Brain Benefits Of Anchovies

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Introduction 

Anchovies, those tiny fish with a big flavour, have long been a staple in Mediterranean cuisine. These fish are mainly found in the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Atlantic seas, as well as the Black Sea. Ranging from 8 – 10 cm in length on average, this type of fish is rarely eaten fresh, owing to its tendency to spoil quickly. Instead, these fish are often filleted, cured with salt, and tinned. Tinned anchovies are also often accompanied by tomato sauce or different types of oil, such as olive oil and sunflower oil, making it easy to enjoy them straight out of the tin. Being preserved in this way means that tinned anchovies are highly shelf-stable, reliable, and accessible, no matter where you live.

While they may not be everyone's first choice when it comes to seafood, these small fish offer a myriad of health benefits, especially for the brain. Let's dive into the surprising ways that adding anchovies to your diet can boost brain health.

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids

One of the key reasons anchovies are so beneficial for the brain is their high omega-3 fatty acid content. Anchovies are classified as a type of oily fish, which means that they store fat in the form of oil in their soft tissues and the cavity around their gut. When filleted, oily fish can contain up to 35% oil, depending on the species. This is significant because fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids.1

Omega-3s are essential nutrients that play a crucial role in brain function and development. These fatty acids are known to support cognitive function, improve memory, and even help reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline.2

The omega-3 fatty acids found in anchovies are integral components of brain cell membranes. Research suggests that these fatty acids play a vital role in maintaining the structural integrity of brain cells and supporting communication between neurons, which can lead to improved cognitive function, including memory, concentration, and learning abilities.3

Omega-3 fatty acids are also particularly important during prenatal and early childhood development. For example, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid required for the normal physical development of the brain, nerves, and eyes in young children aged up to two years old.4

Maternal consumption of these fatty acids during pregnancy has also been associated with better cognitive outcomes in children, including improved attention span, IQ, and language development.5

Supports neurotransmitter function

Anchovies are also a good source of important nutrients like vitamin B12 and vitamin D, which are essential for maintaining healthy neurotransmitter function. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that play a vital role in communication between brain cells, and maintaining optimal levels of these nutrients can help support overall brain health.

Anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids

Chronic inflammation has been linked to various neurological conditions, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Anchovies contain potent anti-inflammatory compounds, such as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, which can help reduce inflammation in the brain and protect against neurodegenerative diseases.

Ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids

One important thing to know is that the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are dependent on the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids consumed.

It’s essential to consume both omega-6 fatty acids as well as omega-3 fatty acids. However, it is thought that historically, human diets have rapidly changed from favouring a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, towards a ratio approximately between 10:1 and 30:1 in typical Western diets.2

This may be partly due to the high omega-6 fatty acid content of common cooking oils, such as vegetable oils, including:

  • Sunflower oil
  • Canola oil
  • Hemp oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Olive oil
  • Flax oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Corn oil

Research suggests that a lower ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids is necessary in order to gain the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Although estimates vary, authors suggest a ratio ranging from 1:1 to 1:4 of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, however ratios of 4:1 have also been suggested as reasonably healthy.6

Why does the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids matter? The reason that this ratio is important is because both omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids ‘compete’ for the same metabolic enzymes.7 This means that consuming many more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids can result in these metabolic enzymes becoming saturated with omega-6 fatty acids, with omega-3 fatty acids unable to be processed fully by the body. Altering this aspect of your lipid metabolism can have adverse effects on the body’s ability to manage inflammation and homeostasis.

Boosts mood and mental well-being

Consuming anchovies may also have a positive impact on mood and mental well-being. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help regulate mood and may even be beneficial in the treatment of depression and anxiety.8 Additionally, the amino acid tryptophan found in anchovies is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in regulating mood and promoting feelings of happiness and relaxation.

Nutrient-rich profile and protein content

Despite their size, anchovies are loaded with essential nutrients that contribute to overall health, including brain function. These little swimmers are an abundant source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids are renowned for their neuroprotective properties, playing a crucial role in cognitive function and brain health.

Additionally, anchovies are rich in protein, which is essential for the synthesis of neurotransmitters – the chemical messengers that facilitate communication between brain cells. They also contain an array of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, selenium, and vitamin D, all of which support optimal brain function.

Increasing your protein intake is also crucial if you are looking to build and maintain muscle mass. A 100g tin of anchovies can contain around ~22 grams of protein, making it an excellent choice for those looking to up their protein intake. Increasing muscle mass through strength and resistance training can have exceptional benefits for cognitive function and mental fortitude.

