by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
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Several of you have written with questions about DHA, a type of Omega-3 fat that’s important for healthy brain function. We know that DHA is important for the development of a baby’s brain, both before and after birth. And lately, it’s been proposed as a possible treatment for ADHD and as a hedge against Alzheimer’s disease—two very different disorders that are both on the rise. Could DHA be the secret to a healthy brain throughout life? Let’s take a look at the latest research and figure out how this nutrient fits into your diet.
DHA: The Brainy Member of the Omega-3 Family
As I talked about in my show on Fish Oil and Omega-3s, omega-3 isn’t a single nutrient but a whole family of fatty acids. Two of the most biologically active members of the omega-3 family are EPA and DHA. When you eat fish—or take a fish oil supplement—you’re getting some of each.
At the risk of over-simplifying a complex area of nutritional biochemistry, EPA helps keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, while DHA supports your brain and neurological function. So it makes sense for researchers to look for connections between DHA intake and cognitive disorders like ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease. But before you head to the vitamin shop, let’s see what they’ve found.
DHA and ADHD
Several researchers have observed that kids with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3s, including DHA, in their cells and bloodstream. If ADHD might be due, even in part, to DHA deficiency, then we could hope that increasing DHA intake might be helpful. But there’s also some evidence that these lower blood levels aren’t due to lower intake but due to some sort of problem with fatty acid metabolism—in which case, increasing intake wouldn’t do any good. In a few studies where they’ve given omega-3 supplements to kids with ADHD, only small improvements were seen.
DHA and Alzheimer’s Disease
As with ADHD, there seems to be an association between DHA and dementia.
People with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have lower levels of DHA in their blood. Unfortunately, DHA supplementation doesn’t seem to slow the progression of the disease in people who already have Alzheimer’s disease.
The burning question is whether taking in more DHA might prevent it—and the answer is not as obvious as it might sound. It could be, for example, that something about the disease process causes low DHA levels, rather than the other way around. In which case, increasing DHA wouldn’t necessarily do any good. Then again, when we look at big groups of people, it looks as if the people who eat the most fish have significantly lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Where to Get DHA?
You could start taking a DHA supplement. But after you buy your bottle of DHA, you’ll still have to buy dinner.
OK, so the jury is still out on DHA and Alzheimer’s disease. But maybe you’ve heard enough to convince you that this is a nutrient you want more of in your life. In that case, you have a choice. You could start taking a DHA supplement. But after you buy your bottle of DHA, you’ll still have to buy dinner. So why not just kill two birds with one stone and spend that money on a nice piece of fish instead? Fish is the most potent food source of DHA (and of heart-healthy EPA). The study I mentioned above found that people who ate fish 3 times a week cut their risk of Alzheimer’s disease in half.
How to Buy, Handle, and Prepare Fresh Fish
Now, I know that a lot of you find cooking fish to be somewhat intimidating. You’re not alone. When I was in culinary school, the unit on fish caused us more anxiety than anything else. But I have a fool-proof method for cooking any kind of fish, which I’ve demonstrated in this video. Here are tips on how to buy and handle fresh fish. If you’re still nervous about making fish at home, then get into the habit of ordering fish when you eat out. On average, Americans eat out five times a week…so you have more than enough opportunities to get your fish quotient in.
I haven’t forgotten my vegans! If you don’t consume animal products, your best food source of DHA would be an algae like spirulina—although it would take a small lake’s worth to equal the amount you’d get in a serving of salmon. There are also vegan DHA supplements.
Finally, for you do-it-yourself-ers, your body also has the ability to manufacture its own DHA using other fats in the omega-3 family, such as the kind found in flax and chia seeds. I talked about some ways to maximize this process in my previous episode on omega-3s.
Keep in Touch
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Woman Eating Sushi image from Shutterstock