It’s important to consume healthy fats. The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat. We’ve learned in recent years that healthy fats are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain health and brain function. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are needed for the development and maintenance of optimal brain health. However, not all fats are created equal, and being discerning at which fats qualify as “healthy” for us, and which ones do not is key to our brain health and function.
Make sure to be careful about heated seed and vegetable oils (such as safflower, sunflower, etc.), which can become rancid in high heats, excessive animal fats and saturated fats, and to avoid trans-fats completely. Also, please note that any seed or vegetable oils must be produced by a cold pressing technique. Check labels on the bottles for this. They must not be used in cooking as heating these oils will change the chemical structure and will change it into trans fats, which are extremely damaging to the body. Consider your brain health and gravitate toward brain nourishing mono and polyunsaturated fats, which provides us with essential fatty acids like Omega 3s (alpha-linoleic acid) and balanced levels of Omega 6s (linoleic acid).
Nourishing your brain with these fats is truly the most important factor in brain health and brain function because we must have them to survive, and since our bodies cannot create them, we can only get them from the foods we eat.
The benefits of Omega 3s are endless. They are necessary for the formation of healthy cell membranes, proper development and functioning of the brain and nervous system, proper thyroid and adrenal activity, hormone production, regulation of blood pressure, liver function, immune and inflammatory responses, regulation of blood clotting, crucial for the transport and breakdown of cholesterol, and support healthy skin and hair just to name a few. Our bodies are constantly working to extract nutrients from our foods to power a host of intricate systems that are running twenty-four seven to keep us functioning at our optimal level.
When it comes to brain health, essential means essential. Omega 3 fats help to discourage and regulate inflammation in the body, as well as playing protective/preventive roles against chronic diseases. Omega 3s play an important role in our healthy brain formation and function. Let’s take a look at the top five:
1. Brain Cells
Every cell in our body depends on essential fatty acids for proper function and survival, especially our brains. The human brain is made up of over 100 billion cells. EFAs (specifically Omega 3s) support healthy brain cell structure. It is responsible for powering the miraculously complex and amazing one of a kind organism that is you. Creative thinking and following through on your goals and dreams relies on you being able to use your brain. Each cell has an outer membrane, which is made up of fat (lipids) and protein (membrane). Cell membranes are vitally important because they separate the cells in the body from their outside world. The cell membrane (specifically the fat) allow for the exchange of nutrients.
In order for the brain to be at its maximum functioning potential, it’s necessary for these membranes to be in top working condition which can’t happen unless they are nourished with the proper essential fatty acids. In order to manufacture and repair cell membranes, our bodies need to be nourished with essential fatty acids.
2. Mental Health and Happiness
Fatty acids play a key role in the neuron transmitters and receivers that send electrical impulses of information in the brain and body. The Myelin Sheath, that covers all our neurons, is essentially made up of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. So, the lack of fatty acids in our diet will cause the break down of the Myelin Sheath and is linked to ADHD and learning difficulty in children and a contributory factor to diseases like motor neuron disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Not only does deficiency in essential fatty acids contribute to the above diseases, but also contributes to mental health and happiness. They help to regulate the flow of proteins and neurotransmitters, which act as chemical messengers, and are directly associated with fluctuations in mood.
In our society, depression is characterized as a fairly common mental disorder typically associated with a lack of energy, a generally apathetic or even negative outlook on life, a loss of interest in activities, a negative view of the self, and overall loss of confidence, heightened anxiety, and sometimes even dark thoughts of suicide and death.
Interestingly, there is some research to suggest that this was not always so common in humans, and some even mention the likelihood that the incidences of these types of mental illness have increased dramatically over about the last 150 years or so, along with a number of other inflammatory related disorders, due to changing emphasis on EFAs (essential fatty acids) in the modern Western food supply.
