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How to get omega 3 brain benefits from vegan DHA sources

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Structurally, your brain is 60% fat [1] and the type of fat you consume influences your brain health. Omega-3 fats are a group of healthy brain fats which must be taken from the diet to meet your body and brain’s needs. 25% of your brain’s fat is DHA, an omega-3 fat [2]. It directly influences the brain’s structure and cognition, making it the most important brain fat. 

What can DHA do for your brain?

DHA protects and promotes optimal brain function. It forms the protective covering of the brain cells which safeguards the cells and increases the speed at which messages are transferred in the brain [3]. Adequate DHA intake helps increase size of the brain areas involved in memory and learning [5]. This also promotes production of new brain cells and connections. Inflammation in the brain contributes to lower cognition and brain damage over the long term. DHA decreases the production of inflammatory compounds and inactivates them. It also produces compounds that help resolve the inflammation promoting brain health [4]. 

Why should vegans focus on DHA?

The European Food Safety Authority recommends intake of DHA at 500mg/day to meet needs [6]. Fish is one of the best natural sources of DHA, with 100g of cooked salmon providing 2201mg DHA. Since vegans restrict all animal products, ensuring adequate DHA intake is of prime importance. Another omega 3, ALA, found in plant sources can be converted to DHA in the body. Vegan ALA sources include:

Food (per 100g)

Omega 3 (g) (ALA)

Flaxseed oil

53

Flaxseed, ground

19

Chia seeds

18

Walnuts

9

Hemp seeds

8

Only 5-8% of ALA is converted to DHA [7] in the body which can contribute to vegan diet deficiency of this important fat. A 2022 review of 8 studies reported that on average, vegans consumed only 4mg DHA, and listed DHA as a nutrient at risk of inadequacy [9]. Another review of 10 studies demonstrated that DHA intake among vegans was negligible unless supplemented [7]. Rest assured, there are high quality alternatives available that can support all-rounded vegan nutrition. 

If there could be just one answer to the question, what supplements do vegans need? The answer would be DHA. To ensure adequate intake, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends vegans to include an algae-based DHA supplement to meet needs [8]. 

Is algal oil the perfect vegan DHA source?

Finding an adequate vegan DHA source is a top priority to facilitate the all-important DHA brain benefits. The good news is algae is one of the best vegan DHA sources. Algae are plant-like organisms found in water bodies and are rich in DHA. Those who received 600mg DHA from either algal oil or fish oil had a similar increase in DHA levels [10], highlighting that DHA from algae is equally as good as fish. This is unsurprising since fishes get their DHA from consuming algae [11]. Algal oil is also comparable to one of the best natural sources of DHA, salmon. In a study where participants were provided either 600mg DHA from algal oil or cooked salmon, DHA levels increased by 80% in both groups [12], so you can expect to get the same level of brain benefits, without compromising on your dietary choices. It’s a win-win situation.

The benefits of vegan omega 3 DHA are also emphasised in improving status among those with low levels. 46 vegans with low omega 3 levels were provided 245mg EPA and DHA supplementation (EPA is also an omega 3 brain healthy fat). 4 months of supplementation led to 55% increase in omega 3 levels [13]. This took 87% of those supplemented out of the low-level range, making algae DHA a good booster option if your diet has been consistently low in DHA.

Being a vegan, it is important to ensure that your brain gets adequate DHA to function well. Algal oil is the best vegan DHA source available that provides the same benefits as non-vegan sources, making it an easy and efficient option to meet DHA needs. 

References

  1. Chang, C. Y. et al. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta neurologica Taiwanica18(4), 231–241.
  2. Guesnet, P. et al. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the developing central nervous system (CNS) - Implications for dietary recommendations. Biochimie, [online] 93(1), pp.7–12.
  3. Weiser, M. J. et al. (2016). Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan. Nutrients8(2), 99.
  4. Moro, K. et al. (2016). Resolvins and omega three polyunsaturated fatty acids: Clinical implications in inflammatory diseases and cancer. World Journal of Clinical Cases, [online] 4(7), p.155
  5. Witte, A.V. et al. (2013). Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Brain Function and Structure in Older Adults. Cerebral Cortex, 24(11), pp.3059–3068.
  6. European Food Safety Authority. (2012). Scientific Opinion on the Tolerable Upper Intake Level of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). [online] 
  7. Burns-Whitmore, B. et al. (2019). Alpha-Linolenic and Linoleic Fatty Acids in the Vegan Diet: Do They Require Dietary Reference Intake/Adequate Intake Special Consideration?. Nutrients, 11(10), 2365.
  8. Vogliano, C. (2018). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Vegetarian Diets. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  9. Neufingerl, N., & Eilander, A. (2021). Nutrient Intake and Status in Adults Consuming Plant-Based Diets Compared to Meat-Eaters: A Systematic Review. Nutrients14(1), 29.
  10. Ryan, L. et al. (2013). Algal-oil supplements are a viable alternative to fish-oil supplements in terms of docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3; DHA). Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72(OCE2).
  11. Danahy, A. (2020). Algae Oil: Nutrition, Benefits, and More. Healthline
  12. Arterburn, L. M. et al. (2008). Algal-oil capsules and cooked salmon: nutritionally equivalent sources of docosahexaenoic acid. Journal of the American Dietetic Association108(7), 1204–1209
  13. Sarter, B. et al. (2015). Blood docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in vegans: Associations with age and gender and effects of an algal-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland)34(2), 212–218.
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