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Posted on Fri, 21 Aug 09

Build a better brain

Increase your brain size. Improve your mood, cognitive function and emotional stability. Reverse depression and anxiety. Reduce the effects of stress and protect against dementia. These promises may sound as if from a science fiction novel but they are not. Certain nutrients have the power to achieve all of these, unfortunately many of us are missing out on the profound health benefits because we are not getting nearly enough from our diet (1).  

Peace of mind

The healthy fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have been shown in clinical studies to improve and prevent a wide range of mood related and behavioural disorders including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, aggression, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and accelerated age related cognitive decline (2). In fact low intakes of EPA and DHA may be the reason these disorders are so common.

Lack of brain food

The human brain is thought to have achieved its remarkable mental ability and disproportionate size in part to high intakes of DHA from animal foods throughout human evolution (3). The food sources of EPA and DHA our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed for millennia, in particular wild plant foods and wild game meats, are however rare in modern diets (4).  The deviation from traditional wild foods to our modern industrialised diets has greatly reduced our DHA and EPA intake.

Fattening up your brain size

A report in the Journal Neuroscience Letters found that people who consumed more EPA and DHA had larger brains (5). Remarkably it was the areas of the brain that affect memory and mood such as the amygdala and hippocampus that were bigger in people with higher EPA and DHA intakes. This may be one reason why EPA and DHA have been found to restore and preserve healthy mental function.

The current recommended intake for EPA and DHA  of 100mg per day has been criticised for being too low to achieve the many health benefits of these nutrients (6).  A recent review suggested that for brain health a daily dose of 400–700 mg per day in children and 700–1000 mg per day in adults would be optimal with a higher daily dose of 1000–1500mg per day for the treatment of established mental health disorders (7).

Supplements containing EPA and DHA such as fish oil are safe and relatively cheap however contamination with pollutants and stability are important considerations when choosing a product. Good dietary sources of EPA and DHA include oily fish, omega-3 enriched eggs, game meats and grass fed animals.  With a portion of oily fish providing the equivalent of 200-400mg EPA and DHA regular use of a quality fish oil supplement may be necessary.


1. R.B. Ervin, J.D.Wright, C.Y.Wang, J. Kennedy-Stephenson, Dietary intake of fats and fatty acids for the United States population: 1999–2000, Adv. Data (2004) 1–6.

2. Kidd PM. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids. Altern Med Rev. 2007 Sep;12(3):207-27#

3. Cordain L, Watkins BA, Mann NJ. Fatty acid composition and energy density of foods available to African hominids. Evolutionary implications for human brain development.World Rev Nutr Diet. 2001;90:144-61.

4. Simopoulos AP. Human requirement for N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Poult Sci. 2000 Jul;79(7):961-70.

5. Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Brown SM, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic gray matter volume in healthy adults. Neurosci Lett. 2007 Jun 29;421(3):209-12

6. Kris-Etherton PM, Grieger JA, Etherton TD. Dietary reference intakes for DHA and EPA.Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Jun 12. [Epub ahead of print]

7. McNamara RK. Evaluation of docosahexaenoic acid deficiency as a preventable risk factor for recurrent affective disorders: Current status, future directions, and dietary recommendations.Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Jun 8. [Epub ahead of print]

Tags: Depression, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Mental Health

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