Depression has been linked to inflammation in the brain, which may not be helped by the overabundance of Omega 6 (found in typical vegetable oils) in the modern Western diet. The ratio between the Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats is crucial. With EFAs, as with most things, balance is everything. According to Artemis Simopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, “When your cells contain equal amounts of Omega 6 and Omega 3, as was the case with early humans, this promotes less inflammation, less constrictive blood vessels and prevents clot formation, all important functions in preventing many diseases.”
Omega 3s help increase the levels of dopamine, an important neurotransmitter associated with our “reward response,” and serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with our ability to access feelings of well-being.
3. Fetal Brain Development
Essential Fatty Acids are needed for proper growth in children. In particular, for neural development and maturation of sensory systems, with male children having higher needs than females. Breast-fed infants also require an adequate supply of essential fatty acids through the mother's dietary intake. Studies have shown “suboptimal outcomes” in mothers who had no access to EFAs – either in their food, or in supplemental form- in developmental and behavioral testing. Naturally, we always want to be super vigilant about our nutrition and healthcare during pregnancy, but when people say, “eating for two,” this really brings home the importance of the quality of the foods we eat over the quantity.
Omega 3 fatty acids have incredible anti-aging effects on the brain, both functionally and structurally. Omega 3s have a direct effect on overall brain and hippocampus volume. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is responsible for learning and retaining information – memory.
A study that took place over the course of 8 years and published in an online issue of Neurology, was conducted by a team led by James Pottala, PhD. Dr. Pottala theorizes that because the brain metabolizes DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) into anti-inflammatory compounds, it may be effectively slowing cell death, which would otherwise naturally occur with age, thereby causing a decrease in brain volume.
This may at least partially explain why insufficient omega-3 intake is so often correlated with diminished adaptability of brain synapses and impaired learning and memory as people age.
5. Hormone Balancing
Because Omega 3s act to build healthy cell membranes while facilitating effective communication between cells they make it possible for hormones to adhere to cells more easily for transport.
Omega-3 fatty acids also aid the body in keeping the cellular receptor sites (where hormones bind) repaired and in optimal condition, which is so important for premenopausal/menopausal women in particular, as hormone levels tend to decline.
Brain Healthy Tip: If fatty acids are lacking, the first place you will probably notice it will be your skin, because your body will take it out of the skin and distribute it to your brain first, putting it into your organs that have more vital roles and are more life preserving. So, if you suffer from dry skin or have skin problems you are probably likely to be lacking in essential fatty acids.
Omega 3s can be be found in abundance in a number of delicious plant based foods that you may already be eating, such as seaweed, leafy greens, avocados, tofu, perilla oil, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts. Good news! They are prevalent in certain seeds and nuts, too, which also provide us with a wonderful source of dietary fiber to keep our digestive systems happy at the same time. Omega 3 rich seeds include flaxseeds, chia seeds, moringa seed, and hemp seeds. Omega 3 rich nuts include walnuts (an omega 3 powerhouse), brazil nuts, and butternuts.
When you switch to a whole foods diet that relies primarily on the healthy plant foods our bodies crave, including fruits, vegetables, healthy whole grains, as well as some raw nuts and seeds (especially chia, my favorite), your diet naturally shifts to the best balance between EFAs to support good health.
This type of a diet is very similar to what our ancestors were able to naturally forage, and it is the diet human beings evolved to eat.
When the food you eat isn’t enough to obtain the proper amounts of omega 3s, you can resort to supplementation. We recommend Algae Omega by Nordic Naturals over any other Omega 3 supplement. It is certified vegetarian, Non GMO verified, and stems from vegetarian marine Omega 3s rather than animal based sources. Bottles of 60 soft gels are available for you to purchase for $27.95+tax. Become a member of one of our Brain Health programs and receive a 18% discount on all Brain Health supplements.
So, what’s the bottom line? The best way to balance your EFAs is to minimize processed and fast foods and instead rely on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy whole grains.
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Until next time, keep your mind in mind.