits to brain health in a multitude of ways, and this applies to all age groups: children, adolescents, young adults, middle-aged adults, and the elderly; even prisoners are finding brain balance when supplementing with fish oil.[16] [17] One double-blind, placebo-controlled study examined the effects of taking 3 grams of fish oil capsules daily on patients in an outpatient treatment program for substance abuse, some who showed aggressive behavior. After just three months, those taking the high-dose fish oil saw superior results in diminished anger scores compared to the placebo group, and, most notably, their scores remained decreased for three months even after treatment ceased.[18] [19]


Capturing Fish Oil’s Full Potential

In addition to requiring more omega-3s due to our over-consumption of omega-6s, it’s possible that even a typical dose of 1,000 mg/day may be falling short when it comes to brain health, especially in the case of those with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). A new clinical study of participants aged 55 and older without cognitive impairment, but who carried a gene variant known as APOE4 (a known factor for increasing AD risk by a factor of four or more), took 2,152 mg of DHA-rich fish oil for six months and saw a noticeable 200 percent increase in their blood plasma DHA levels and a 28 percent increase in cerebrospinal fluid levels. These numbers were significantly better compared to other studies where only 1,000 mg of DHA is administered. The new study summarized, “It appears that these people may be less able to transfer DHA from the blood to the brain than those who don’t carry the gene.” At least 2,000 mg of DHA may be needed to reach the full brain benefit provided by DHA.[20] [21] Hussein Yassine, MD, associate professor of medicine and neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and senior author of the study, concluded on the study’s findings: “If you use a lower dose, you can expect a less-than-10-percent increase in omega-3s in the brain, which may not be considered meaningful.”


Most fish oil supplements start around 1,000 mg/day but can go up to 2,000 mg, depending on the brand and dosing requirements. If you’re not reaching the maximum benefits with a “typical” dose when it comes to supporting a healthy mood, reducing anxiety, depression, ADD symptoms, and other cognitive-related functions, you might find you need a higher dose—2,000 to 3,000 mg/day—to maximize fish oil’s full range of brain benefits.


Boost Brain DHA with Curcumin

Our bodies have the ability to convert the fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid into DHA, but that conversion rate is very low. Enter curcumin. Researchers have found that curcumin, the principal bioactive compound in turmeric, enhances the conversion of alpha-linolenic acid into DHA, helping to increase levels in the brain. The researchers concluded: “These findings have important implications for human health and the prevention of cognitive disease, particularly for populations eating a plant-based diet or who do not consume fish…”[22]



[1]Chang CY, Ke DS, Chen JY. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009 Dec;18(4):231-41.

[2] Lawrence F. “Omega-3, junk food and the link between violence and what we eat. The Guardian, Oct 17, 2006.…

[3] McNamara RK. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid deficiency in mood disorders: rationale for treatment and prevention. Curr Drug Discov Technol. 2013;10:233–244. doi: 10.2174/1570163811310030006.

[4] Hibbeln JR. Fish consumption and major depression. Lancet. 1998;351:1213. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)79168-6

[5]  Hibbeln JR, Nieminen LR, Blasbalg TL, Riggs JA, Lands WE. Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83(6 Suppl):1483S–1493S.

[6] Lin PY, Huang SY, Su KP. A meta-analytic review of polyunsaturated fatty acid compositions in patients with depression. Biol Psychiatry. 2010;68:140–147. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.03.018.

[7] McNamara RK, Hahn CG, Jandacek R, Rider T, Tso P, Stanford KE, et al. Selective deficits in the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid in the postmortem orbitofrontal cortex of patients with major depressive disorder. Biol Psychiatry. 2007;62:17–24. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.08.026.

[8] Hamazaki K, Hamazaki T, Inadera H. Abnormalities in the fatty acid composition of the postmortem entorhinal cortex of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2013;210:346–350. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2013.05.006

[9] De Vriese SR, Christophe AB, Maes M. Lowered serum n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) levels predict the occurrence of postpartum depression: further evidence that lowered n-PUFAs are related to major depression. Life Sci. 2003;73:3181–3187. doi: 10.1016/j.lfs.2003.02.001. 

[10] Green P, Hermesh H, Monselise A, Marom S, Presburger G, Weizman A. Red cell membrane omega-3 fatty acids are decreased in nondepressed patients with social anxiety disorder. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2006;16:107–113. doi: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2005.07.005. 

[11] Tiemeier H, van Tuijl HR, Hofman A, Kiliaan AJ, Breteler MM. Plasma fatty acid composition and depression are associated in the elderly: the Rotterdam Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78:40–46. 

[12] KA;, C. A. L. C. C. M. (n.d.). Fatty acid status and behavioural symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adolescents: a case-control study. Nutrition Journal.


[14] Wunsch, N.-G. (2021, March 17). U.S. soybean oil consumption, 2020. Statista.…

[15] Wunsch, N.-G. (2021, March 17). U.S. consumption of edible oils by type, 2020. Statista.…

[16] Raine, A., Portnoy, J., Liu, J., Mahoomed, T., & Hibbeln, J. R. (2015, May). Reduction in behavior problems with omega-3 supplementation in children aged 8-16 years: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, stratified, parallel-group trial. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines.

[17] Meyer, B. J., Byrne, M. K., Collier, C., Parletta, N., Crawford, D., Winberg, P. C., Webster, D., Chapman, K., Thomas, G., Dally, J., Batterham, M., Farquhar, I., Martin, A.-M., & Grant, L. (2015, March 20). Baseline omega-3 index correlates with aggressive and attention deficit disorder behaviours in adult prisoners. PloS one.

[18] Feel-Good Findings: Omega-3s Boost Mood, Reduce Anger ... (n.d.).…

[19] M;, B.-B. L. B. (n.d.). Long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease feelings of anger in substance abusers. Psychiatry research.

[20] OmegaQuant. (2021, May 11). Is Omega-3 Brain Food? Three New Studies Suggest the Answer is YES. OmegaQuant.…

[21] Keck School News. Keck School of Medicine of USC. (n.d.).…

[22] Wu A, Noble EE, Tyagi E, et al. “Curcumin boosts DHA in the brain: Implications for the prevention of anxiety disorders.” Molecular Basis of Disease. May 2015;1852(5): 951-961