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Omega-3 fats in brain injury: a casual conversation

Above is a recording of a session I call “Brain Bites.” These are short casual conversations held online. Each one explores a topic in concussion and brain injury nutrition. The goal is to review the research and put it into the context of our lived experience with TBI.

🌟 This is for your information and education only! Review with your healthcare provider before making any decisions about your health. 🌟

In February 2024, we started with the topic of omega-3 fats. Here is a summary of what was discussed:

Why are omega-3 fats important for brain health?

  • Important for both structure and function in the brain.
  • After a brain injury, levels of omega-3 fats decrease.
  • Omega-3 fats help manage inflammation.

What are the kinds of omega-3 fats?

  • ALA: found in foods like walnuts, flax & chia seeds, pumpkin & hemp seeds, etc.
  • EPA & DHA: found in fish and seaweed.
  • Foods with ALA are a part of dietary patterns that are good for the brain and heart. However, ALA isn’t directly helpful to the brain post-injury.
  • DHA is the most important omega-3 for brain injury. EPA can also help raise the body’s overall levels of omega-3 and is researched in depression.

Omega-3 fats in food and supplements

  • Salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, rainbow trout are good sources of DHA & EPA.
  • Any amount of fish eaten will help to increase the omega-3 level in the body.
  • Most research for concussion and brain injury looks at using 2 grams or more of DHA per day both preventatively or to help manage symptoms and recovery. It’s hard to get this amount through food alone so supplements are an option.
  • Supplements can have side effects. For omega-3 supplements we may consider:
    • Cost
    • Pill burden
    • Interaction with blood thinners?
    • Long-term use: some research shows a risk of atrial fibrillation when supplementing at higher doses.

Talk with your doctor, dietitian or pharmacist about supplements you’re interested in.

Our lived experience

People who attended the live conversation shared some of their own experiences summarized here.

Memory issues:

  • May have the supplements, but hard to remember to take.
  • Routine is changed post-injury. Hard to add consistent tasks during the day without supports.

Side effect issues:

  • Healthcare providers may suggest avoiding any remedies that could thin the blood.
  • Gut problems with supplements.

If supplements aren’t an option, what do we do?

  • Omega-3 fats are the most talked about supplement and nutrient for brain injury. This gives us the impression that it’s the end-all-be-all for recovery. We may feel like we’re missing out if we can’t take the supplements for whatever reason. But there are other things we can do!
  • Because omega-3 fats are thought to help reduce inflammation, we can focus on other anti-inflammatory strategies: overall anti-inflammatory eating, physical activity that feels good, coping with stress, sleep hygiene, etc.

Articles that might interest you:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids from NIH and the Office of Dietary Supplements (here)
  • Anti-Inflammatory Eating & You! (here)
  • Should I take supplements? Or get what I need through food? (here)
  • A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial of Docosahexaenoic Acid for the Treatment of Sport-Related Concussion in Adolescents (here)
  • The effect of omega-3 fatty acids on a biomarker of head trauma in NCAA football athletes: a multi-site, non-randomized study (here)

Want to work with me?

Feel free to set up a free call with me HERE.

Best in brain health,

Krystal Merrells, Registered Dietitian in Ontario, Canada