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Brain Food – Essential Fatty Acids

Fats make up sixty percent of the brain and the nerves that run every system in the body. So, it stands to reason that the better the fat in the diet, the better the brain. So, with all the fat eaten by the average American, why don’t we have more geniuses in this country? The average American brain is getting enough fat, but the problem is it’s not the right kind of fat.
Think of your brain as the master gland that sends chemical messengers throughout the body, telling each organ how to work. An important group of these chemical messengers are the prostaglandins (so-called because they were originally discovered in the prostate gland). Prostaglandins initiate the body’s self-repair system. The body needs two kinds of fat to manufacture healthy brain cells (the message senders) and prostaglandins (the messengers). These are Omega 6 Fatty Acids (found in many oils, such as hemp seed, safflower, sunflower, corn and sesame oils) and Omega 3 Fatty Acids (found in hemp seed, flax, pumpkin seeds and walnuts and coldwater fish, such as salmon and tuna). The foods from which oil can be extracted are generally the foods highest in essential fatty acids.
Most important to brain function are the two Essential Fatty Acids, Linoleic (or Omega 6) and Alpha Linolenic (or Omega 3). These are the prime structural components of brain cell membranes and are also an important part of the enzymes within cell membranes that allow the membranes to transport valuable nutrients in and out of the cells. When the cells of the human body – and the human brain – are deprived of the Essential Fatty Acids they need to grow and function, the cells will try to build replacement Fatty Acids that are similar, but may actually be harmful. Higher blood levels of “replacement Fatty Acids” are associated with diets that are high in hydrogenated fats and diets that contain excessive amounts of Omega 6 Fatty Acids. Levels of replacement Fatty Acids have been found to be elevated in persons suffering from depression or Attention Deficit Disorder. A diet rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids (such as the LNA from hemp seed oil or the EPA and DHA from fish oils) not only provides the body with healthy fats, but it also lowers the blood level of potentially harmful ones, such as cholesterol and, possibly, even reversing the effects of excess trans fatty acids.
Using the lock and key analogy will help you understand how the brain communication system works. Neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers that carry information from one brain cell to another, sort of like sparks flying across the gap between nerve cells. Each cell membrane contains a series of locks. The various message carriers (prostaglandins and neurotransmitters) are like keys. The keys and the locks must match. When the cell membrane is unhealthy because it is made of the wrong kind of replacement fatty acids, the keys won’t fit and brain function suffers. Nutrients may also fail to fit in a bad fitting lock.
The eye is a perfect example of the importance of getting the right kind of fat. The retina of the eye contains a high concentration of the fatty acid DHA, which the body forms from nutritious fats in the diet. The more nutritious the fat, the better the eye can function. And since most people are visual learners, better eyes mean better brains.
Western diets contain too much of the Omega 6 Fatty Acids and too little of the Omega 3’s. Omega 3 Fatty Acids are found in ground hemp seed, hemp seed oil, flax seeds and flaxseed oil, coldwater fish (primarily salmon and tuna), canola oil, soybeans, walnuts, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds and eggs.
Fats for growing brains. Fats can also influence brain development and performance, especially at either end of life — growing infants and elderly people. In fact, there are two windows of time in which the brain is especially sensitive to nutrition: the first two years of life for a growing baby and the last couple decades of life for a senior citizen. Both growing and aging brains need nutritious fats. An informative book on best fats for growing brains is: SMART FATS by Dr. Michael Schmidt.
The most rapid brain growth occurs during the first year of life, with the infant’s brain tripling in size by the first birthday. During this stage of rapid central nervous system growth, the brain uses sixty percent of the total energy consumed by the infant. Fats are a major component of the brain cell membrane and the myelin sheath around each nerve. So, it makes sense that getting enough fat – the right kinds of fat – can greatly affect brain development and performance. In fact, during the first year, around fifty percent of an infant’s daily calories come from fat. Mother Nature knows how important fat is for babies; fifty percent of the calories in mother’s milk is from fat.
DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)
Different species provide different types of fat in their milk, fine-tuned to the needs of that particular animal. For example, mother cows provide milk that is high in saturated fats and low in brain-building fats, such as DHA. This helps their calves grow rapidly, though it may not do much for their brains. In adult cows, the brain is small compared with the body. Cows don’t have to do a lot of thinking to survive. In human infants, the brain grows faster than the body. Highly developed brains are important to human beings, so human milk is low in body-building saturated fats and rich in brain-building fats, such as the fatty acid DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), An Omega 3 Fatty Acid.
DHA is the primary structural component of brain tissue, so it stands to reason that a deficiency of DHA in the diet could translate into a deficiency in brain function. In fact, research is increasingly recognizing the possibility that DHA has a crucial influence on neurotransmitters in the brain, helping brain cells better communicate with each other. Asian cultures have long appreciated the brain-building effects of DHA. In Japan, DHA is considered such an important “health food” that it is used as a nutritional supplement to enrich some foods and students frequently take DHA pills before examinations.
Just how important is DHA for brain development? Consider these research findings:

  • Infants who have low amounts of DHA in their diet have reduced brain development and diminished visual acuity.
  • The increased intelligence and academic performance of breastfed compared with formula- fed infants has been attributed in part to the increased DHA content of human milk.
  • Cultures whose diet is high in Omega 3 Fatty Acids (such as the Eskimos who eat a lot of fish) have a lower incidence of degenerative diseases of the central nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis.

