Ask an Expert: Mood, relaxation and sleep, do Omega-3s hold the secret to better brain health?


Brain health is a hot topic – 66% of us are interested in products that improve cognitive well-being

FMCG Gurus, The Growing Importance of Cognitive Health, 2021

. To do this, people want tried and tested ingredients that provide a real, positive impact to cognition and mental well-being – including mood, relaxation and sleep support. Are Omega-3s the answer for better brain health? And where are the potential areas for research and innovation?

In our latest Ask an Expert blog, we sit down with Kaitlin Roke, the Director of Scientific Communication and Outreach at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). Read on to discover the brain health benefits of EPA and DHA Omega-3s – and the cutting-edge research in areas such as mood, stress, relaxation and sleep.

Q: First of all, can you tell us more about the different types and sources of Omega-3s, including the difference between EPA and DHA?

There are three main Omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). For humans, ALA is considered an ‘essential’ part of our diet, as we can’t make it within our body. However, most people get enough ALA, and while it can be converted by the body into EPA and DHA, this is not an efficient process. Therefore, it is recommended that people try to consume more EPA and DHA from dietary sources and/or from supplements.

While ALA is found in land sources like flaxseeds, EPA and DHA Omega-3s are found in marine sources such as fish and algae. From a chemistry and structural perspective, EPA and DHA Omega-3s are distinct and unique but they have been predominantly studied together. While some scientific studies have looked at the individual effects of these fatty acids, there are limited head-to-head comparisons. The evidence to date would suggest it is important to consume both EPA and DHA. As research evolves, it will be exciting to learn more about the differential factors of EPA and DHA and the doses needed for specific benefits.

Q: Is there any difference in EPA and DHA sourced from fish compared to algae?

Historically, scientific studies on the benefits of EPA and DHA have been conducted with fish oil. But the active ingredients in EPA and DHA are the same in algal oil as they are fish oil, so research related to fish oil supplementation can be extrapolated to algal oil. Algae-based Omega-3s are becoming increasingly popular as more people adopt a flexitarian lifestyle, and anything that can get more people increasing their Omega-3 intake is a good thing in my book!

Q: Omega 3s are synonymous with brain health. How do these fatty acids support brain function?

It’s great to know that when people think of brain health, they think of Omega-3s. And I think there are three main reasons for this.

Firstly, research conducted to evaluate the amount and type of fatty acids in both animal and human tissue samples has shown that DHA is found in high concentration in the brain and eyes compared to other fatty acids. This demonstrates that the brain and eyes may have a structural or physiological need for DHA. Secondly, Omega-3s are strongly related to infant health. Studies have shown the importance of DHA for healthy brain and eye development in infants, both in utero and in early childhood. Thirdly, there is growing evidence that supports the theory that Omega-3s are important for brain health throughout all life stages. New research will continue to improve our understanding of how EPA and DHA Omega-3s at certain dosages may work to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, or support in alleviating the severity of some depressive symptoms.

Q: Digging a little deeper into cognitive wellness, can Omega-3s influence our sleep?

Research into Omega-3s and their benefits on sleep continues to grow. To date, there has been a mix of study types to assess the impact of EPA and DHA Omega-3 consumption on sleep. Some cross-sectional data over time has shown a positive relationship between the amount of EPA and DHA in the blood and sleep quality. However, there have only been a handful of studies that assess the impact of sleep quality (measured in a lab environment, or a take-home assessment) alongside increased EPA and DHA intake from the diet or supplements. The data is therefore currently inconclusive – but remains a point of interest for further study!

Q: What about other important brain health areas, like mood, anxiety, stress and relaxation? Can Omega-3s support with these?

While the association between Omega-3s and reduced anxiety and stress is not completely ‘new’, it’s certainly gaining increased attention as more people turn to nutrition to help cope with the pressure of modern life.

There are many external factors that affect our mood daily – making measuring it very difficult. However, the role of Omega-3s in treating mood issues such as depression are being increasingly studied

Wani AL, Bhat SA, Ara A. Omega-3 fatty acids and the treatment of depression: a review of scientific evidence. Integr Med Res. 2015 Sep;4(3):132-141. doi: 10.1016/j.imr.2015.07.003. Epub 2015 Jul 15. PMID: 28664119; PMCID: PMC5481805

. Current evidence supports the findings that Omega-3s with EPA greater than 60% and a dosage of less than 1g per day has a beneficial effect on depression

Liao, Y., Xie, B., Zhang, H. et al. Efficacy of omega-3 PUFAs in depression: A meta-analysis. Transl Psychiatry 9, 190 (2019).

