We’re all in the same boat; we want to be faster, stronger, and more efficient. Every day, we go fishing for the things that will satisfy our hunger to improve ourselves. Some days, we turn up empty. Not today.
Meet the catch of the day: DHA. One dose of this brain-boosting omega-3, and you’ll be hooked.
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid (doh-COH-soh-hex-OHN-ick), is an omega-3 fatty acid found in salmon, mackerel, anchovies, and other fatty fish.1 But DHA has an omega-3 twin: EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid (ay-KOH-suh-POHN-tuh-NOH-ick) found in the same swimming sources. EPA and DHA are two of the three essential omega-3 fatty acids we need to maintain normal body function.
There are two omega fat types: omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-3s are the notorious heart-healthy fats found in the highest quantity in fish, but they’re also in walnuts, chia seeds, and other nutty nibbles. Omega-6s are more abundant in the American diet staples: poultry, eggs, and soybean oil.2
Your body can only make low levels of these omegas on its own, so to get enough DHA, you’ll have to consume the bulk of these essential fatty acids through food or supplements.3
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Before we dive into the deep end of DHA 's health benefits, we have to talk about dietary fats on a larger scale. Omega-3s (like DHA) and omega-6s (like arachidonic acid) are polyunsaturated fats, meaning they have multiple double bonds in their chemical structure.4 Structure is what separates the so-called “good” fats from the “bad fats.”
The “good” polyunsaturated fats sporting multiple double bonds like to stay loose, often retaining a liquid texture at room temperature: picture soybean, sunflower, and flaxseed oils. The “bad” saturated fats do not have these double bonds; instead, they are saturated with hydrogen molecules, giving them a solid texture at room temperature. Think creamy butter, rich cheeses, and fatty cuts of beef.4
Saturated fats are often referred to as the “bad fats” because they introduce Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) into your bloodstream. “Low density” sounds innocent, right? Wrong. Imagine tiny hands on the end of these lipoproteins, called Apo-B receptors. These hands are looking for other hands that know their special little handshake. Unfortunately, our arterial walls know the secret handshake and also have these Apo-B receptors. So when these bad boys travel in our bloodstream, our arteries grab onto them and don’t want to let go, they start clogging, and the atherosclerotic process begins.5
Enter the polyunsaturated fats: these stimulate the production of High Density Lipoproteins (HDLs).
HDLs can reduce the build up of fats in arteries by picking up LDL deposits in our arteries and taking them to the liver to be eliminated.
Targeting LDLs through the inclusion of HDLs in your diet may help you slow the atherosclerotic process to better protect your heart.
Clogged arteries and heart health go hand in hand. Or rather, fin in fin; DHA-filled fish oil has a lengthy list of potential cardiovascular benefits.
Because DHA is an omega-3 of the polyunsaturated family of fats, it introduces the magical HDLs in the bloodstream to help slow the arterial build-up of fats and cholesterol. While atherosclerosis can affect arteries anywhere in the body, it is primarily considered to be a heart problem because of the dangerous plaque that can form on the coronary arteries leading to the heart.1 Translation? Coronary heart disease.
Though DHA and EPA are often combined in research on omega-3s and heart health, DHA has proven itself a better catch by decreasing blood triglycerides (i.e. the “bad” fats) at a 2% greater margin than EPA.
Similarly, DHA can increase the “good” HDL cholesterol levels, while EPA may decrease these levels.6
While high doses of DHA may increase the omega-3 index more than EPA, there’s no need to cut EPA out of the picture. Expert consensus around the use of combined EPA and DHA suggest that both are associated with a reduction in risk biomarkers for cardiovascular disease. However, they have not yet been shown to reduce the incidence of heart disease and its complications.7
Take a beat to consider other markers of heart health. Blood pressure and circulation are equally vital to this vital organ’s vigor.
DHA likes to go with the flow. Or support it, rather. DHA may improve the ability of your blood vessels to dilate, also known as endothelial function. Better dilation, better blood flow.1 Combine improved blood flow with its artery-cleansing capabilities, and DHA becomes a beacon of light for vascular vitality.
Maintaining vascular health is a lot of pressure for one omega. Luckily, both DHA and EPA are associated with a reduction of diastolic blood pressure, and potentially reduced risk for adverse cardiovascular events.8
Whether you’re swimming like DHA’s aquatic host or land-locked for your physical activity, DHA may be able to help you with the aftermath of your toughest training. Alone or in combination with omega sidekick EPA, DHA can reduce muscle soreness and stiffness following a workout.9 And not just your classic mildly tender muscles; DHA supplementation has been effective in protecting against a loss of range of motion caused by severe joint pain from exercise.9
Protecting muscles and joints from strenuous exercise makes DHA a good candidate for facilitating strenuous training adaptations and training adherence.9
DHA’s ability to reduce muscle soreness and stiffness is due in part to its joint-soothing anti-inflammatory effects.
