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Brain fog: a clouding of judgement, forgetfulness or a nutritional opportunity?

Friday April 27, 2018

Pure fish oils are rich in omega 3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA considered important for cognitive health.


Feeling a lack of clarity or struggling to bring a piece of information to mind is frustrating and causes a doubting of your own ability.  Often, it is suggested that this is something we must put up with as we age.  But this may not be the case; adopting improved dietary and lifestyle habits can shift the clouds and let clarity shine through.

Cognitive decline is described as a progressive mental deterioration, loss of memory and the mental inability to carry out daily activities.  Assessment of cognitive function can be estimated using cognitive testing such as the Mini Mental State Examination and brain imaging, however these methods are not 100% conclusive.

Stress, nutrition, lifestyle and environmental factors besides genetics can all impact on the performance of the brain and memory.  A culmination of these factors may manifest as inflammation, poor toxin clearance, development of brain lesions and immune activation.  Certain individuals may have a genetic propensity to cognitive deterioration and so, this may be exacerbated or reduced dependant on how the individual chooses to lead their life.

Dietary fats have been shunned in the media and in public health messages as the source of obesity and weight gain.  In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth; dietary fats are essential for some highly important functions, such as hormone production, energy and to provide fat-soluble vitamins.  In fact, converse to general perception dietary fats; polyunsaturated (PUFA) and monounsaturated (MUFA) fatty acids have been associated with body fat loss and improved body composition[1] [2].

Furthermore, historically the substantial moves to mass food production, processed foods and ready meals has increased the amounts of cheap oils from corn, sunflower and soybean in the diet.  This has caused an increase in dietary omega 6 content; purported to promote inflammation and thrombotic occurrences[3], while reducing the proportion of the anti-inflammatory omega 3 essential fatty acids.

Fast Fat Facts

  • Dietary fats are the building blocks for hormone production, cell structure.
  • Dietary fats are either saturated or unsaturated; this refers to their molecular structure.  Saturated fat is when each carbon atom is ‘saturated’ in hydrogen atoms and the converse for unsaturated.
  • Saturated fats are solid at room temperature
  • Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature
  • Unsaturated fats are fragile and easily damaged by heat, oxygen and light.  If damaged they contribute to transfat formation.
  • Fats are termed ‘essential’ when they must be supplied by the diet as the body cannot synthesise them.
  • Excess omega 6 rich foods promote inflammation and thrombotic occurrences.
  • Omega 3 essential fatty acids promote an anti-inflammatory environment.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are responsible for the direct interaction upon the inflammatory cascade.
  • Omega 6: Omega 3 essential fatty acids is expressed as a ratio.  Currently estimated to be as high as 20:1. Whereas, the optimal ratio is 2:1.

Subliminal activity

Interestingly, the brain is nearly 60% fat[4] and this is where the clue lies.  The omega 3 essential fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is dominant in the areas of the brain that serve learning and memory[5].  DHA also improves blood vessel tone to increase cerebral blood flow during cognitive tasks[6] while regulating the use of glucose by the cells that line the blood brain barrier.  Furthermore, the omega 3 essential fatty acids; alpha linoleic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) improve energy production in the brain[7].  Therefore, the full spectrum of omega 3 essential fatty acids are necessary for brain health and function.

In the know

Several influential studies have explored the effect of omega 3 essential fatty acids on brain health with encouraging findings.  In the elderly, where often impaired brain health is expected and accepted, rather than addressed; 3 grams of fish oil daily for 5 weeks was shown to improve memory, reduce fat levels of the blood and reduce systolic blood pressure[8].  Pure fish oils are rich in the compound phosphatidylserine and the omega 3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are reported to contribute to cell membrane flexibility and therefore function.  A phosphatidylserine and DHA rich oil was used for 15 weeks by dementia-free elderly patients with memory complaints.  It was shown that the patients experienced improved memory, copying tasks and learning abilities[9].

It is suggested that brain health starts to decline in middle age[10], subsequently it can occur over a long-time period.  It has been reported that in omega 3 essential fatty acid deficiency, cells have decreased DHA levels and increased omega 6 content which contributes to inflammation and reduced function.   Subsequently, a regular intake of omega 3 essential fatty acids in the form of EPA and DHA is crucial through all ages as a potential preventative step.


