DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is crucial for the healthy structure and function of your brain at all ages.
The famous Framingham Heart Study followed-up with 899 men and women who were free of dementia. Subjects had a median age of 76 years. And were followed for 9.1 years for the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Results from the study showed 99 new cases of dementia including 71 of Alzheimer’s. The researchers concluded that those with the highest levels of DHA were “associated with a significant 47% reduction in the risk of developing all-cause dementia”.[i]
- BDNF. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is your brain’s growth hormone. DHA has the ability to turn on your brain’s BDNF.
- Neuroplasticity. DHA helps your brain build new neural pathways. Critical for maintaining a healthy brain. And optimizing neural signaling and cognition.
- Neuroprotection. DHA acts as an anti-inflammatory by reducing the enzyme COX-2. Inflammation is a key factor in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. And in every other neurodegenerative disease.
Table of Contents
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid. Your brain is made up of 60% fat. And much of that fat is DHA.
Your body does not make DHA on its own. So you must get it from food or a supplement. And if you are a vegan, you are at serious risk of a life-threatening DHA deficiency.
Foods that are rich in DHA include fish, fish oil, Krill and other crustaceans, and algae.
But fish do not make DHA. Fish and other marine predators get it from smaller fish and crustaceans that feed on algae. It’s the algae that have enzymes to produce DHA that we need to remain healthy.
DHA from eggs and some dairy products only supply about 20 mg of DHA per day.
How does DHA Work in the Brain?
Your brain is composed of 60% fat. 15 – 20% of your cerebral cortex is DHA. Even the retina in your eyes is 30 – 60% DHA. Making DHA the most essential nutrient for eye and brain health.
PC also makes up part of the neuron tissue mass. And helps in maintaining cell structure, fat metabolism, neuron signaling and the activation of a number of enzymes.
And PE is part of neuron cell membranes. PE is involved in cellular signaling.
PS, PE and PC are called phospholipids. Together they alter the fluidity of cell membranes. Changing the fluidity of cell membranes alters their permeability and protein activity. And influences cellular signaling.
Made up largely of DHA, these cellular membranes regulate entry into the cell, and control neuroreceptor function. Which facilitates cellular communication between, and within cells.
DHA also reduces inflammation by regulating proteins and enzymes within cells. And boosts the production of anti-inflammatory compounds that protect cells.
DHA maintains the activity of certain enzymes that control electrical signaling between cells. And it regulates the brain cell concentration of PS which is vital for cell survival.
DHA vs. EPA: What’s the Difference?
Most medical authorities and scientists agree that Omega-3 oils are important for good health. Omega-3’s boost brain function, decrease inflammation, reduce the incidence of fatal heart attacks and strokes, help autoimmune diseases and improve vision.
The ratio of DHA and EPA varies a lot in commercial Omega-3 supplements. Most have higher concentrations of EPA to DHA. Mainly because it’s cheaper to manufacture, and have less of a fishy odor.
But studies show that most of the brain health benefits of Omega-3’s are derived from DHA rather than EPA.
One study in Chicago followed 815 residents from 1993 – 2000. Study subjects were between 65 and 94 years. 131 study participants developed Alzheimer’s Disease. Those who ate fish at least once a week had a 60% less risk of Alzheimer’s compared to those who didn’t eat fish.
Researchers found that it was the intake of DHA rather than EPA that reduced the risk factor in getting Alzheimer’s. EPA made no difference whatsoever.[iii]
How Things Go Bad:
From reviewing the “How does DHA Work in the Brain” section of this article, you can imagine that when things go bad with DHA – they go really bad.
Fish and marine oil supplements like krill oil are a direct source of DHA and EPA. Plants contain another Omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Technically ALA can be converted to DHA and EPA. But most modern humans lack the ability to convert plant sources of Omega-3’s into all the DHA our brain needs.
When we don’t get enough DHA, we experience:
↓ Problems with attention, learning and memory
↑ Depression, anxiety, aggression, anger, suicide risk
↑ Bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s Disease and Schizophrenia
Not having adequate levels of DHA in the brain cause things to break down. If the inadequate intake of DHA goes on for a while, disease starts to set in. Including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer.
DHA to the Rescue
DHA makes up much of the gray matter in your brain. It’s an integral part of cell membranes and making them function.
Your brain is 60% fat. And a large part of that is DHA.
The good news is; degenerative conditions can not only be prevented by adding DHA to your nootropic stack. It can also be reversed.
In one study, researchers worked with 485 elderly subjects with memory problems. They saw significant improvement with those taking 900 mg of DHA per day for 24 weeks compared to the control group.[iv]
In another double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, scientists worked with 49 women aged 60 – 80 years. One group received 800 mg per day of DHA for 4 months.
