Considered one of the most vital nutrients for brain health, sustaining DHA levels is essential through all stages of life.
Not only does this vital fatty acid serve as a foundational nutrient for a healthy, optimally performing brain, it also offers a plethora of other health benefits.
However, unlike other brain supplements that cater more to the aging body, DHA is recommended equally for infants, young children, healthy adults, and seniors.
But can a single nootropic supplement be equally beneficial for all age groups? Let’s investigate.
What is Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids needed to develop brain cells and other vital functions.
Primarily sourced from fish oil, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is among the three principal omega-3 fatty acids. The other two include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Among the three, DHA is the most abundantly present omega 3 in the brain. It is highly concentrated in the brain’s cerebral cortex and gray matter, where it forms one of the main structural components of neuronal cell membranes.
Although the body can produce some DHA by converting its precursor ALA, this isn’t very effective in humans.
The best way to get more of this omega-3 fatty acid is by consuming fatty fish or taking fish oil capsules. Fish oil is loaded with DHA and EPA and a great way to support overall brain function.
Alongside its neurological benefits, fish oil supplements are also considered beneficial for heart health, eye health, hypertension, and optimal fetal brain development.
How Does Docosahexaenoic Acid Work?
DHA that is found in cell membranes improves their fluidity. This facilitates electrical signaling between nerve cells. It also regulates entry in the cells, maintains enzymatic activity within, and maintains cell structure.
If any deficiency occurs, it can easily trigger problems with cognition and difficulty with information processing. It may also lead to depression, anger, and anxiety.
No matter what stage of life, from infancy and childhood to adulthood, DHA supplementation plays a vital role in brain development and the upkeep of optimal cognitive function.
It is also vital for pregnant women to start taking DHA supplements, typically around the 12th week of pregnancy. Not all prenatal supplements contain DHA, so ask your doctor if you need to take a supplement.
It is also used to fortify infant formulas to keep DHA levels up in babies’ brains.
What Are The Health Benefits of DHA?
Particular demographics such as kids with ADHD, elders with Alzheimer’s, or others with mild cognitive impairment seem to have low DHA levels.
Supplementing these levels translates into better symptom management and improves overall health.
Improves Attention and Memory Capacity
DHA consumption plays a vital part in the structural integrity and performance of the adult brain. Adequate DHA intake helps alter lipid levels in the brain that impact brain functioning.
Another aspect of this is that DHA intake can also help restore necessary neurotransmitter release in the brain. It affects neurotransmitters like serotonin which helps regulate mood and memory.
Then there is norepinephrine which plays a part in the ability to concentrate and improves reaction time. Acetylcholine is another brain chemical that sustains attention and enhances cognition.
Glutamate is responsible for relaying signals between nerve cells to promote memory recall and learning, while dopamine boosts focus, motivation, and mood.
Protects Against Age-related Cognitive Decline
Different studies show that lower levels of DHA may contribute to debilitating factors such as DNA damage and oxidative stress.
Alzheimer’s disease is a common condition in elderly populations. People with this condition have significantly depleted levels of DHA in brain areas that get most affected by the disease.
Multiple studies show a huge correlation between older individuals who start presenting signs of Alzheimer’s and low DHA in the brain and liver (1).
Conversely, those with higher levels of DHA present a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It improves memory in those with Alzheimer’s disease and prevents overall memory loss due to aging.
Helps to Fight Depression
Research often links depression to an increase in chronic brain inflammation. And a deficiency in omega-3 fats affects both dopamine and serotonin levels.
These two co-factors of brain inflammation and neurotransmitter activity play a massive part in depression and anxiety.
Studies show that increasing your intake of omega-3 fats can help with anxiety and depression symptom management by reducing excitotoxicity. The same can also help lower brain inflammation (2).
Omega 3s can travel easily through brain cell membranes. Several studies on the subject have used omega 3s as an add-on therapy for adults taking antidepressant prescription medication with limited benefits.
