The Top 5 Reasons to Fuel Your Brain with Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It’s been really important to consume healthy fats.
We have discussed the important role that healthy fats play in helping us keep our skin and hair soft, supple and youthful, and also how healthy fats can contribute to our continuing cardiovascular health.
Fats are not all equal of course, and being discerning at which fats qualify as “healthy” for us, and which ones do not, is key to your health and beauty.
It’s important to be careful about heated vegetable oils (such as safflower, sunflower, etc.) which can get rancid in heat/light, excessive animal fats and saturated fats, and to STAY AWAY from trans-fats completely! Considering our weight, gut and heart health, gravitate instead toward health and beauty-promoting mono and polyunsaturated fats which provide us with essential fatty acids like Omega 3s (alpha-linoleic acid) and balanced levels of Omega 6s (linoleic acid).
These are truly the most important fats 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 power of Omega 3s in helping to protect our cardiovascular systems, normalizing and regulating triglyceride levels in the blood, reducing LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and elevating HDL levels (the good kind) simply cannot be overstated.
That said, sometimes we can get so hyper focused on one aspect of nutrition that we may forget that the foods we eat, and the nutrients they provide are utilized by our bodies in other ways too.
Our bodies are constantly working to extract nutrients from our foods to power a host of intricate systems that are running 24 x 7 x 365 to keep us functioning at our highest level.
So how essential is essential?
For instance, Omega 3 fats, which are proven essential to not only maintaining cardiovascular health and assisting the body in the healthy creation of cells and regulation of the heartbeat, also provide the starting point for the creation of hormones necessary for healthy clotting of the blood. Omega 3 fats help keep our skin nourished and supple.
Omega 3 fats also help to discourage and regulate inflammation in the body, as well as playing protective/preventive roles against such serious diseases as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and even cancer.
Even if these were the only functions Omega 3s ever performed in our bodies, that would be a tall order indeed, but we haven’t even gotten to the roles they play in our healthy brain formation and function yet!
Let’s take a look at 5 that come immediately to mind:
Omega 3s support healthy brain cell structure. As you probably know, the human brain has just an enormous number of cells – over 100 billion, in fact, which are responsible for powering the miraculously complex and wonderfully unique organism that is you. Creative thinking and following through on your goals and dreams relies on your being able to use your beautiful brain!
Each cell has an outer membrane which is actually made up of fat (lipids). Believe it or not, the typical human brain is actually about 60% fat, so we obviously need to include fats in our diets if we want to keep ‘mission control’ up and running.
Trouble is, there are so many different kinds of fat, and so many different sources, it is vital to understand which ones it is wisest to gravitate towards.
The presence of PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids) in general, and of DHA in particular, provides the structure with fluidity while also providing a necessary vehicle for the transportation of proteins which perform vital functions within the brain.
DHA is also critical in facilitating the healthy formation of synapses, and our bodies can only get it from the foods we eat containing Omega 3s.
2) Fetal brain development
In a number of studies, scientists analyzing the diets of pregnant women have found that the children of those who consumed Omega 3s scored well in developmental and behavioral testing, while women who had no access to DHA – either in their food, or in supplemental form were more likely to report “suboptimal outcomes.”
Naturally, we always want to be super vigilant about our nutrition and healthcare during pregnancy, but when we say, “eating for two,” this really brings home the importance of the quality of the foods we eat over the quantity (especially considering only about 300 extra calories are needed in the second and third trimesters!).
Omega 3 fatty acids have amazing anti-aging effects on the brain, both functionally and structurally.
In a recent study of 1,111 (interesting number choice!) post-menopausal women, it was found that Omega 3s had 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.
The study, which took place over the course of 8 years and was published in an online issue of Neurology, was conducted by a team led by James Pottala, PhD, from the University of South Dakota at Sioux Falls.
Dr. Pottala theorizes that because the brain metabolizes DHA 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.
4) Mental health and happiness
Fats account for over half of the overall mass of the brain.
As we have already seen, Omega 3s not only help in the formation of healthy brain cell membranes, but they also contribute to the overall flexibility and ‘fluidity’ of the membranes.
In addition, 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. It is the ratio between the Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats that is really key (more on this below in the Note…)
However, DHA and EPA are known to inhibit enzymes responsible for inflammatory response, so a diet with sufficient levels of Omega 3s will have a positive effect on inflammation in the brain.
Omega 3s also 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, along with a number of others important ones like norepinephrine.
*Note:With EFAs, as with most things, balance is truly key. 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.”
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.
The anti-inflammatory properties can also be helpful in easing those nasty symptoms of PMS and dysmenorrhea (Ugh!).
GREAT! How do I incorporate Omega 3s into my diet?
Many health professionals recommend making sure you are including seafood in your diet as a way to be sure you are getting your Omega 3s because fatty fish like salmon, anchovies and herring have been found to be a rich source.
Unfortunately, this leaves out a huge segment of the population, like people who don’t like the taste of fish, have seafood allergies, or are vegetarian/vegan?
The other problem I have with this is that fatty fish are more likely to contain higher levels of mercury and PCBs which come from industrial waste and are highly toxic to humans.
A word about fish oil
Many doctors recommend fish oil supplementation to ensure patients are getting sufficient levels of Omega 3, and for some people, this seems to work, but if you have ever taken a fish oil cap, you know that they can have an unpleasant tendency to ‘repeat’ on you.
I don’t know about you, but I have never liked the taste or (ewww) the smell of fish burps! One of the reasons this happens is that fish oil capsules are frequently rancid.
Because fish oil is unsaturated, it tends to go rancid pretty quickly, causing it to take on a strong, fishy odor. Not only has the rancid oil lost all of its positive attributes, but oxidized oils become lipid peroxides or free radicals.
Not to worry! Omega 3s can be truly 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 brussels 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. =)
Let’s hear it for seaweed!
Plant-based forms of omega 3 fatty acids convert to DHA and EPA in body.
Some findings show that this conversion may be compromised in some people, so if supplementation is sought after the form I recommend is an algae-based DHA supplement. After all, where else would fish get their DHA?
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 fav), 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.
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.
The Beauty Detox program is a very EFA-balanced diet that can help reduce inflammation and leave you feeling better and looking (and thinking!) more glowing and healthy than you have in years. That’s something worth smiling about. 🙂
Have a great rest of your day, and see you back here soon.