Some children with poor school performance because of ADD, have been shown to have insufficient Essential Fatty Acids in their diet.

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“Pregnancy Brain” may be First Sign of EFA Deficiency

“Pregnancy brain” is a condition whereby expectant mothers experience short term memory loss and forgetfulness that often persists into the postpartum and breastfeeding period. Given widespread fatty acid deficiency in the standard Western diet, along with the fact that the brain is built on fat, it is incumbent upon us to consider adequate and optimal fats in the prevention and treatment of “pregnancy brain”. It also stands to reason that pregnancy brain, if left unchecked, may be the first and most benign symptom of a deficiency, which could later prove to have much greater consequence.According to Michael A. Schimdt, PhD (a NASA researcher), “To achieve adequate levels for brain development, the baby essentially robs the mother of these fatty acids by taking them from the placental blood.”  

Growing evidence supports the importance of supplementing with EFAs during pregnancy especially Omega 3. There are some Fatty Acids that we need to ingest (take in via food or supplementation) as the human body is unable to create it. These Fatty Acids are however essential to the development of body – hence the term ‘essential fatty acid’ – as they are essential to the body. The human body can however, synthesize ingested long chain fatty acids into other, short chain fatty acids like EPA, DHA, ALA etc.  EPA and DHA ( Docosahexaenoic Acid ) and the Arachidonic Acid (ARA) for essential for brain and eye development from Omega 3, Omega 6, etc. The January 2003 Pediatrics published data linking better intelligence and higher IQ scores to DHA supplementation. The World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, British Nutrition Foundation and Children’s Health Foundation have also recommended DHA inclusion in infant formula.

There is evidence from published clinical trials that women with higher DHA intakes or by way of supplementation during pregnancy, ranging up to 1100 mg DHA (plus 800 mg EPA) daily, gave birth to infants with higher cognitive development scores and young children with higher mental processing scores up to 4 years of age.  There is also published evidence that mothers with higher intakes of DHA during pregnancy along with higher corresponding levels in their body give birth to infants with improved sleep patterns. Furthermore, supplementation during pregnancy may enhance infant immunity (better allergy protection) and reduce risk of allergic disease.
In addition, higher intakes of EFAs during pregnancy (levels as low as 150 mg/day) have been implicated with increased birth weights, moderately prolonged gestation and reduced risk of preterm delivery. Finally, a higher dietary intake of EFA during pregnancy to support brain development of the baby in the womb has been associated with a great availability to the mother herself and a lesser risk of postpartum depression.

If not attended to, EFA status in the mother will continue to decline throughout the breastfeeding period, with repercussions to both her breastfeeding baby and subsequent children. Essential fatty acid deficiency has been shown to play a key role in many growth and developmental difficulties such as: learning, behavioral, nervous and immune related disorders.

Pregnant women who are deficient in essential fats, as well as mothers who have birthed more than one child (without adequate time in between to replenish their EFA status), may be more vulnerable to prolonged depression and disease later in life. It seems plausible that the wide spread prevalence of postpartum depression could be due at least in part to EFA deficiency. It is well established that essential fats play a substantial role in the prevention and treatment of depression. Chronic deficiencies originating during this critical time period may also explain why women tend to experience far more depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and autoimmune disease than men.
While “pregnancy brain” is also associated with the “amnesia” effects of the hormone oxytocin and other nutritional deficiencies, science has now shown that a pregnant woman`s brain actually shrinks in size during pregnancy, and then increases again at six months postpartum. It is likely no coincidence that this occurrence co-relates with the time when many women stop or decrease breastfeeding, thus eliminating or reducing the strain on the mother`s EFA stores. Since we know that 60% of the human brain is composed of fat and that a woman’s reserves are most strained during the childbearing years, we have to at least consider essential fats as a significant contributing piece of the “pregnancy brain” puzzle.

The cause and occurrence of “pregnancy brain” and the potential consequences of declining EFA status in women of childbearing years is an important topic that warrants further investigation. Due to the fact that it is so common, “pregnancy brain” has been mostly overlooked as a normal part of an otherwise healthy pregnancy. On the other hand, it may point to the likelihood that, modern mothers may need to attend to their essential fatty acid status through better diet and/or supplementation both during and after pregnancy – especially while breast feeding.