Individuals following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle can still benefit from these important nutrients. Flaxseed oil is a great source of essential omega’s 3, 6 and 9, and marine algae rich in EPA and DHA provides a high quality, invaluable alternative. A good omega product will provide a vegan friendly oil containing both components. 

Through the ages

Brain health is not just an issue for the elderly. Current evidence suggests that consumption of omega 3 PUFAs, particularly DHA, may enhance brain health.  Specifically learning, cognitive development, memory and speed of performing cognitive tasks.  Children who rarely consumed DHA were associated with low literacy ability and malnourishment[11].

A landmark study showed for the first time in humans the direct link between DHA and brain activation.  Using 0.4 grams daily and 1.2 grams daily of DHA observed increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during a sustained attention task in boys aged 8–10 years[12].  This equates to 5 – 15ml of full spectrum fish oil daily.  Although, eight weeks may be sufficient for DHA to increase brain activation, longer periods would be necessary for lasting brain health.

Interestingly, the frontal lobes of the brain continue to develop throughout childhood, adolescence and into the late 20s with spurts of frontal lobe development at age 7–9 years and mid-adolescence[13] [14].  Therefore, supplying the body with a consistent supply of omega 3 essential fatty acids is crucial to support the correct development of the brain and so potentially prevent cognitive issues in later life. 






At a Glance

Brain development occurs over the first 20-25 years of life.

The brain depends on a supply of good quality omega 3 essential fatty acids for optimum function.

Cognitive decline should not be accepted and simple changes in the diet and lifestyle may improve brain health.

Prevention is better than cure; subsequently a balanced diet and holistic lifestyle are beneficial for healthy aging.


Author: Jenny Hall is a Nutritional Practitioner and Technical Advisor at Viridian Nutrition. She holds a BSc honours degree in Nutritional Science.

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[2] Walker KZ, O'Dea K, Johnson L, Sinclair AJ, Piers LS, Nicholson GC, Muir JG. Body fat distribution and non-insulin-dependent diabetes: comparison of a fiber-rich, high-carbohydrate, low-fat (23%) diet and a 35% fat diet high in monounsaturated fat. Am J Clin Nutr. 1996 Feb;63(2):254-60.

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[8] Nilsson A, Radeborg K, Salo I, Björck I. Effects of supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on cognitive performance and cardiometabolic risk markers in healthy 51 to 72 years old subjects: a randomized controlled cross-over study. Nutr J. 2012 Nov 22;11:99.

[9] Vakhapova V, Cohen T, Richter Y, Herzog Y, Korczyn AD. Phosphatidylserine containing omega-3 fatty acids may improve memory abilities in non-demented elderly with memory complaints: a double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord. 2010;29(5):467-74.

[10] Van de Rest, O., Berendsen, A. A., Haveman-Nies, A., & de Groot, L. C. (2015). Dietary Patterns, Cognitive Decline, and Dementia: A Systematic Review. Advances in Nutrition, 6(2), 154–168.

[11] Stonehouse W. Does Consumption of LC Omega-3 PUFA Enhance Cognitive Performance in Healthy School-Aged Children and throughout Adulthood? Evidence from Clinical Trials. Nutrients. 2014;6(7):2730-2758.

[12] McNamara RK, Able J, Jandacek R, Rider T, Tso P, Eliassen JC, Alfieri D, Weber W, Jarvis K, DelBello MP, Strakowski SM, Adler CM. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Apr;91(4):1060-7.

[13] Hughes D, & Bryan J. The assessment of cognitive performance in children: considerations for detecting nutritional influences. Nutr Rev. 2003 Dec; 61(12):413-22.

[14] Ryan AS, Astwood JD, Gautier S, Kuratko CN, Nelson EB, Salem N Jr.  Effects of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on neurodevelopment in childhood: a review of human studies. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2010 Apr-Jun; 82(4-6):305-14.

The information contained in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.


TAGS: Brain HealthCognitive Health, Fatty Acids


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