DHA Benefits: Why Getting the Right Amount of Fish Oil Matters
By: Dave Asprey
- DHA is a potent omega-3 fatty acid found in wild-caught fish, pastured butter, and grass-fed meats.
- It boosts mitochondria, powers your metabolism, protects your heart, and strengthens your brain.
- Wild-caught fish and krill oil supplements are both good sources of DHA.
- Be vigilant when choosing a fish or krill oil supplement — these oils are easily damaged by heat and air.
- Like whole fish, always source your fish oil from wild-caught fish instead of farmed. Krill are lower on the food chain, so krill oil packs fewer toxins, and a more sustainable harvest.
If you regularly fill your plate with wild-caught salmon or take a high-quality fish oil supplement, then you’re doing your brain and your heart all kinds of favors. That’s because you’re nourishing your cells with a good dose of omega-3 fatty acids. These are a champion fat, and a vital component of cell membranes throughout your entire body. Omega-3s also help prevent heart disease, memory loss, and certain cancers.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, but one truly stands out: DHA. This one packs the most powerful punch, and here’s why. DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid) is a high-achieving multitasker: It keeps your nervous system functioning, fights performance-robbing inflammation, and supercharges your mood. Ahead, everything you need to know about DHA: the benefits, the best sources, and what to look for in a supplement.
Quick guide to omega-3s
Here’s a quick rundown on omega-3 fats. The omega-3 family is made up of three major types of fatty acids: DHA, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). DHA and EPA come from animal sources, and are both long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which means they have at least 14 carbon atoms in their tails. We already know DHA is the good stuff, but both EPA and DHA carry benefits that enhance each other.
The third type of omega-3 acid is ALA, the omega-3 found in plants like chia seeds and flaxseeds. Frankly, it won’t do much good in your body. Humans can convert some ALA to that good DHA, but we’re not great at it, and only convert around five percent.
That’s one reason why, despite the hype, chia seeds and flaxseed oil don’t rank especially high on the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap. Your ALA to DHA conversion rates also tank with high omega-6, another reason it’s important to balance the omega-3 and omega-6 levels in your diet. Overall, your body needs DHA from animal sources, or a few species of omega-3-rich algae.
But what makes DHA different to other omega-3 fatty acids, and how does it work in your body? Fatty acids like DHA are an integral part of molecules called phospholipids, that make up each of your cell membranes. A high DHA content helps maintain the “fluidity” of those membranes, and has a huge influence on the behavior of a cell. That includes what comes in and out, and how that cell communicates. This fluidity lets cells do some pretty rad stuff, like the rod cells in your retina that literally change shape in response to light.
But it’s more than party tricks. DHA is a key player in reducing inflammation, protecting your heart, and optimizing your metabolism. This potent fatty acid is essential for your brain as well, from promoting fetal development to preventing neurodegeneration as you age. Here are the top four DHA benefits:
1. Boosts mitochondria
You need DHA for functional cell membranes, and you know what has two cell membranes? Mitochondria. High-functioning mitochondria (the power generators in your cells) produce the energy your body needs every day. Mitochondrial dysfunction, on the other hand, is linked to nearly every age-related illness, including neurodegenerative disease, heart failure, and metabolic diseases.
Supplementing with DHA increases cardiolipin, a unique phospholipid in mitochondrial membranes that keeps your mitochondria in great shape.
2. Protects your heart
By boosting mitochondria, DHA also carries incredible heart benefits. Mitochondria in your heart need significant amounts of DHA-saturated cardiolipin, and studies have linked high levels of DHA to reduced risks of cardiovascular disease and sudden cardiac death. Studies also show that DHA from fish oils can lower blood pressure, resting heart rate, and blood triglycerides, while raising HDL cholesterol, all perfect ingredients for a happy, healthy heart.
Note that a recent review of multiple studies found that omega-3 fats, including DHA, didn’t carry significant heart benefits. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180717194558.htm
3. Kickstarts metabolism and burns more fat
In a 2015 study involving women in their 60s, supplementing with 3 grams a day of a DHA/EPA-rich fish oil increased resting metabolic rates by 14 percent, and resting fat-burning rates by 19 percent. The supplement also raised the rate of fat burning during exercise by a cool 29 percent. Keep in mind this was just fish oil, no special dieting! Fish oil also lowered triglycerides, and increased lean body mass in participants.
DHA boosts metabolism by up-regulating fat-burning genes in your liver, and activating PPARs, molecules that trigger ketone production to tip you towards ketosis (prime fat-burning mode). PPARs also lower triglycerides, increase insulin sensitivity, and reduce inflammation — all helping you burn fat fast.