Improves ADHD and Autism Symptoms
Some research says that omega 3 fatty acids may help with symptom management of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism.
Since taking nootropic DHA supplements is often associated with optimizing brain function, research has investigated whether a deficiency of specific fatty acids may contribute to attention deficit disorders.
One study administered fish oil supplements rich in omega 3 essential fatty acids to school children for three months, during which the children showed improvements in reading, spelling, and behavior (3).
Studies also confirm associations between higher maternal EPA and DHA blood levels in late pregnancy and reduced risk for nontypical development.
There is also some indication that children with autism who take vitamins and essential fatty acids may have fewer symptoms than children who don’t (4).
Reduces Heart Disease Risk
Essential fatty acids are good for heart health in several ways, reducing triglycerides and cholesterol to lowering blood pressure.
They can also slow down plaque buildup in arteries that hardens and blocks blood vessels.
A recent study on the preventive role of omega 3 fats on cardiovascular disease shows that higher DHA and EPA intake reduces the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) events.
The study established an association between omega 3 supplementation and a reduced risk of fatal myocardial infarction by 35%.
Myocardial infarction was also reduced by 13%, followed by a reduction in coronary heart disease events by 10% and coronary heart disease mortality by 9%.
The associated benefits seem to increase with dosage, where adding an extra daily 1000 mg of EPA and DHA may further lower the risk of heart attack and heart disease (5).
Helps With Some Eye Conditions
Visual decline and the risk of developing eye disease increase with age, and some common conditions include diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, or age-related macular degeneration.
DHA is present in the retina in high concentrations where it supports the eyes and healthy vision. Studies suggest that the retina can degrade over time if there is insufficient DHA in the diet (6).
Omega 3 fatty acids may also assist proper intraocular fluid drainage from the eyes, lowering the possibility of high eye pressure and glaucoma.
One large study out of Europe concluded that people who engaged in fatty fish consumption once a week had a lower chance of developing neovascular macular degeneration than individuals who did not consume fish frequently (7).
Essential fatty acids may also help reduce the eye discomfort associated with dry eyes. One study involving around 32,000 women investigated the risk of dry eye syndrome.
Study results showed that women who consumed more omega 6 fatty acids than omega 3 fatty acids in a ratio of 15:1 presented a significantly higher risk of developing the condition than women who had the least ratio of less than 4:1.
The same study also established that women who had a minimum of two weekly servings of tuna had a significantly lower risk of developing dry eyes than others who consumed fewer servings than that (8).
Aids Brain and Eye Development in Babies
DHA is used as a supplement for premature babies and included in infant formula to help promote mental development. This trend started because this omega-3 fatty acid is naturally found in breast milk.
More than half of the energy supply during fetal development is devoted to the brain, with DHA making up 30% of the brain and 50% of the eye structure. Strong evidence shows that the placenta takes up DHA from the mother to ensure proper amounts for the baby to use.
However, research also shows that DHA levels fall after birth between 6-12 months as babies can no longer depend on the mother for DHA intake. Studies show that supplementing it via infant formula promotes increased visual and cognitive functioning in babies.
Adequate amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, including DHA in the diet of pregnant women and nursing mothers, also appear to be important in the normal development of vision in infants.
Has Anti-inflammatory Effects
Among the various supportive roles of DHA, one of the most prominent is its anti-inflammatory potential. When compared to EPA, DHA may have a superior anti-inflammatory outcome.
Studies show it to reduce anti-inflammatory levels of four protein types as opposed to EPA that affected only a single type (9).
Studies also show that inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and joint pain may benefit from DHA supplementation.
When comparing Omega 3s sourced from microalgae vs. sunflower oil in a study, its results showed that microalgae DHA might improve disease activity in people with rheumatoid arthritis towards an anti-inflammatory/ pro-resolving state (10).
Lowers Blood Pressure and Supports Circulation
Some research suggests that omega 3 fatty acids may help lower blood pressure.
A research review investigated previously published clinical trials that looked at the effects of DHA and EPA from fish oil, fortified food items, and supplements on people with or without high blood pressure.
