This Is Your Brain on Fish

You’ve heard it time and time again, ‘fish is ‘brain’ food’, but until recently, researchers did not fully understand how omega-3 may stave off dementia.

What was once viewed as an old wives tale, is now being viewed as a potential proactive measure against cognitive decline. More specifically, consuming omega-3-rich sources, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel.

Could eating your favorite fish dishes really protect your brain?

Study Finds Fish Is Certainly a Brain Food

When reviewing the research, there is plenty of information regarding the benefits of fish. Over the years, scientists have aimed to reverse the perception that ‘fat’ is the enemy. Of course, this includes the heart and brain-healthy fat that’s found within fish, krill, and algae.

So, how does it all relate to dementia?

In recent years, researchers have focused on inflammation as a potential cause of dementia and Alzheimer’s, which omega-3 helps combat. The same is true regarding amyloid and tau proteins. As these proteins clump together, they appear to cause further damage.

Now, for the first time, researchers were able to specifically show how this healthy fat improves brain function. More specifically, it was found that those who have high omega-3 levels, benefit from enhanced blood flow within certain areas of the brain.

Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, this study showed that omega-3 fatty acids not only improve perfusion (the process that involves oxygen-rich blood being delivered to tissues within the body), but also enhanced cognition.

Using a technique known as SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), researchers were able to review the blood flow of participants as they performed cognition tests. Those who had a higher omega-3 index (higher blood concentration of EPA and DHA), performed better and showcased greater blood flow within their brain.

These scans were completed for 128 regions of the brain, and the most striking improvements were seen within sections of the brain that relate to both learning and memory. This makes sense, considering the brain is made up of 60 percent fat. In fact, DHA is specifically found within the structural component of your cerebral cortex, retina, and skin.

Although it’s not clear at this point whether or not omega-3 fatty acids can directly prevent dementia, there is certainly a connection. After all, this association has been published time and time again:

  • Based on one study, published in JAMA, researchers were interested in fish consumption, mercury levels, and brain neuropathology. After performing autopsies on 286 brains, it was found that moderate seafood consumption reduced Alzheimer’s disease, regardless of mercury levels in the brain. Meaning, the benefits of omega-3 may outweigh the risks associated with mercury levels.
  • Within the same study, those who consumed seafood once weekly, showcased lower levels of three key psychological signs of Alzheimer’s — but only among those with APOE ε4. This is a genetic marker that increases one’s risk of Alzheimer’s. Fish oil was not shown to produce the same beneficial effects as eating fish.
  • Another study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, found that consuming more baked or broiled fish, yields larger gray matter volumes in the brain. More specifically, within the posterior cingulate, orbital frontal cortex, precuneus, and the all mighty hippocampus.

Eat Your Way to a Healthier Brain

Yes, it’s true — there are many possible contributing factors when it comes to the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. With that being said, however, it’s clear that your actions can influence your potential neurological health in the future. What you put into your body makes all the difference.

With more processed foods available than ever before, it’s important that we continue to feed our minds nutrient-dense whole foods. Fish offers unique properties and benefits, but it is not the only food that you should readily consume. A balanced diet is critical, so why not address your eating habits today?

There’s no better time than the present — especially based on the relation between diet and heart health. After all, cardiovascular risk factors also increase one’s risk of Alzheimer’s.

What should be on your new grocery shopping list?

Here are a few items to get your started:

  • Berries and cherries
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Cruciferous vegetables (bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.)
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Raw olive oil
  • Nuts — especially walnuts
  • Legumes and beans
  • Whole grains — such as quinoa and oats
  • Turmeric and cinnamon
  • Seeds — raw pumpkin seeds are a great choice

It’s also important that you begin to reduce your intake of sugar, hydrogenated oils, alcohol, and caffeine. You need to manage stress levels, maintain a healthy weight, and remain active. All of these preventative factors appear to yield beneficial effects, and when combined, you may significantly improve your health in the years to come.

The great T. Collin Campbell once said, “Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence. All parts are interconnected.”

This could not be more true, and although we continue to learn about unique components of our brain and other organs, everything is connected. When relating back to our lifestyle choices, when you benefit one system through positive health, each and every other internal system benefits as well.

Today, make an active decision. Go for a walk this afternoon — and then another tomorrow, until you create a new habit. Clear out junk food and replace it with items that will nourish your body and mind.

We may not know the cure for Alzheimer’s, or even what the exact cause may be, but one thing is certain — for every action, there is a reaction. In this case, living a balanced life can certainly reduce your risk of neurological decline.

Check out our infographic post to see the other areas of your life in which you can make positive changes — to help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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