4. Upgrades your brain
You’ve probably heard high omega-3 foods like fatty fish referred to as “brain foods.” That’s because your brain needs plenty of good fats to keep it running, and DHA is one of its favorites. In fact, there’s strong evidence that high-DHA diets played a huge role in the evolution of the modern human brain.
DHA is one of the most powerful supplements you can add to your diet to protect your brain and upgrade your cognitive performance. The impacts of this omega-3 fat on brain development and health start even before pregnancy, and are important through every stage of life.
- Pregnancy: Science shows that DHA is especially important for pregnant and breastfeeding women because it helps build a strong, healthy brain for your baby. Studies show that children whose mothers supplemented with DHA during pregnancy had higher problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination. This is why I recommend supplementing with krill oil and eating low-mercury, wild-caught seafood before, during, and after pregnancy (infants also absorb DHA while breastfeeding).
- Childhood: Young brains are still forming, and need plenty of brain-food fuel as they develop through infancy and childhood. I want my two kids to be the best and brightest they can, which is why they get plenty of omega-3s from grass-fed meats, wild-caught fatty fish, and supplements of their own. Studies show that DHA supplementation is linked to higher reading, intelligence, vocabulary, and memory scores in school-aged children. Children with low DHA levels tended to struggle more in these areas, but still responded well to added DHA.
DHA is one of the most important factors for a resilient brain and sharp memory. If you’re planning to stick around until 180 like me, that’s a big deal. Through adulthood and as you age, DHA keeps your brain firing, boosts memory, and protects your brain cells from free radical damage and oxidation. Low DHA levels are also linked to age-related memory loss, and several studies support using fish oil supplements to improve your memory and decrease your risk of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Best sources of DHA
With all that upgraded goodness going to your brain, it makes sense that one of the best sources of DHA available is…well, brains. In fact, most grass-fed organ meats are a good whole-food source for DHA, as well as certain algaes, if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
Here are the top whole-food sources for DHA:
- Wild-caught, low-mercury fish. Alaskan salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and trout are all good sources. Make sure they’re wild-caught, and if you get them canned, check that the cans are BPA-free.
- Grass-fed organ meats. Brains are by far the best source, and lamb brain is excellent if you can find it. Heart, liver, and kidney are also high in DHA and EPA. Make sure your organ meats are grass-fed. And in case you were wondering, yes, you can make organ meats taste good.
Getting your DHA from fish or krill oil is also a fantastic option, especially if organ meats and fatty fish aren’t a regular part of your diet. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a fish oil supplement:
- Quality (and quantity): You want a fish oil supplement that will fight inflammation and boost your brain. But you might be doing just the opposite if your supplement is oxidized (damaged) or low quality. Fish oils are easily damaged by heat and air, and many brands are contaminated with pollutants, oxidized, or low in EPA and DHA. One study showed that of 32 different fish oil supplements, only three of the brands contained amounts of EPA and DHA equal to or greater than the amount claimed on the bottle. Krill oil is a more stable option than fish oil because it contains the powerful antioxidant astaxanthin that helps prevent oxidation.
- The phospholipid factor: This is also where krill wins out. The DHA and EPA in krill oil supplements are packed into phospholipid molecules. Remember, phospholipids make up nearly every cell membrane in your body — that means you can absorb them quickly and easily.
- Sustainability: Like whole fish, always source your fish oils from wild-caught fish instead of farmed. Farmed fish are often raised on unnatural, inflammatory diets with high omega-6 levels, and plenty of toxins, and are actually more damaging for the environment. Krill are lower on the food chain, so krill oil packs fewer toxins, and a more sustainable harvest.
While quality certainly tops quantity, it pays to know the right amount of fish oil to maximize your benefit. You want to take at least 250-500 mg a day of DHA and EPA combined, with higher doses recommended for specific conditions such as depression, pregnancy, or high triglycerides.
Overall, the higher the dose, the more likely you are to see benefits. In one study, 900 mg of DHA a day improved learning and memory in older adults. Doses up to 3000 mg a day have been studied and deemed safe by the USDA. Just remember that a small dose of high-quality omega-3-rich oil is more beneficial than a larger dose of oxidized or contaminated oils.
Each serving of Omega Krill Complex (2 softgels) contains 885 mg of DHA and 480 mg of EPA. Take two, twice a day, with food, and feel content knowing you’re taking one of the most powerful, high-quality omega-3 supplements on the market.
Read Next: What to Look for in a Krill Oil Supplement
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