The concept of “brain foods” generally refers to foods that are believed to support cognitive function, memory, focus, and overall brain health. While there isn’t a single specific type of food that can dramatically boost brain function on its own, a balanced diet rich in nutrients can certainly contribute to optimal brain health and performance. The brain is a high-energy organ, and it requires a steady supply of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients to function properly. 

Last month, we focused our attention on vitamin C, a rich antioxidant that helps to neutralize toxic free radicals and protect the brain against oxidative stress, inflammation, and damage. We explored research that links vitamin C with protection against chronic diseases associated with oxidative stress, like Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as its role in mood regulation and energy levels. This month, we shift our focus to the micronutrients – starting with the omega-3 fatty acids. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that are essential for human health. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found primarily in plant sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds. EPA and DHA, on the other hand, are found predominantly in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout. Research suggests that consuming adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, through diet or supplementation, may help support brain health, improve cognitive function, and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Additionally, omega-3 fatty acids are important for overall cardiovascular health, eye health, and inflammatory conditions throughout the body.

The importance of long chain fatty acids on brain health starts early in life. The human brain is nearly 60% fat and DHA is the most prevalent fatty acid in the central nervous system. Both EHA and DHA play key roles in the development of structures including the brain, spine, and optic nerves during pregnancy. This is particularly important for a component of the brain called myelin – a fatty substance that forms a sheath around nerve fibers, providing insulation and facilitating the transmission of electrical impulses between brain cells. This rapid transmission of signals is crucial for nearly all physiological functions, including sensation, motor coordination, and cognitive processing. A deficiency in DHA during gestation is associated with numerous adverse health outcomes such as impaired cognition and visual function, decreased learning ability and altered behavior. 

The beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids during development have also been demonstrated in clinical studies. Interestingly, both young adults and children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have been found to have lower levels of long-chain omega-3s in their cellular membranes. This knowledge prompted a team of scientists from the Netherlands, led by Dr. Bos, to investigate whether omega-3 fatty acid supplementation could alter the behavioural and learning symptoms associated with ADHD including hyperactivity, impulsivity, anxiety and sleep difficulties. The authors designed a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial (the highest level of clinical evidence!) that included participants aged 8-14 years.

The study included 40 children with a diagnosis of ADHD, and 39 age-matched control participants without ADHD. Participants consumed 10 grams of margarine daily, enriched with either EPA/DHA fish oils or a placebo formulation for 16 weeks over the duration of the study. Prior to enrollment, the guardians of all children completed symptom assessments that addressed characteristic ADHD symptoms. At the end of the study, children who received the supplemented margarine had significant improvements in their attention, as rated by their parents or guardians. Interestingly, this effect was seen in both children with and without ADHD. This study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology in 2015, suggests that dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can alter behaviour and reduce symptoms of ADHD, both for individuals with ADHD and typically developing children. 

Once the brain has fully developed, do omega-3 fatty acids offer the same benefit? A 2014 article published in the journal Cerebral Cortex by Dr. Veronica Witte sought out to question whether higher intake of fish oil rich in omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for the aging brain. The team from Germany recruited 65 healthy adults between 50-75 years old. Participants were randomized in a 1:1 ratio to receive either a fish-oil containing supplement or a placebo pill for a period of 26 weeks. At the beginning and the end of the study, all participants underwent tests of cognitive performance, brain imaging and bloodwork. In comparison to the placebo group, adults who consumed the fish oil supplement had significant improvements in executive function on their cognitive testing. Executive function refers to a set of cognitive processes that are responsible for managing, organizing, planning, and executing tasks and behaviors. Additionally, the experimental group also had notable changes to the structural integrity of key brain regions involved in higher order processing, memory and language skills seen on MRI. 

Taken together, these studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may be another strategy to develop and maintain cognitive function throughout the lifespan – from development into old age. Fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines are among the best sources of EPA and DHA, the two most beneficial forms of omega-3 fatty acids. However, vegetarian options like chia seeds, flax seeds and nuts can also increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids and support overall health and well-being.


Part 1: Vitamin A (to Zinc!)

Part 2: Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)

Part 3: Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) 

Part 4: Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid)

Part 5: Vitamin B-12

Part 6: Vitamin D

Part 7: Vitamin C

Part 8: Omega-3 fatty acids