DHA: The Mind Mender

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 essential fatty acid, boosts brainpower, lifts depression, and reduces disease. 

By PT Staff, published March 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Is there something fishy going on in your brain? If not, perhaps there shouldbe. Research now shows that eating fish and other foods rich in DHA may boost your brainpower.

At a time when we've become so fat-phobic, it's tough to remember that some fats are beneficial. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 essential fatty acid, is one of those good fats that health experts say we could eat more of.

DHA helps maintain the flexibility of cell membranes, which facilitate communication between brain and nerve cells. High levels of DHA in the brain are associated with optimal brain function--from mental sharpness to memory to mood regulation--while low levels have been linked to Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit disorders and depression. A recent study published in The Lancet showed that in cultures where people consume more fish, there were fewer cases of depression.

"The lining of every brain cell is made of fat and fatty acids, and a good chunk of the fatty acids are DHA," explains Ray Sahelian, M.D., author of Mind Boosters (St. Martins, 2000). "It's important that we consume DHA in our diet. Otherwise, the body will substitute other fatty acids, like saturated or monounsaturated fatty acids. Consequently, receptors on cell membranes don't work as efficiently, and the nerve cells don't communicate as well."

A recent Japanese study, published in the journal Mechanisms of Aging and Development, makes the point. Scientists fed mice a diet of 5% sardine oil. After 12 months, the mice were able to navigate mazes much faster than were mice eating a diet containing 5% palm oil. And when their brains were later analyzed, those mice consuming sardine oil had much higher levels of DHA than the others.

DHA also appears to be heart protective, lowering levels of triglycerides, which have been linked to heart disease. And it's essential for good vision--recent research appearing in the Archives of Ophthalmology found that people who ate more fish had fewer incidences of age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in older people.

Good DHA supplementation starts at birth, as it is abundant in breast milk. You'll also find DHA in salmon, halibut, mackerel, sardines and striped bass as well as flaxseed oil and fish oil supplements.