For example, it has been shown that resistance training can stimulate the production of neurotrophic factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth, survival, and plasticity of nerve cells. Increased levels of BDNF are also associated with enhanced cognition, improved memory, and protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.9

Combining protein-rich foods, such as anchovies, with an exercise regimen which involves resistance training, is therefore an excellent way to enhance cognitive function, mood regulation, and memory.

How to incorporate anchovies into your diet

Adding anchovies to your diet is easier than you might think. While they are commonly enjoyed as a topping on pizzas and salads or as a flavour enhancer in sauces and dressings, there are plenty of other delicious ways to incorporate these nutrient-rich fish into your meals.

Try adding chopped anchovies to pasta dishes for an extra burst of flavour, or blend them into homemade dips and spreads for a savoury twist. You can also use anchovy fillets to make a flavourful topping for crostini or bruschetta, or simply enjoy them straight out of the tin as a nutritious snack.

It is also common for anchovies to be sold with accompaniments such as tomato sauce, flavoured olive oil, salsa, herbal dressings, etc. These combinations can be added to pasta or toasted bread to make an effortless, filling, and nutritious meal.

High sodium content of anchovies

It is worth knowing that anchovies, like many types of seafood, have high sodium content – approximately 3,668 mg in 100 grams of fish. Those who are on a low-sodium diet, e.g. individuals with hypertension (high blood pressure) should therefore be mindful of anchovy consumption.

Summary 

While anchovies may not be the most popular seafood choice, their impressive array of health benefits, particularly for the brain, make them worthy of consideration. From supporting cognitive function and neurotransmitter health to reducing inflammation and boosting mood, these tiny fish certainly pack a powerful punch when it comes to promoting brain health and overall well-being. So why not give anchovies a try and reap the brain-boosting benefits for yourself?

Summary of Key Facts

  • Anchovies are a common type of oily fish, usually sold tinned, found in most supermarkets
  • They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have many key benefits for brain health, and are crucial for the normal development of children aged 2 years or younger
  • It is important to consider the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in your dietary intake, as consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids can prevent you from reaping the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids
  • Anchovies are rich in protein (approximately 22 grams of protein in a 100 gram tin), making them an excellent food for individuals with strength training regimens
  • Anchovies are rich in various minerals and nutrients, such as selenium, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D
  • It is worth noting that anchovies are high in sodium, which can be problematic for those suffering from hypertension (high blood pressure)

References

  1. Olives and Olive Oil in Health and Disease Prevention [Internet]. Elsevier; 2021 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/C20180050756.
  2. Dighriri IM, Alsubaie AM, Hakami FM, Hamithi DM, Alshekh MM, Khobrani FA, Dalak FE, Hakami AA, Alsueaadi EH, Alsaawi LS, Alshammari SF. Effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on brain functions: a systematic review. Cureus. 2022 Oct 9;14(10).  Available from: https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.30091
  3. Czyż K, Bodkowski R, Herbinger G, Librowski T. Omega-3 fatty acids and their role in central nervous system-a review. Current medicinal chemistry. 2016 Mar 1;23(8):816-31.  Available from: https://doi.org/10.2174/0929867323666160122114439
  4. Shrestha N, Sleep SL, Cuffe JS, Holland OJ, Perkins AV, Yau SY, McAinch AJ, Hryciw DH. Role of Omega‐6 and Omega‐3 fatty acids in fetal programming. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology. 2020 May;47(5):907-15.  Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/1440-1681.13244
  5. Mulder KA, King DJ, Innis SM. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency in infants before birth identified using a randomized trial of maternal DHA supplementation in pregnancy. PloS one. 2014 Jan 10;9(1):e83764.  Available from: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0083764
  6. Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy [Internet]. 2002 [cited 2024 Mar 1]; 56(8):365–79. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0753332202002536.
  1. Lands WEM. Biochemistry and physiology of n‐3 fatty acids. FASEB j [Internet]. 1992 [cited 2024 Mar 1]; 6(8):2530–6. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1096/fasebj.6.8.1592205.
  2. Larrieu T, Layé S. Food for mood: relevance of nutritional omega-3 fatty acids for depression and anxiety. Frontiers in physiology. 2018 Aug 6;9:362236.  Available from: https://doi.org/10.3389%2Ffphys.2018.01047
  3. Mrówczyński W. Health benefits of endurance training: implications of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor—a systematic review. Neural plasticity. 2019 Oct;2019.  Available from: https://doi.org/10.1155%2F2019%2F5413067

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