DHA: The Vitamin C of the Brain

Posted on July 15, 2022


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Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is critical for proper brain growth and development in infants, as well as a requirement for proper brain function in adults which makes it the perfect World Brain Day METLIN molecule of the month. DHA deficiencies have been linked to fetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cystic fibrosis (CF), phenylketonuria (PKU), depression, aggressive behaviors, and adrenoleukodystrophy. A decrease in DHA in adult brains has also been linked to cognitive decline during the aging process, as well as early development of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

As the major ω-3 fatty acid in the brain, and most abundant lipid in the brain, DHA represents 40% of the brain’s polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) content. DHA also makes up 50% of the neuronal plasma membrane. So, it’s obvious that DHA is extremely important to our brains, but what does it do?

DHA influences many aspects of brain function and development.

DHA plays multiple roles in the brain that include:

  • Improving neurotransmitter binding and signaling
  • Activating G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs)
  • Activating peroxisomal proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs)
  • Promotes the translocation of the glucose transporter GLUT4 to improve glucose uptake
  • Increases synaptic vesicle density in terminals of the hippocampus
  • Increases levels of phosphatidylserine in the brain

And these are just a few of the roles that DHA plays in brain health. A research article containing a more comprehensive list can be found at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468918/

DHA is not only important for brain health but also for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, improving non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and lowering hypertriacylglycerolemia, as well as a major component of the retina.

Recently, a study was published that showed the effects of Influenza A virus (IAV) and IAV coinfections with Staphylococcus pneumoniae on lipid mediators in different organs, including 17(S)-hydroxydocosahexaenoic acid (HDHA) which is a metabolite of DHA - 17(S)-HDHA is a product of DHA reacting with 15-lipoxygnase (LOX). The study found that IAV infections affected the biosynthesis of 17(S)-HDHA and other lipid mediators. 17(S)-HDHA concentrations in the lungs had a 3-fold increase in IAV infections but saw a decrease in coinfections with pneumococcus 5 days post infection. This is interesting because 17(S)-HDHA is known to have a positive effect on host antibody production against IAV.

Where does DHA in the brain come from?

As important as DHA is to human health, we do not synthesize DHA from simple molecules and precursors already present in our bodies. DHA can only be obtained through ingestion of DHA itself or through ingestion of α-linoleic acid (ALA) which is then converted into DHA. The conversion rate of ALA to DHA is low, estimated to be around 15%. So, the primary way to get DHA into the body is to eat foods rich in ω-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA. Fatty, oily fish is the best source of DHA. Mackerel, salmon, seabass, oysters, sardines, and shrimp all contain rich levels of DHA, as well as ALA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

But what if you are on a vegetarian or vegan diet? How can you get enough DHA to promote healthy brain function? Algae and seaweed are the only plant foods that have EPA and DHA. These include nori which is used in sushi, and chlorella and spirulina which can be added to smoothies. There are also many plant foods that contain ALA such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, edamame, kidney beans, soybean oil, and wheat germ.

If you aren’t eating enough of these foods to get adequate amounts of ALA or DHA, there’s another option! You can buy fortified foods with added ω-3s such as fruit juices, bread, milk, eggs, etc. And if you want a quick fix, you can look into supplementing your diet with fish oil, cod liver oil, algae oil, or krill oil (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323144#Fortified-foods-and-beverages-).

We are focused on brain health for World Brain Day 2022, and there might not be anything more important for a healthy brain than DHA. So, go out there and eat some fish, or if you’re a vegetarian/vegan mix in some plant foods rich in ω-3s to make sure that your brain is getting the fuel it needs.

If you’re on the research side of ω-3s, Avanti offers several EPA and DHA metabolites for research purposes. Check out 17(S)-HDHA at https://avantilipids.com/product/900125 to purchase or request a sample of Croda's Incromega™ DHA 500TG today!

You can also check out MS/MS and ion mobility data for DHA in METLINs database!