Researchers found those using DHA had a significant improvement in verbal fluency scores. And an improvement in memory and learning.[v]
How does DHA feel?
Chances are when you start using DHA you won’t feel it. There’s no profound stimulant feeling.
But if you suffer from chronic depression, within a few weeks you should feel the depression lift.
After supplementing with DHA for a while your cognition will be better. You’ll think clearer and quicker. Your memory and ability to learn will improve. And you’ll likely have more energy and motivation.
But it is very likely you won’t think to attribute these improvements to adding DHA to your stack. Something else will get the credit.
DHA is crucial for an optimally functioning brain. The goal of every neurohacker. DHA impacts your brain’s structure, signaling systems, neurotransmitters, memory, learning, focus and attention.
We have decades of clinical research verifying the importance of DHA in your nootropic stack. And several books have been written on the subject in the last couple of years. Here’s just a snippet of what’s available…
DHA Reduces Hostility and Anger
In a study with 41 university students in Japan, scientists compared a high-DHA diet (1.5 grams/day) with placebo. This was recorded over 3 months to see the effects of hostile responses.
The researchers found a 27% incidence of hostile answers in the placebo group when nothing extraordinary was going on. And hostile responses rose to 92% during final exams.
There was no increase in hostility among those taking a DHA supplement. These guys even found DHA supplementation significantly reduced hostility among university staff.[vi]
DHA Restores Neurotransmitters & Memory
As the brain ages, there is an increase in membrane rigidity. This causes changes in synapses resulting in a decrease in transmitter release. Long-term potentiation is affected which impairs the development of memories.
Several studies have shown that DHA can support healthy levels of these neurotransmitters. In one study with aged rats, researchers restored neurotransmitter release in the hippocampus. And reversed age-related memory problems.
Adding omega-3 fatty acids to the rats feed for 8 weeks raised concentrations of DHA in the rat’s brain. And actually reversed age-related memory impairment.[vii]
DHA Improves Attention & Learning
DHA also has an effect on neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, glutamate and dopamine. Deficiencies in DHA have been shown to lower levels of dopamine. Resulting in problems with attention and learning.[viii]
Some of these receptors communicate inside cells when stimulated by glutamate, serotonin and acetylcholine.[x] The numbers of these receptors can be increased by you, by adding DHA to your nootropic stack.
So if you are using nootropics that affect things like acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine and serotonin in your brain. It would be wise to add DHA to your nootropic stack. And ensure you get the most bang for your investment in nootropics.
Recommended daily dosage of DHA is 1,000 mg.
Fish oil supplements vary in ratios of DHA to EPA. Salmon naturally contain more DHA than EPA. A supplement from algae may contain only DHA.
Most brands of fish oil have been proven safe, and free of mercury. And do not contain unsafe levels of PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls).
To further avoid the contaminants in an unrefined supplement, choose a fish oil supplement made from small, oily fish like anchovies, sardines or menhaden. And check the labels carefully for purity.
Ideally, get one of a few supplements now available that are pure, refined DHA only. With no EPA.
Fish oil capsules commonly have both DHA and EPA. Capsules with EPA are not recommended for infants or small children. Because they upset the balance between DHA and EPA during early development. This also applies to pregnant women.
Fish oil could cause minor side effects like loose stools, upset stomach and belching.
Fish oil may lower blood pressure. So if you already take a medication to lower blood pressure, make sure you talk to your doctor first.
If you’re supplement contains EPA, it could interact with blood thinners and increase bleeding. Same is true for aspirin. But this is not true of DHA. DHA-only supplements do not thin the blood.
Fish oil supplements may lower blood sugar levels. So be careful if you’re on diabetes medications.
Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce some of the side effects of cyclosporine which is used to stop rejection after an organ transplant.
DHA is available as a supplement in two forms:
- Fish oil capsules. Which usually have both DHA and EPA. Some makers now offer capsules that are pure, refined DHA only.
- DHA from algae. Which has no EPA and is vegetarian friendly.
Nootropics Expert Recommendation
DHA (Omega-3) 1,000 mg per day.
Your body does not make DHA on its own. So you must get it from food. Or take it as a supplement.
DHA is one of the most important nootropics you can add to your stack. Your brain is 60% fat. And much of that fat is DHA.
Hundreds of studies on Omega-3’s and DHA show benefits in preventing and even reversing neurodegenerative disease.
It’s best if you find a supplement that is pure DHA. And you can safely take 1,000 mg per day.