Did you know that your brain consists of 60% fat? And that DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, is one of the most abundant types of fat in this crucial organ?

Without this essential fatty acid, human life is impossible. DHA is abundant in neural tissues, important in terms of cognitive and visual function, and forms an integral part of the membranes of all the body's cells, including brain cells.

If you're not eating sustainably sourced oily fish such as Atlantic and Australian salmon, blue-eye trevalla or canned sardines every other day, or taking an omega-3 supplement, read on. This article might just convince you to book that long-overdue fishing trip…

Fatty acids explained

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are classified into two groups: the omega-3 fatty acids and the omega-6 fatty acids. These fats all fall into the category of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs (versus saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids).

While both the omega-3s and the omega-6s need to be included in the diet, we tend to eat more omega-6 fatty acids than we should, and too little omega-3. So, the general recommendation is to try to include more omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.

There are three omega-3 fatty acids to take note of: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Flaxseed is the richest source of ALA, which can be converted in the body to EPA and DHA. Fatty marine fish is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

Although the brain needs a constant supply of EFAs throughout one’s life, infants and seniors have the greatest need.

Fatty acids and child development

Research has shown that maternal omega-3 intake could be critical for the development of the growing foetus. In fact, a landmark UK study indicated that Britain's mental health crisis could be tied to a 50-year decline in fish consumption.

A study by the South African Medical Research Council pointed to the importance of supplementing the diet with DHA prior to conception and during pregnancy. It has been proved that a child born to a mother with a good DHA status will be more advanced in terms of cognitive development at 18 months.

Fatty acids, ageing and dementia

From the above, it's clear that the EFAs play an important role early in life. But dietary intake of these fatty acids also becomes increasingly important as we grow older.

As we age, essential fatty acid deficiency can accelerate mental deterioration. EFAs play a significant role in brain structure by determining membrane fluidity, while also contributing significantly to brain function.

The cell membranes aren't structures, but liquids, and greater fluidity of the membranes improves the function of cells – also in the brain. This fluidity is thanks to the fatty acids that are incorporated in the cell membranes.

Although the brain has the ability to produce some of the fatty acids by itself, this process is limited and becomes even more limited as we age. As we grow older, more of these fatty acids should come from the diet.

Experts agree that by ensuring an adequate intake of omega-3s as we age, the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease could be delayed or even prevented.

Research into the field is ongoing: a study published in Neurology in 2012 suggests that foods rich in omega-3s might help guard against Alzheimer's by affecting beta-amyloid levels the brain. This protein is related to Alzheimer's disease and memory problems.

Where to from here?

The omega-3s are essential in terms of brain health, and could possibly prevent dementia, so make a point to include more of these healthy fats in your diet.

This simplest way to do this, without having to eat tuna sandwiches for lunch every day is through supplementing your diet with omega-3 capsules or liquids.  There are many options on supermarket and pharmacist shelves that will do the trick, however for brain health and superior DHA levels, calamari oil is proving to be the front runner.

Calamari oil is produced from the unutilised portion of the nearly 2 million tonnes of calamari caught each year.  As calamari are fast growers and reproducers this means that the treat of overfishing is virtually non-existent.   Tests have proven that calamari oil contains almost four times the amount of DHA than common fish oils.

The Australian Heart Foundation recommends about 500mg of omega-3 for adults every day. On some days you may have more or less omega-3s than on others, but aim to obtain about 3,500mg of EPA and DHA during the course of a week.

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