Q&A with Professor Jeremy Spencer, leading academic specialising in nutrition and cognitive function

March 15, 2023

Why are Omega-3s so important for our brain health and how can they help us with our cognitive function?

Here at Brain Health Network, we’re sitting down with leading academic, Professor Jeremy Spencer, to ask him your top six questions on nutrition, flavonoids and the importance of having omega-3 in your daily diet. 

Professor Jeremy Spencer is a Professor of Molecular Nutrition at the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences of the University of Reading.

Question 1.

BHN: Jeremy, what are omega-3s and why are they so important for brain health?

Jeremy: Omega-3s are fatty acids found within marine food chains. They are made originally by algae and are found predominantly in oily fish, such as sardines and mackerel. 

In terms of the science, they are long-chain polyunsaturated lipids (omega-3 LC-PUFAs) and are essential for optimal brain development and good cognitive function – lipids is another word for fats. These long chain fatty acids are most relevant for human brain function, memory and learning. The particular omega-3 PUFA important for the human brain is known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). When these are integrated into the cell membranes of neurons, it allows them to make more connections with their neighbouring neurons. This process is called synaptic plasticity and helps our brains to develop and create more neural pathways. 

Question 2.

BHN: How do we know when we’re deficient in omega3?

Jeremy: It is actually very difficult to tell if someone is deficient in omega-3 lipids. However, in saying that, if an individual is not consuming oily fish or an equivalent in supplementary form, it is highly likely that they will be deficient. As people are generally not constantly assessing their cognitive performance, deficiencies may go unnoticed and may contribute to earlier losses in cognitive function. 

Question 3.

BHN: Should omega-3 be taken with B vitamins to work better? If so, why is this?

Jeremy: Taking both omega-3 and B vitamins together has been shown in human clinical trials to further enhance the benefits of taking each individually. This is because omega-3 lipids act to improve the overall health of our neurons, while B vitamins allow them to generate the energy they require to function. Therefore, it has been shown that by taking both together, cognitive performance can be improved. 

Question 4.

BHN: What are flavonoids? 

Jeremy: Flavonoids are a group of plant-derived non nutrient compounds that the plant makes to help it deal with environmental stresses. A plant uses this chemical response to fight infection, prevent insect attack and resist high UV exposure. When we consume plants, we also consume the flavonoids and these interact with various cells in the body to help prevent chronic disease. They have been shown in an huge array of human trials to improve cardiovascular and cognitive health, and in this way, they can be considered useful in preventing diseases from manifesting –  they are key in preventative medicine. 

Question 5.

BHN: How can these compounds help prevent cognitive decline?

Jeremy: Flavonoids prevent cognitive decline mainly through their ability to induce blood vessel dilation, known as vasodilatation. Vasodilation, in turn, allows more blood to flow to the brain. More blood flow to the brain enables more oxygen and fuel delivery to neurons, which means that they will be capable of functioning at a higher level of activity.

Question 6.

BHN: What are the best foods to eat that contain these? 

Jeremy: The vast majority of plant foods contain flavonoids. The most notable rich sources include fruits and vegetables – berries, citrus, onions, apples, plums –  tea, red wine and good quality dark cocoa and chocolate.  

If you have any particular questions on nutrition that you would like to be discussed, send us an email and we will do our best to answer them in our next Q&A with Jeremy.