. In some countries like Canada, there is a “healthy mood” health claim that can be used for Omega-3 products – but the science to support this comes from studies on depression and depressive symptoms, while “mood” is used as a more consumer friendly way to describe daily changes. To see a significant effect on mood from a nutritional change, I expect that a consistent intake at a high dose would be needed.

As with our mood, there are hundreds of variables that can affect anxiety, stress and relaxation – which means in research studies that assessments and tests must be specific to the outcome and the population group. However, there are some studies that suggest people with anxiety disorders have lower levels of circulating Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids

Liu JJ, Galfalvy HC, Cooper TB, Oquendo MA, Grunebaum MF, Mann JJ, Sublette ME. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) status in major depressive disorder with comorbid anxiety disorders. J Clin Psychiatry. 2013 Jul;74(7):732-8. doi: 10.4088/JCP.12m07970. PMID: 23945451; PMCID: PMC3905735.

.Another study found that Omega-3 supplementation reduced inflammation and anxiety in medical students during exams

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229. Epub 2011 Jul 19. PMID: 21784145; PMCID: PMC3191260.

. I look forward to discovering how EPA and DHA Omega-3s might support people with a diagnosed anxiety condition and support the management of daily anxieties as more research is carried out.

Q: Can Omega-3 supplements have a different impact on depending on people’s age, gender or anything else?

The benefits of DHA supplementation during pregnancy and for early infancy are clear and robust

. We are still learning about the effects of DHA on older adults’ brain health and the impact of these Omega-3s on ageing is increasingly of interest. EPA and DHA intake has also been shown to have short-term benefits at a high dose in people with a brain injury.

From a broad perspective, the best effect from Omega-3 supplementation is often seen in people who keep their EPA and DHA Omega-3s elevated over a long period of time. But as there are so many factors that may influence cognitive well-being, at this time, it’s difficult to recommend a specific dose of Omega-3s to certain populations more than others.

Large, well-conducted studies and innovations in research including nutrigenomics may help us to learn more about how individuals may benefit – or may benefit differently – from one another. There are also personal testing options, where people can measure their blood levels to see if diet and supplements are making a marked difference according to biomarkers.

Q: Where do you see the innovation and research opportunities for Omega-3s in the future?

To date, the fundamental science carried out on EPA and DHA Omega-3s and their impact on brain health has focused on infants and people with major depressive disorders. Now, new scientific evidence is expanding in fields such as ADHD, mood, relaxation, brain injury and more. But there are several challenges in the field of brain health and nutritional scientific research.

These challenges include comparing similar people between studies – for example with the same age, sex, health status – using valid and reliable assessments for brain health and determining what dosage of EPA and DHA may be required to elicit an effect. For example, if two research groups investigate Omega-3 supplementation and mood, but one uses adolescents and the other uses older adults and both choose different assessment scales with varying doses, it’s hugely challenging to compare these results.

I am optimistic that over the next five to ten years, brain health studies will be conducted in robust and repeatable ways, so we can break through the grey areas and get more clarity on who benefits from Omega-3 supplements, and how much EPA and DHA they might need. This will help inform more targeted nutritional approaches for different groups of people.

Personalised nutrition and nutrigenomics may also benefit some people here, but it’s currently an expensive and niche market. There are exciting new studies regularly on the effects of EPA and DHA Omega-3s on ADHD in children and adolescents and I am optimistic about what we might learn about dietary support for those individuals.

Furthermore, I think that we will learn a lot more about the possible impacts of EPA and DHA Omega-3s on the emerging science areas of mood, anxiety, stress and relaxation in various target groups, and I am hopeful that the health benefits of Omega-3s can have a positive impact on more people around the world.

About Kaitlin Roke and GOED

As Director of Scientific Communication and Outreach, Kaitlin oversees GOED’s Clinical Study Database, helping categorise and catalogue the body of science in the field of EPA and DHA Omega-3s. To date, there have been over 45,000 studies on these Omega-3s, including 4,000 human clinical studies.

GOED is a trade organization with over 180 global members at every level of the Omega-3 supply chain. All member companies are required to adhere to GOED’s stringent standards to guarantee Omega-3 products sold uphold quality criteria. GOED provides technical, regulatory, scientific and communications to members to ensure that evidence-based information about the health benefits of EPA and DHA is used in communications.

In Kaitlin’s own words: “I love my job because I’ve been an Omega-3 enthusiast for many years. During my undergraduate degree, I took a nutrition course where I learnt about EPA and DHA Omega-3s for the first time. I couldn’t believe that these two dietary ingredients could have such a profound effect on our health! From that moment on, I wanted to learn more about these fascinating fatty acids.”

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