If there’s something off about your elbow after that extra lap around the pool, DHA and its omega-3 associates may be able attend to swelling because of their anti-inflammatory properties.10 There’s nothing fishy about these claims—over 7,000 scientific studies (900 using human subjects) have offered evidence for fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids’ mechanism for preventing and treating inflammatory conditions.11
Fighting inflammation can decrease your risk of developing the chronic diseases that accompany aging, such as heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, gum disease, and cancer.11
As for chronic joint pain, DHA’s anti-inflammatory properties have shown to be effective against rheumatoid arthritis.12
Unlike traditional arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body mistakenly perceives a threat to be present in body tissue and starts attacking it. The result? Painful swelling from thinning cartilage, leading to joint deformity and bone erosion.
After supplementing with DHA for ten weeks, rheumatoid arthritis sufferers enjoyed a 28% decrease in the number of swollen joints compared to those in the placebo group.13
Body aside, increased inflammation can contribute to a sinking mind in the form of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Patients with Alzheimers have been observed to have lower levels of DHA in their brains than elderly adults with normal brain function
Not unusual given that your brain requires omega-3s to build and maintain brain cells.14
In a group of 20 studies, 17 showed that increased intake of omega-3 fats may be linked to a reduction of declining mental ability through Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.15
The key seems to be catching this mental decline early and reeling it in with DHA supplementation. Studies show that omega-3 supplements are most beneficial prior to brain function declining to the point of interference with daily activities.16
If you weren’t baited by preventing cognitive decline, you may go in for DHA’s brain enhancing capabilities instead.
Healthy young adults supplementing with DHA experienced improved memory and reaction times.17 More broadly, omega-3 supplementation has been associated with increasing attentional and physiological functions involving complex cortical processing.18
Diets deficient in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are also correlated with lower dopamine neurotransmission. Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter heavily involved in regulating mood, but it’s also an essential component of healthy cognitive functions, such as working memory.19
Because dopamine is involved in regulating mood, DHA is able to stay afloat in conversations about depression, stress, and mental health.
Aside from dopamine, DHA and EPA also aid the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin, which can help wash over depressive symptoms.20 This dual neurotransmitter modulation is much like its dementia defense—the key is prevention. Greater habitual intake of both DHA and EPA suggests a reduction in the risk of developing depressive symptoms, and adequate dietary intake of the omega-3 amigos is correlated with a reduced risk of depression.20
If stress is a greater concern than depression, DHA will be an even greater concern for your… concern. In other words, fish oil supplementation has been effective at normalizing stress responses21 and attenuating adrenaline responses.22
While you’re tossing aside your worries, you have an opportunity to alter your reaction to them; DHA has been able to decrease aggressive responses to stressful stimuli, which could help you manage your stress long-term.23
Long-term commitments require consistency, but the rewards accrue over time.
Recall that DHA is involved in both essential neural cell function and proper circulation, and it can increase blood flow to the brain during important mental tasks. This makes DHA a candidate for improving attention.26
Cast yours to DHA’s extensive use to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is characterized concentration issues and impulsive behaviors. The condition is usually diagnosed in childhood and often persists through adulthood.27 Both children and adults typically have lower levels of DHA in their blood.28
In a sixteen-week study of children with ADHD taking DHA, their parents reported an 8% overall decrease in impulsive behaviors.29 Another sixteen week study reported a 15% decrease in subjects’ attention problems after supplementing with both DHA and EPA.30
Remember that your body is not very efficient at producing its own omega-3s, and supplementation is advised to enjoy the full health benefits of adequate DHA intake.
While there is no official Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) advised by the FDA, the general range for optimal health is 200mg - 500 mg of DHA.31 It is generally tolerated well in high doses—up to about 3,000mg daily.
The most common side effects include belching, a (predictably) fishy taste, and mild nausea.32. Many supplements have an added ingredient (something like mint) to combat the fishy after taste (and smelly burps).
There are no significant adverse effects of DHA supplementation reported. DHA is even common in vitamins recommended for pregnant women and infant formulas mimicking breast milk. However, large doses of DHA and EPA may cause blood thinning.32 As with all new supplements, you should consult your doctor prior to taking them or combining them with your current medications.
Holy mackerel—DHA has quite the list of benefits. Let’s reel them in: improved cardiovascular health, decreased inflammation, reduced risk of chronic diseases, improved nervous system regulation, and increased focus and memory. While there may be plenty of other fish in the sea, this alpha of the omega-3 set is one catch you won’t want to release.
