Omega-3 essential fatty acids (derived from fish oil and flaxseed oil) are the building blocks for nerve tissue. Few people realize how their choices of fats to eat every day influence the structure and function of every nerve in the body. And these influences affect all nerve functions, including mental clarity, mood, attention span and brain aging.
Why does the choice of the kind of fats we eat have such a powerful effect on the nervous system? The reason is that many fatty acids we eat become the building blocks for the membranes that surround every nerve cell (neuron), every cell nucleus, and every mitochondrion (cell energy powerhouse).
The quality and proportions of fatty acids on nerve cell membranes affect greatly the quality of communication among neurons. On top of that, cell membrane fatty acids are used to make local hormones that control many functions, including inflammatory tendency.
A Case of Imbalance and Inadvertent Neglect
One of the major causes of chronic ailments that plague multitudes in Western industrialized nations is the tendency for many to have an imbalanced intake of fatty acids. We tend to eat too many sources of Omega-6 fats (products from livestock animals raised on grain; corn, sunflower, soy, and safflower oils; vegetable shortening, processed foods) and too little of sources of omega-3 fats (wild game, products of grass-fed livestock, wild ocean fish, flaxseed oil, and fish oil).
The imbalance of intake and membrane fatty acid concentration has gotten so distorted that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is now at least 20:1, instead of the more desirable 1:1 to 4:1. This massive imbalance interferes with optimal functioning of nerve tissue.
How do we correct this problem and restore balance?
First Things First [Something Most People Don’t Know]
In order to get full benefit from any omega-3 fatty acid source, we must first get the intake of omega-6 fats under control.
The reason is that there are a finite number of places to be occupied on membranes by fatty acids. If there is an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids circulating through the body relative to omega-3s, those places will be occupied by omega-6s. In order to allow omega-3s to occupy more positions on cell membranes, we must decrease omega-6 intake while we are increasing omega-3.
For many in the Western world, this means making some fundamental changes to our diet.
Fish Oil - The Real Brain Food
Fish used to be called “brain food.” Today we know why.
• The brain is the organ with the greatest need for essential fatty acids.
• Fish oil contains EPA and DHA, the omega-3s essential to nerve cell structure and function, respectively.
Flaxseed Oil - the Mother of EPA & DHA
Also, both EPA and DHA can be synthesized in the bodies of animals from another omega-3 oil - ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) as found in green vegetation and plentifully in flaxseed oil. [Just like vitamins and minerals, the ALA in flaxseed oil is a “starter material, or the mortar and bricks,” that the body uses naturally for manufacturing all other fatty acids.]
Local brain tissue hormones, made from membrane fatty acids, serve as signaling agents in brain tissue. Any disturbance of connections and communication among neurons, as well as deficiency of nutrients, at any stage of life, can contribute to accelerated brain aging.
Membrane omega-3 deficiency over time alters the course of brain development in children and disturbs the composition and behavioral properties of brain cells, leading to mental impairment. These harmful changes contribute to sensory, mood, and behavior disturbances in adults and children alike.
The basic health maintenance daily serving amount for fish oil is sufficient fish oil to provide 1,000 mg of combined EPA/DHA. (A report published recently in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology proposes that supplementing with EPA & DHA should be recommended as a very safe and inexpensive way to protect cardiovascular health and save lives. See “Cardiologists conclude omega-3 fish oil’s heart benefits justify recommended daily intake guidelines.”)
Fish oil supplementation is best taken with meals. In some instances, much larger amounts of fish oil are used, typically the amount of fish oil that will provide 3 to 5 gm of combined EPA/DHA. In this case it is best to consult with a qualified health professional. Products emphasizing EPA are preferred for functional support in people who are concerned with mood and cognitive function. In those situations in which support is desired for building nerve cell tissue (as in pregnancy and nursing) products emphasizing DHA should be considered.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mood
Research demonstrates that in areas of the world where consumption of omega-3s from wild ocean fish is high, rates of depression tend to be lower. It has also been observed that people with higher levels of EPA and DHA in fat tissue, which is the measure of long term intake of omega-3s, enjoy better moods.
Conversely, it is known that omega-3 deficiency decreases one’s perception and the subjective experience of pleasure. Sufficient dietary intake of omega-3s is vital for healthy brain function and balanced mood. Adequate consumption of omega-3s is especially important for pregnant women, as depletion of omega-3s during the post-partum period can result in mood disturbances and irritability.
There are many clinical trials demonstrating the beneficial effects of omega-3 supplementation on mood and cognitive function. [See for example the recent paper "Omega-3 fatty acids in depression: A review of three studies," which reports that omega-3 supplementation supported highly significant benefits in studies of adult unipolar depression, childhood major depression, and adult bipolar depression.]
The omega-3 fats in fish oil may help reduce the adverse effects of mental stress. The stimulating effects of mental stress on blood levels of adrenaline, cortisol, and energy expenditure can be significantly reduced by fish oil supplementation.
Note: To learn more about omega-3 supplements, visit the ProHealth store. ____
* Dr. Herb Joiner-Bey, ND, is adjunct professor of naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University and a much published author on subjects of therapeutic nutrition and botanical medicine, including the book, The Healing Power of Flax (2004). This article is reproduced with kind permission of Health Perspectives Publishing, courtesy of Barlean’s Organic Oils.
Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any condition, illness, or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professisonal healthcare team.