Findings showed that people who took omega 3 fats had an average reduction in systolic blood pressure by 4.51 mm Hg. Their diastolic reading lowered by an average of 3.05 mm Hg.
The analysis also revealed that anyone who took omega 3 fatty acids via fish oil supplementation experienced an average 1.75 mm Hg and a 1.1 Hg mm reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, respectively (11).
How To Take DHA?
When supplementing omega-3 fatty acids, looking at the EPA to DHA ratio becomes crucial. This can vary considerably between fish oil supplements, and many products have higher concentrations of EPA since it is less expensive than DHA.
However, since EPA levels are significantly lower in the brain, look for nootropics supplements with a higher docosahexaenoic acid concentration.
Generally speaking, it is easy to supplement DHA by eating fatty fish. But, if you want to take it in supplemental forms, it is available as fish oil capsules containing both DHA and EPA.
Another option is to take DHA sourced from algae that have no EPA.
DHA has been applied in clinical studies at a large-scale series of periodic amounts each day, of a few hundred mg to several grams.
Because there is such an immense variety of dosing, the portion selected for the compound depends on DHA added.
Most health guidelines recommend the daily dosage to be at least 250-500 mg of DHA and EPA combined for healthy adults.
- Children up to the age of two need around 5 mg per pound of body weight, while older children should have about 250 mg of DHA daily.
- Pregnant women should consume at least 200 mg daily, or 300-900 mg of DHA and EPA combined.
- People with mild cognitive problems or the elderly starting to display symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease should look at 500-1700 mg of DHA daily.
DHA is commonly found in fish, shellfish, and algae. It is also present in small amounts in meat and dairy, specifically from grass-fed animals.
For many people, getting adequate amounts of DHA may be challenging from their diet, so taking it in supplemental form is a good option.
Because the benefits associated with fish oil are long-term, you can take your nootropic at any time during the day. However, for optimal absorption, it is best to take DHA supplements alongside a meal.
Omega 3 fats can build up quickly in the body, but it may still take from a couple of weeks to a few months before you experience its benefits.
Does Docosahexaenoic Acid Have Side Effects?
The body easily tolerates DHA supplements, and consuming more significant amounts is considered safe without presenting side effects.
However, taking more than two grams a day does not give any increased health benefits. Instead, the body will likely excrete any excess DHA through urine.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends staying within the 2,000 mg daily dose of DHA and EPA combined. This is a safe number, and higher doses of omega 3s may have blood-thinning effects.
Taking more than 3,000 mg might present side effects of slowing blood clotting and increase the chance of bleeding.
Anyone taking blood thinners should not use it without consulting with their doctor first. The same goes for individuals using blood pressure medication as it can lower blood pressure.
Evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, are incredibly beneficial for brain health and overall quality of life.
Increasing DHA can help memory and retention, improve ADHD symptoms, fight inflammation, and lower the risk of heart disease.
Babies will benefit from it, adolescents will improve their general health, and seniors can’t afford to leave it out of their diet.
That’s why we feel that it is one nutrient that should be part of everyone’s nutrition plan.
- How much DHA do you need a day?
Experts recommend using between 250-500 mg of DHA and EPA combined for healthy adults daily.
However, higher amounts may be recommended for specific health conditions.
- Is DHA the same as fish oil?
Fish oil contains two essential omega 3 fatty acids: DHA and the other is EPA.
- Does DHA raise cholesterol?
DHA will help lower triglycerides, may modestly raise HDL, which is beneficial but can raise LDL, which is not a benefit.
Eicosapentaenoic acid, on the other hand, does not raise LDL cholesterol.
- How do vegans get DHA?
Since DHA is mainly found in animal sources like fish, eggs, and dairy products, vegans will have to source it via vegan DHA supplements. This category includes supplements made from microalgae.
DHA also gets converted from ALA, found in plant sources like tofu, soybeans, flaxseed, walnuts, and hemp products.