Fish is an important component of a healthy diet. Especially fatty fish types such as herring, mackerel, sardines and salmon are often mentioned in relation to brain health. Many people take fish oil capsules aiming to improve their mood or feel more focused, or even in the hopes of preventing dementia. What makes fish, and especially fatty fish, so special?

Fatty Acids
Fatty fish is a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFA’s (also called omega-3 fatty acids,ω−3 fatty acids, or n−3 fatty acids). PUFA’s come in different kinds, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and α-linolenic acid (ALA). The latter, ALA, is plant-based. It is found in walnuts, chia seed, flaxseed, and vegetable oils. The other two, EPA and DHA, are found in fatty fish. Fish do not produce PUFA’s themselves. Rather, PUFA’s accumulate in fish as they eat
algae or prey fish. In fact, nowadays, to pertain the health benefits of eating fatty fish despite most
consumption fish having lived in captivity, aquaculture feed is artificially enriched with fish oil [1].

Building Block of the Brain
PUFA’s are, quite literally, building blocks of the brain. Especially DHA is highly abundant in the
human brain, where it supports proper functioning of cell membranes. To obtain enough PUFA’s for
optimal functioning, our brains depend largely on what we eat. Mammals, including humans, are
unable to synthesize ALA. This is why ALA is referred to as an essential fatty acid . When ALA is ingested, however, our body can convert it to EPA and/or DHA. Therefore, strictly speaking, DHA and EPA are not essential fatty acids. However, ALA conversion to DHA or EPA is limited: even very high levels of ALA intake cannot fully compensate for the absence of DHA or EPA in a diet [2].

Deficiencies and supplementation
Most dietary advisory bodies recommend a minimum of 200 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day, which equals about one portion of fatty fish per week (see for instance the Eatwell Guide [3]). Especially in countries where fish is not a standard meal component, it can be a challenge to meet this recommendation. For specific groups such as vegetarians or vegans, meeting the recommended intake is virtually impossible. If your diet is deficient in PUFA’s, taking fish oil capsules can be a solution. In fact, gelatin-free capsules are available for vegans and vegetarians, containing PUFA’s from algae rather than from fish.

Fish Oil Capsules to Treat ADHD Symptoms?
Most children in Western countries do not meet the guidelines regarding fatty fish intake [4]. Among youths with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), even fewer meet the guidelines, resulting in lower PUFA blood-serum levels in children and adolescents with ADHD as compared to their peers without ADHD [5]. This has led researchers to believe that, possibly, low PUFA blood-serum levels may cause attention problems, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. If true, high intake of fatty fish or fish oil supplementation with capsules might reduce ADHD symptoms. To test this promising hypothesis, many researchers have measured symptoms in children and adolescents before and after several weeks of fish oil treatment. Unfortunately, when researchers reviewed all of these studies up until 2012, they concluded that the majority of studies found no beneficial effect of fish oil on ADHD symptoms [6]. Note, however, that this does not preclude the possibility that fish oil supplementation may have a beneficial effect for some children or adolescents with ADHD. Moreover, even if fish oil supplementation does not improve ADHD symptoms, supplementing PUFA deficiencies may provide other health benefits for this group. For instance, it may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease [7].

REFERENCES:
[1] https://www.iffo.net/

[2] Burns-Whitmore B, Froyen E, Heskey C, Parker T, San Pablo G (2019). Alpha-Linolenic and Linoleic Fatty Acids in the Vegan Diet: Do They Require Dietary Reference Intake/Adequate Intake Special Consideration? Nutrients, 11(10):E2365.

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/

[4] Sichert-Hellert W, Wicher M, Kersting M. (2009). Age and time trends in fish consumption pattern of children and adolescents, and consequences for the intake of long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Eur J Clin Nutr, 63(9):1071-5

[5] Burgess JR, Stevens L, Zhang W, Peck L (2000). Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Clin Nutr, 71(1 Suppl):27S-30S

[6] Gillies D, Sinn JKH, Lad SS, Leach MJ, Ross MJ (2012). Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 7:CD007986

[7] Abdelhamid AS, Brown TJ, Brainard JS, Biswas P, Thorpe GC, Moore HJ, Deane KHO, Summerbell CD, Worthington HV, Song F, Hooper L (2020). Omega-3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 3: CD003177

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 728018

New Brain Nutrition is a project and brand of Eat2BeNice, a consortium of 18 European University Hospitals throughout the continent.

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