Fishing for the best source of brain food

Some experts say the claims that omega-3 can halt memory loss are unsubstantiated but that doesn’t mean we should avoid getting our allowance.

IT MAY prevent your brain from suffering age-related decline and stop you from forgetting where you have left those keys, but is that enough to get you eating fish a few times a week?

It would seem like a no-brainer if we want to keep our grey matter intact, but not according to a Bord Bia review in 2011, which found that only 44% of us eat fish once or more a week, with cod and salmon being the most popular choices.

The magic ingredients in oily fish, called omega-3 — consisting of ALA, EPA, and DHA, which are a polyunsaturated fat — have been the subject of numerous scientific studies which claim they are of benefit as we age, to our heart, joints, brain health, and most controversially our memory.

While the human body needs omega -3 fatty acids for building healthy cells and maintaining brain and nerve function, our bodies can’t produce them — our only source is food.

And for those of us who refuse to eat our fish, just as granny advised, a whole industry has emerged around providing omegas in a supplement form.

Dietician Aveen Bannon says we can get the ALA from plant sources and our body can partially convert this into EPA and DHA, but fish is the most absorbable form.

“As a dietician of course I would say that eating oily fish is ideal and I would love to see people getting the essential fatty acids through food, but unfortunately the reality is that although we are an island, only a low percentage of us actually do eat fish.”

In the absence of that she says the RDA (recommended dietary allowance) is that we take 450-500mg a day while the average supplement gives you 500-700 mg, with more specialised ones providing you with 1000mg.

But how compelling is the evidence that omega-3s can halt age-related decline such as memory loss — challenging the long-held medical belief that brain shrinkage and nerve cell death is progressive and irreversible?

Don’t believe the masses of research we are being bombarded with by companies promoting their products, is the advice of Prof Ted Dinan, head of the department of psychiatry at UCC, who has a particular interest in how microbes in the gut influence our brain function.

“It’s easy to do a piece of quasi science that seems to support your view, for example that a certain fat is good for your brain. If you pick five subjects out of 200 chosen, you will find an effect, but the science is sloppy and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”

While Prof Dinan has found in his own laboratory that omega fats do become incorporated into the membrane of our cells in the brain, he believes because they have an anti-inflammatory function they prevent the decline in cognitive function linked to inflammation.

However, he points out that products which claim to be research backed and claim to reverse age-related brain decline would be on the cover of the well respected scientific journal Nature if this was the case, and this has not happened.

And while he too, suggests that we should source our omegas in twice-weekly portions of oily fish, he agrees that supplements can be a good replacement provided you “look at the small print on the labels” and ensure from the breakdown, you are actually getting the correct amount of fatty acids they boast to contain.

Meanwhile, an alternative supplement sourced from krill oil was recently launched in the Irish market by Galway Natural Health Company.

Its director of research and development, PhD-holder Daniel Jones, claims this product is much more efficient that the more traditional fish oil versions.

“Krill oil is significantly more effective in increasing oxyhemoglobin levels compared to fish oil, indicating enhanced blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, resulting in increased cognition and brain function,” he says.

“Everything related to cognition has to do with neurons; when you form new memory it involves neurons reforming and research has shown that DHA is like fuel for that fire and it slows the cognitive deterioration process significantly.”

Having said that, while you tax your brain and perhaps your pocket choosing the best supplementation for you, Prof Dinan suggests the easiest and cheapest option is to “buy yourself a fresh mackerel for €1”.

Zing in your life

We all know there is plenty of vitamin C in lemons – a good antioxidant to keep your immune system healthy as you age. And having it diluted in warm water first thing in the morning gives your body a fresh start to the day.

But it’s also thought that if you squeeze the juice from a lemon and apply to your skin, instead of into that glass, it can do wonders for age spots; just leave it on for 15 minutes and rinse off with water.

Add a bit of honey and you have your own homemade face mask – even if it’s a sticky one. Leave on for 20 minutes and rinse off with warm water.

Some people are old at 18 and some are young at 90... time is a concept that humans created

- Avant garde artist, Yoko Ono


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