Your brain loves fat. Wants it, craves it, needs it. After all, the brain is made up of more than 50% fat. However, the nervous system is a highly specialized mechanism, and can’t use just any rogue fat globule sent jiggling its way. When it comes to building the brain, the body needs a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids from animal foods. Experts now postulate that a widespread disruption in omega-fatty acid balance may be at the very root of some of the most troublesome neurobiological epidemics of our day. Could it be that the devilishly delicious dark meats and creamy butter we have been taught to avoid actually contain the nutritional keys to improved health and a vibrant mood?
Omega-3s and the Brain
The term "omega-3s" is used to describe a specific group of long chain polyunsaturated fats that are essential for the proper function of the body. Important as metabolic catalysts and inflammation modulators, omega-3 fatty acids play an impressive number of roles in the body. Perhaps most importantly, humans require ample amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in order for the nervous system to function properly. These life-giving omega-3 compounds have several distinctive functions in the brain and nervous system, and are likely involved in many more complex pathways that are yet to be understood.
- Omega-3s encourage cell membrane integrity and fluidity. Brain cells communicate by exchanging chemical neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine) as well as other compounds. For these interactions to occur, the cell membrane must be soft and flexible.
- Omega-3s block the actions of inflammatory chemicals, protecting the brain from harmful toxins that can alter function and distort mood.
- Omega-3s are important in ensuring the healthy expression of genes. Research suggests that a deficiency in EPA/DHA in growth years, can predispose individuals to chronic illnesses such as Alzheimers, mood dysregulation and cognitive impairment.
Based on this list of functions, it is only logical to assume that an inadequate store of omega-3 fatty acids results in disruptive changes in cognition, behavior and mood. Many epidemiological and neurobiological studies have confirmed that a relative deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids predisposes people to psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Newer clinical studies have also demonstrated promise in the efficacy of omega-3 supplements to resolve the biochemical imbalances at the center of many mental health conditions. 1, 2, 3, 4
Getting The Right Type of Omega-3: EPA & DHA vs ALA
Much to our inconvenience, omega-3 fatty acids cannot be produced at a substantial rate in the human body and instead must be consumed from outside dietary sources. In the modern era of industrialized agriculture and processed foods, this has become an increasingly difficult task. It's no secret that scientists believe a lack of omega-3s is among of the most common and harmful nutrient deficiencies plaguing Americans today.
Furthermore, as if understanding the mystifying scientific workings behind omega-3 fatty acids wasn't already complex enough, there are several different forms of omega-3 that appear to fulfill different functions in the body. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are long chain omega-3 derivatives found primarily in animal sources, while ALA is a plant-derived short chain form that is most abundant in plants.
Contrary to the conventional dietary wisdom that plant foods are always healthier than greasy gross dark meats and saturated fats, studies have repeatedly shown that long chain omega-3s from animal sources are actually the most important for building a healthy brain. EPA and DHA are present in cold water fish, wild game and pastured meats, where they exist in a readily available, biologically active form. 5
The ALA omega content in flaxseed, soy, walnuts and grain-fed meats on the other hand must undergo a series of metabolic transformations before being molded into a useful form. Unfortunately studies have suggested that the ALA conversion rate hovers around just 5-10%, meaning that one would have to gnaw on cups upon cups of crunchy little seeds per day to acquire substantial amounts of omega-3’s. Thus if tolerated, it is best to find these valuable omega-3 fatty acids from animal sources. 6
Optimizing Omega-3 Levels Beyond Supplements
Popular dietary guidelines currently suggest that individuals obtain about 1 gram of supplementary EPA/DHA daily for optimal physical and psychological health. Yet when all the research is read, highlighted, marked with notes or otherwise considered, the message that remains is this: omega-3 supplements can be very helpful, but they are only one piece of the puzzle. As much as the media has rushed to portray omega-3 liquids and capsules as the glittering superheros of health and happiness, these powerful fats can’t always come to the rescue alone. Omega-3s are truly best considered in the context of a nutrient dense diet that supplies all the synergistic nutrient building blocks necessary to run a healthy nervous system.
Many people will try a generic omega-3 supplement for a few weeks, notice no difference and simply give up. It is a frustrating and expensive scenario for all involved, and one that only increases negativity and self-doubt. There is no real way of knowing that the claims on the side of a bottle are indicative of good product. Oftentimes, supplements labeled with "omega-3" contain only the difficult to digest ALA form, or have been processed in such a way that all the fatty acids are destroyed. So, next time, instead of looking for the latest flashy supplement, turn to omega-3s in their genuine whole food form. A few small changes in the diet can make all the difference when it comes nourishing the brain with the fats it needs:
Eat seafood multiple times a week.
Opt for wild seafood over farm-raised varieties and source from clean oceans. If you can't always get fresh, high quality canned varieties such as those from Cole's Seafoods or dried anchovies can be a useful alternative.
Select pastured or grass-fed meats whenever possible
Look for words like grass-fed, pastured, organic and free-range. Find reputable family farms locally or use online sources such as Tendergrass Farms.