Growing up, many of us were told by parents to eat up all the fish on the plate because it’s “brain food.” Did you ever wonder why?
Brain Health and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It turns out that our parents weren’t just making it up so we would finish our dinners. Fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are necessary and incredibly beneficial for health, especially brain health.
Essential Fatty Acids: Omega-3 and Omega-6
Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of essential fatty acids (EFAs) which are necessary for our health.
The body cannot make its own EFAs, so we must get them from our diet. Omega-3s, along with omega-6 fatty acids, make up the two major families of EFAs which must remain in balance for optimal wellness.
Polyunsaturated Fats in the Central Nervous System (CNS)
There are trillions of cells in the human body, each with a fluid membrane structure. Fats, especially polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) like omega-3s, help create and support fluid membrane structure integrity.
Fluid cell membranes aid in cell-to-cell communication. This is crucial for brain health because in the Central Nervous System (CNS), these fats form the myelin sheath on neurons. This protective myelin aids in signal conduction to and from the brain.
Optimal Levels of Omega-3s
At optimal levels, omega-3 EFAs positively contribute to brain functions in many ways.
- Blood flow and vascular health – especially vital in the brain– are ensured by omega-3s.9
- They can limit atherosclerosis through reducing triglycerides and improving the endothelial lining of blood vessels.3
- Omega-3 EFAs keep saturated fats and cholesterol dispersed, further protecting the membrane and reducing risk of clotting.
- Additionally, Omega 3s inhibit inflammation, which is causal in many chronic conditions that affect the brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids also aid in brain development, both in utero and throughout childhood, and they contribute to our learning and memory abilities.
Omega-3s may increase brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which:
- is neuroprotective
- promotes neuron repair
- has anti-depressant functions
- enhances neurotransmission 5
Omega-3 fats may also have therapeutic applications in chronic conditions, such as:
- bipolar disorder
- psychosis 6,8
Insufficient Levels of Omega-3s
Insufficient levels of omega-3 EFAs can have devastating effects on the body, especially brain function.
Deficiencies can lead to issues like:
- mood disorders
- attention disorders
- memory impairment2,7
Omega-3s in Western Health Culture
The balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can also make or break health, which is of concern, considering many people in western countries have excessive omega-6 levels and inadequate levels of omega-3s.
These imbalances are linked to a number of conditions such as:
- mood swings4,10
Optimizing Levels of Omega-3s to Achieve Balance
For optimal wellness and balance of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Avoid trans fats and excess cholesterol, which can impede omega-3 and harden the cell membranes.
- It is also important to monitor hormone levels, as high levels of insulin and cortisol can also impair EFA function.1
Instead, try putting omega-3-rich cold-water fish such as salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, and mackerel on your plate a few times per week. Also consider fish oil supplements and oils such as flax seed, hemp, and krill – all of which are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
When it comes to essential fatty acids like the omega-3s, you can’t risk missing out on the wonderful array of benefits to your brain and overall wellness. So keep that parental advice in mind, and feed your brain!
1 Agrawal, R., & Gomez‐Pinilla, F. (2012). ‘Metabolic syndrome’ in the brain: deficiency in omega‐3 fatty acid exacerbates dysfunctions in insulin receptor signalling and cognition. The Journal of physiology, 590(10), 2485-2499.
2 Cole, G. M., Ma, Q. L., & Frautschy, S. A. (2010). Dietary fatty acids and the aging brain. Nutrition reviews, 68(suppl 2), S102-S111.
3 Das, U. N. (2005). Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, endothelial lipase and atherosclerosis. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes and essential fatty acids,72(3), 173-179.
4 Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Belury, M. A., Andridge, R., Malarkey, W. B., & Glaser, R. (2011). Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 25(8), 1725-1734.
5 Logan, A. C. (2003). Neurobehavioral aspects of omega-3 fatty acids: possible mechanisms and therapeutic value in major depression. Alternative medicine review, 8(4), 410-425.
6 Sarris, J., Murphy, J., Mischoulon, D., Papakostas, G. I., Fava, M., Berk, M., & Ng, C. H. (2016). Adjunctive Nutraceuticals for Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses. American Journal of Psychiatry.
7 Solfrizzi, V., Frisardi, V., Seripa, D., Logroscino, G., P Imbimbo, B., D’Onofrio, G., … & Panza, F. (2011). Mediterranean diet in predementia and dementia syndromes. Current Alzheimer Research, 8(5), 520-542.
8 Stoll, A. L., Severus, W. E., Freeman, M. P., Rueter, S., Zboyan, H. A., Diamond, E., … & Marangell, L. B. (1999). Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Archives of general psychiatry, 56(5), 407-412.
9 Wijendran, V., & Hayes, K. C. (2004). Dietary n-6 and n-3 fatty acid balance and cardiovascular health. Annu. Rev. Nutr., 24, 597-615.
10 Yehuda, S., Rabinovitz, S., & Mostofsky, D. I. (1999). Treatment with a polyunsaturated fatty acid prevents deleterious effects of Ro4-1284.European journal of pharmacology, 365(1), 27-34.