Fish Oil: Food for the healthy brain

Despite all the research to back it up, it’s still hard to convince people that some fats are good for us. But the research on the benefits of fish oil may help change some minds—literally! Among their many health benefits, these fats may be one of the best natural approaches to a number of brain health issues, including depression, Alzheimer’s and age-related memory loss.

Fish oils from cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel contain special fats called omega-3 fatty acids (also found in flax oil). These omega-3s are known to help lower cholesterol, thin the blood, ease menopause symptoms and improve arthritis, among other things. However, it’s the benefit to the brain that has many scientists taking another serious look at fish oils.


More than half of the brain’s dry weight comes from the fat which makes up the important brain cell membranes. These membranes control the constant “traffic” of nerve impulses and hormones which have a direct influence on how well we feel, how well we remember and even how well we learn. One component of fish oil, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is thought to be especially important to brain function. The healthy human brain contains about 20 grams of DHA and is one of the body’s largest “consumers” of this compound.


Back in 1993, a Harvard medical researcher named Andrew Stoll, MD, uncovered the potential brain benefits of fish oil after he did an extensive review of scientific studies relating to depression.

“At first our reaction was surprise and disbelief,” writes Stoll in his book, The Omega-3 Connection. Stoll was looking for an alternative to mood-stabilizing drugs that have unfavourable side effects. Subsequent studies on patients with severe bipolar disorder (manic depression) found that fish oil significantly improved symptoms.

Other studies have shown that a higher intake of fish or fish oils is linked to a lower incidence of depression, memory loss, cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s disease. The DHA in fish oil is also reported to help prevent or address learning disorders in children, including attention deficit disorder (ADD).

While increasing the dietary intake of fatty fish is beneficial to overall health, it’s difficult to achieve the amount of fish oil needed to have any therapeutic effect for brain health. For optimum benefit, experts recommend supplementing with a high-quality fish oil or flax oil capsule. Remember, however, that fish oils are not the same as fish liver oils. To be certain, make sure to consult with your natural health store staff.

Sources: Archives of General Psychiatry 1999(56):407-12, 415-16; Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements by M Murray, Prima:1996; The Omega-3 Connection by A Stoll, Free Press:2001