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|1.||Yamagata K. Docosahexaenoic acid regulates vascular endothelial cell function and prevents cardiovascular disease. Lipids Health Dis. 2017;16(1):118.|
|2.||Kuriki K, Nagaya T, Tokudome Y, et al. Plasma concentrations of (n-3) highly unsaturated fatty acids are good biomarkers of relative dietary fatty acid intakes: a cross-sectional study. J Nutr. 2003;133(11):3643-50.|
|3.||Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(1):1-7.|
|4.||Weylandt KH, Serini S, Chen YQ, et al. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: The Way Forward in Times of Mixed Evidence. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:143109.|
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|6.||Allaire J, Couture P, Leclerc M, et al. A randomized, crossover, head-to-head comparison of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid supplementation to reduce inflammation markers in men and women: the Comparing EPA to DHA (ComparED) Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;104(2):280-7.|
|7.||Rizos EC, Ntzani EE, Bika E, Kostapanos MS, Elisaf MS. Association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and risk of major cardiovascular disease events: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2012;308(10):1024-33.|
|8.||Guo XF, Li KL, Li JM, Li D. Effects of EPA and DHA on blood pressure and inflammatory factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019;:1-14.|
|9.||Corder KE, Newsham KR, Mcdaniel JL, Ezekiel UR, Weiss EP. Effects of Short-Term Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation on Markers of Inflammation after Eccentric Strength Exercise in Women. J Sports Sci Med. 2016;15(1):176-83.|
|10.||Wall R, Ross RP, Fitzgerald GF, Stanton C. Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(5):280-9.|
|11.||Jouris KB, McDaniel JL, Weiss EP. The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on the Inflammatory Response to eccentric strength exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2011;10(3):432-8. Published 2011 Sep 1.|
|12.||Tabbaa M, Golubic M, Roizen MF, Bernstein AM. Docosahexaenoic acid, inflammation, and bacterial dysbiosis in relation to periodontal disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and the metabolic syndrome. Nutrients. 2013;5(8):3299-310.|
|13.||Dawczynski C, Dittrich M, Neumann T, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized cross-over study with microalgae vs. sunflower oil. Clin Nutr. 2018;37(2):494-504.|
|14.||Wysoczański T, Sokoła-wysoczańska E, Pękala J, et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and their Role in Central Nervous System - A Review. Curr Med Chem. 2016;23(8):816-31.|
|15.||Yanai H. Effects of N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Dementia. J Clin Med Res. 2017;9(1):1-9.|
|16.||Yassine HN, Braskie MN, Mack WJ, et al. Association of Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation With Alzheimer Disease Stage in Apolipoprotein E ε4 Carriers: A Review. JAMA Neurol. 2017;74(3):339-347.|
|17.||Stonehouse W, Conlon CA, Podd J, et al. DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(5):1134-43.|
|18.||Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, Alfatti F, Migliorini S, Lodi L. Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Invest. 2005;35(11):691-9.|
|19.||Narendran R, Frankle WG, Mason NS, Muldoon MF, Moghaddam B. Improved working memory but no effect on striatal vesicular monoamine transporter type 2 after omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(10):e46832.|
|20.||Mcnamara RK. Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Etiology, Treatment, and Prevention of Depression: Current Status and Future Directions. J Nutr Intermed Metab. 2016;5:96-106.|
|21.||Eguchi R, Scarmagnani FR, Cunha CA, et al. Fish oil consumption prevents glucose intolerance and hypercorticosteronemy in footshock-stressed rats. Lipids Health Dis. 2011;10:71.|
|22.||Hamazaki T, Itomura M, Sawazaki S, Nagao Y. Anti-stress effects of DHA. Biofactors. 2000;13(1-4):41-5.|
|23.||Takeuchi T, Iwanaga M, Harada E. Possible regulatory mechanism of DHA-induced anti-stress reaction in rats. Brain Res. 2003;964(1):136-43.|
|24.||Muldoon MF, Ryan CM, Sheu L, Yao JK, Conklin SM, Manuck SB. Serum phospholipid docosahexaenonic acid is associated with cognitive functioning during middle adulthood. J Nutr. 2010;140(4):848-53.|
|25.||Masterjohn C. Vitamin D toxicity redefined: vitamin K and the molecular mechanism. Med Hypotheses. 2007;68(5):1026-34. Epub 2006 Dec 4.|
|26.||Ramalho R, Pereira AC, Vicente F, Pereira P. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A comprehensive review of the evidence. Clin Nutr ESPEN. 2018;25:1-7.|
|27.||Bonvicini C, Faraone SV, Scassellati C. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis of genetic, pharmacogenetic and biochemical studies. Mol Psychiatry. 2016;21(7):872-84.|
|28.||Antalis CJ, Stevens LJ, Campbell M, Pazdro R, Ericson K, Burgess JR. Omega-3 fatty acid status in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006;75(4-5):299-308.|
|29.||Richardson AJ, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Montgomery P. Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behavior in children aged 7-9 years: a randomized, controlled trial (the DOLAB Study). PLoS ONE. 2012;7(9):e43909.|
|30.||Bos DJ, Oranje B, Veerhoek ES, et al. Reduced Symptoms of Inattention after Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Boys with and without Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2015;40(10):2298-306.|
|31.||Fabian CJ, Kimler BF, Hursting SD. Omega-3 fatty acids for breast cancer prevention and survivorship. Breast Cancer Res. 2015;17:62.|
|32.||Chang CH, Tseng PT, Chen NY, et al. Safety and tolerability of prescription omega-3 fatty acids: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2018;129:1-12.|
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