You may not have ever thought of it this way, but your brain has a diet, too. Like the rest of your body, it requires what is healthy for it, and will not function optimally on anything less.
For starters, approximately two-thirds of your brain is comprised of fats—but not just any kind of fats. Additionally, the membranes of neurons, which are the specialized brain cells that communicate with each other, are made up of a double layer of fatty acid molecules. Those are the fatty acids that dietary fats are made of, and are the very ones your brain uses directly from your diet. That’s why it is so important to eat the right kind of fats. In short, what you feed your mouth, ultimately goes to your brain.
The truth is that even the protective sheath that covers these essential communicating neurons, called the myelin sheath, is a whopping 70 percent fat and only 30 percent protein. And, as you can probably guess, proper nutrition plays a huge role in maintaining healthy myelin sheaths. But that could be a problem, since our modern food processing techniques may adversely alter a basic building block for the brain. You guessed the culprit: trans fatty acids, the likes of which are found abundantly in our standard American diet.
In fact, researchers have found that dietary trans fatty acids can find their way to the myelin of brain cells, where they can change the conductivity of the cells. What’s more is that studies indicate that animals already deficient in the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) had double the adverse effects of trans fatty acids.
But let’s back up the train a little first.
In order to build brain cells, you need two kinds of fatty acids from your diet because your body cannot manufacture them. The first one is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is the foundation of the omega-3 family of fatty acids. The other essential fatty acid you need is linoleic acid (LA). From these two fatty acids (ALA and LA), your brain can make docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA)--the longer chained fatty acids that are incorporated in the brain's cell membranes. The brain’s ability to assemble these fatty acids, however, can be compromised by stress, alcohol, excess sugar, and vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
And speaking of DHA, did you know that it is particularly beneficial for brain health? In fact, DHA is instrumental in the function of brain cell membranes. And when the body lacks these essential omega-3 fatty acids, communication can break down between the various physiological systems of the body and the brain cells—and that’s not a good scenario.
Hands down, DHA is the most abundant fat in the brain and a loss in DHA concentrations in brain cell membranes is directly related to a loss in structural and functional integrity of the tissue. Additionally, the oxidative damage that accompanies stress or aging can result in the loss of DHA concentrations resulting in cognitive impairment.
Ernst Schaefer, M.D., of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, has found that a low level of DHA contributes to mild memory problems associated with aging—due to the body’s decreased ability to make DHA as it ages. He says that the data he has seen suggest that DHA may be an important nutritional supplement in some age-related conditions.
But the positive effects of DHA do not stop there. Research indicates that DHA may be a critical component of the diet of people of all ages.
So be sure to feed your brain what it needs--including foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. It’s part of your brain’s healthy diet.