Popular culture and conventional wisdom have often referred to fish and seafood as “brain food.” And there’s an excellent reason for that…
Important research by an archaeologist with Arizona State University (ASU) suggests that the essential omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help humans develop larger, more complex brains.
So, in a moment, I’ll tell you exactly how much fish you should eat to build a stronger, healthier brain at any age. (I’ll also explain why most people still need to take a fish oil supplement.)
But before I get into those recommendations, let’s talk a little more about early humans and their tremendous brain growth…
Brain growth in early humans tied to a diet rich in shellfish
About 200,000 years ago, a brutal Ice Age descended upon the Earth. Much of the planet cooled down and dried out. And even the lush plains of the African continent (often called “the origin of the human species”) experienced widespread drought and became a barren, desolate place.
Archaeologists and anthropologists aren’t quite sure about exactly how humans managed to survive this period. But Curtis Marean, an archeologist with ASU, thinks we can find a clue about it on the coast of South Africa…
In a recent interview, Marean said some coastal-dwelling humans in South Africa dramatically changed their diet during this glacial period. Specifically, they went from eating plants, animals, and the occasional fresh-water fish to regularly eating the abundance of saltwater shellfish gathered at the nearby tidal shoreline.
According to Marean, the human brain underwent tremendous growth during this period, due to the sudden influx of essential omega-3 fatty acids—including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). (Shellfish also contain essential minerals required by the human brain—such as calcium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc.)
Of course, even today, the human brain still requires DHA and EPA for its function and structure. These nutrients also help neurons communicate with each other and help improve blood flow throughout the body (including, to the brain!). Which is probably why studies show supplementing with adequate doses of fish oil can help ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Plus, other modern research shows DHA and EPA can help prevent and reverse depression, heart disease, Type II diabetes, and even cancer!
Modern humans still need omega-3s
I learned through my Ph.D. in anthropology that the animal brain first began to develop in the ocean 600 million years ago. So, of course, animal brains—including human brains—still require nutrients found primarily in the ocean!
Now, I know vegetarians try to argue that you can get some omega-3s from plant sources. But research shows that animal brains absorb omega-3s found in seafood with 10-times greater efficiency than DHA from plant sources. (Just one more reason to avoid following a vegetarian diet!)
So, as this new research suggests, modern humans should continue to eat wild-caught fish every day…as our ancient ancestors did. (In fact, we call omega-3s “essential” because the body can’t make them, and we must obtain them from the diet.)
But because most Americans don’t eat any fish at all during the week, that target isn’t realistic. (I recently reported on the heart health benefits of enjoying fish just twice a week! For those who don’t eat any fish, I encourage you to work your way up to that very reasonable goal.)
So, I recommend eating wild-caught fish and seafood as often as you can…while also supplementing daily with a high-quality fish oil.
And for guidance on how to pick a quality fish oil and just how much to take daily, refer to my report in the June 2018 issue of my Insiders’ Cures monthly newsletter (“Why I’m upping my recommendations for this “controversial” supplement”). If you’re not yet a newsletter subscriber, I can’t think of a better time to become one!
P.S. The South African coast where Marean conducted his research is also the subject of the amazing, award-winning documentary film, entitled My Octopus Teacher, which I wrote about in the January 2021 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“Post-holiday burnout got you down?”). We should all be concerned about keeping the oceans alive. And burgeoning nations in Asia and Africa need to catch up to North American and most European countries to help protect them. It’s the smart and right thing to do.
“A Paleolithic Raw Bar, and the Human Brush With Extinction.” Medscape, 3/25/21. (medscape.com/viewarticle/947895)