How DHA Effects Brain Function and Mood
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is important for healthy brain development and function. DHA is essential for prenatal and postnatal care, cognitive function, and even mood, but do you know why?
In this blog, you’ll discover what is DHA and how DHA effects brain function and mood (scroll to read or click the links below to jump to sections):
- What is DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)?
- The Importance of DHA for the Brain
- DHA for Child Brain Development
- Cognitive Performance During Childhood
- Cognitive Function During Adulthood
DHA belongs to a group of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. This includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). ALA is considered the only essential fatty acid since we cannot produce it on our own. While EPA and DHA are vital to every organ, they serve as anti-inflammatory agents that fight off disease and disorders.
We can only obtain ALA via dietary sources like nuts or plants and DHA and EPA from fish that feed on algae. Additionally, ALA gets synthesized into EPA and EPA converts into DHA. Unfortunately, less than 10 percent of ALA converts into EPA and less than 5 percent of EPA converts into DHA from diet.
Although the body can produce very small amounts of EPA and DHA on its own, it’s not enough if there is a lack of fish in the diet. Therefore, we need significant amounts of DHA and EPA supplementation for growth, health and wellness.
DHA is vital to every cell function, structure, and the organs in the body. ALA, EPA and DHA cause fluidity in the cell membrane, making it easier for cells to communicate and function properly.
Our most complex organ, the brain, is made up of 60 percent fat from fatty acids. DHA makes over 90 percent of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and up to 20 percent of total fat in the brain. This means DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid for brain development and cognitive function.
DHA is so important that scientists believe it played an integral role in the evolution of the human brain structure and growth. As our early ancestors settled near the sea, lakes and rivers, they consumed a rich dietary source of algae and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring. This rich omega-3 diet likely contributed to structural changes in the brain and lead to improved cognitive abilities.
DHA is important for brain tissue growth and retina development, especially during the first tri-semester. As the weight of the fetus increases more rapidly and fat tissue gets deposited, DHA accumulates more in the third tri-semester. The rate of DHA in the cell membranes depends greatly on maternal transfer.
In order for the eyes and brain to develop normally, the mother needs to take a daily intake of DHA to maintain this growth throughout pregnancy. While recommendations vary, the average daily maternal intake of DHA is at least 200-300 mg a day.
Infants obtain high levels of DHA from their mother’s breastmilk. Dietary supplementation of DHA from the mother supports the prefrontal cortex. Since DHA is found mostly in gray matter and the frontal lobes of the brain, cognitive functions develop at a greater rate such as:
- Processing information
As children grow beyond their preschool years, the rate of natural brain DHA declines, and dietary supplementation is needed. When children develop high levels of DHA, those levels are maintained later in life, which is why diet and DHA supplementation during childhood is essential.
Most of the DHA in the brain is stored in gray matter. Gray matter is brain tissue that makes up the central nervous system and serves to process information. The speed at which that information is processed occurs in white matter nerve fibers.
Learning and Development
An increase in gray matter contributes to cognitive abilities and skills. The ability to store memory, maintain attention, learn languages and music reflects large volumes of gray matter. DHA supplementation helps expand gray matter. In fact, a study from the Journal of Nutrients confirmed that brain changes such as improved learning, behavior and school performance can occur in children and teens who take DHA supplements.
DHA enriches the frontal lobes and improves executive function of the brain responsible for:
- Problem Solving
Several studies correlate an increase in DHA intake with improvement in behavior and reduction of symptoms of ADHD, however, these studies vary and are inconclusive.
Neuroscientists agree that the average young adult brain is fully developed by age 25. In some adults, it may be earlier than 25 or later, depending on individual development. By the mid-20s, adults have increased connectivity between their brain regions. Adults at this age are able to process more information and improve their organization, planning, emotional intelligence, mood, and problem solving.
DHA has clinically proven to regulate mood, and it is believed to help with symptoms of depression in adults, although the results from clinical studies remain inconclusive.
The Aging Process
Maintaining a healthy diet, exercise, and daily DHA intake can affect the normal aging process and improve overall mental health. During the normal aging process, cells are constantly working to repair themselves due to fighting stress and inflammation in both the nervous and immune systems.
Over time, energy naturally depletes leading to poor cell function, synaptic loss and loss of neurons, which leads to impaired brain function and cognitive decline. Both gray matter and white matter naturally decline in older adults ranging from 59 to 85 years old. However, the volume of loss depends greatly on how they maintain their physical and mental health.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s
Many adults who are diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s have a DHA deficiency due to the loss of gray matter and lack of dietary DHA supplementation. According to a study by the Journal of Neuroscience, the decline in brain tissue or brain atrophy reflects changes in mental health such as early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Dementia is common with neuropsychiatric disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Dementia symptoms include deficits in:
- Executive Function
- Poor self-care and nutrition
Several studies have shown that elderly populations that take daily vitamins, omega-3 or dietary DHA supplements have better memory, executive function, and larger gray matter volume than those who do not. Therefore, DHA intake is critical to maintaining cognitive function throughout the lifespan.