References:
Birch, E.E., et al. A randomized controlled trial of early dietary supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and mental development in term infants. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. 42: 174-181, 2000.
Glomset, J.A. Role of docosahexaenoic acid in neuronal plasma membranes. Sci STKE. 321: 6, 2006.
Litman, B. J., et al . The role of docosahexaenoic acid containing phospholipids in modulating G protein-coupled signaling pathways : visual transduction. J. Mol. Neurosci. 16(2-3):237-242, 2001.
O’Brien, J.S., and Sampson, L. Fatty acid and fatty aldehyde composition of the major brain lipids in normal human gray matter, white matter, and myelin. J. Lipid Res. 6: 545-551, 1965.
Salem, N. Jr., et al . Mechanism of action of docosahexaenoic acid in the nervous system. Lipids. 36(9):945-959, 2001.
SanGiovanni, J. P., and Chew, E. Y. The role of omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in health and disease of the retina. Progress in Retinal and Eye Research. 24:87-138, 2005.
Stilwell, W., and Wassall, S. R. Docosahexaenoic acid: membrance properties of a unique fatty acid. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. 126:1-27, 2003.
Svennerholm, L. Distribution and fatty acid composition of phosphoglycerides in normal human brain. J. Lipid Res. 9: 570-579, 1965.
Youdin, K.A., et al . Essential fatty acids and the brain: possible health implications. Int. J. Neurosci. 18: 383-399, 2000.

Posted on Leave a comment

Pregnancy Brain" may be First Sign of EFA Deficiency

“Pregnancy brain” is a condition whereby expectant mothers experience short term memory loss and forgetfulness that often persists into the postpartum and breastfeeding period. Given widespread fatty acid deficiency in the standard Western diet, along with the fact that the brain is built on fat, it is incumbent upon us to consider adequate and optimal fats in the prevention and treatment of “pregnancy brain”. It also stands to reason that pregnancy brain, if left unchecked, may be the first and most benign symptom of a deficiency, which could later prove to have much greater consequence.According to Michael A. Schimdt, PhD (a NASA researcher), “To achieve adequate levels for brain development, the baby essentially robs the mother of these fatty acids by taking them from the placental blood.”  
Growing evidence supports the importance of supplementing with EFAs during pregnancy especially Omega 3. There are some Fatty Acids that we need to ingest (take in via food or supplementation) as the human body is unable to create it. These Fatty Acids are however essential to the development of body – hence the term ‘essential fatty acid’ – as they are essential to the body. The human body can however, synthesize ingested long chain fatty acids into other, short chain fatty acids like EPA, DHA, ALA etc.  EPA and DHA ( Docosahexaenoic Acid ) and the Arachidonic Acid (ARA) for essential for brain and eye development from Omega 3, Omega 6, etc. The January 2003 Pediatrics published data linking better intelligence and higher IQ scores to DHA supplementation. The World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, British Nutrition Foundation and Children’s Health Foundation have also recommended DHA inclusion in infant formula.
There is evidence from published clinical trials that women with higher DHA intakes or by way of supplementation during pregnancy, ranging up to 1100 mg DHA (plus 800 mg EPA) daily, gave birth to infants with higher cognitive development scores and young children with higher mental processing scores up to 4 years of age.  There is also published evidence that mothers with higher intakes of DHA during pregnancy along with higher corresponding levels in their body give birth to infants with improved sleep patterns. Furthermore, supplementation during pregnancy may enhance infant immunity (better allergy protection) and reduce risk of allergic disease.
In addition, higher intakes of EFAs during pregnancy (levels as low as 150 mg/day) have been implicated with increased birth weights, moderately prolonged gestation and reduced risk of preterm delivery. Finally, a higher dietary intake of EFA during pregnancy to support brain development of the baby in the womb has been associated with a great availability to the mother herself and a lesser risk of postpartum depression.
If not attended to, EFA status in the mother will continue to decline throughout the breastfeeding period, with repercussions to both her breastfeeding baby and subsequent children. Essential fatty acid deficiency has been shown to play a key role in many growth and developmental difficulties such as: learning, behavioral, nervous and immune related disorders.
Pregnant women who are deficient in essential fats, as well as mothers who have birthed more than one child (without adequate time in between to replenish their EFA status), may be more vulnerable to prolonged depression and disease later in life. It seems plausible that the wide spread prevalence of postpartum depression could be due at least in part to EFA deficiency. It is well established that essential fats play a substantial role in the prevention and treatment of depression. Chronic deficiencies originating during this critical time period may also explain why women tend to experience far more depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and autoimmune disease than men.
While “pregnancy brain” is also associated with the “amnesia” effects of the hormone oxytocin and other nutritional deficiencies, science has now shown that a pregnant woman`s brain actually shrinks in size during pregnancy, and then increases again at six months postpartum. It is likely no coincidence that this occurrence co-relates with the time when many women stop or decrease breastfeeding, thus eliminating or reducing the strain on the mother`s EFA stores. Since we know that 60% of the human brain is composed of fat and that a woman’s reserves are most strained during the childbearing years, we have to at least consider essential fats as a significant contributing piece of the “pregnancy brain” puzzle.
The cause and occurrence of “pregnancy brain” and the potential consequences of declining EFA status in women of childbearing years is an important topic that warrants further investigation. Due to the fact that it is so common, “pregnancy brain” has been mostly overlooked as a normal part of an otherwise healthy pregnancy. On the other hand, it may point to the likelihood that, modern mothers may need to attend to their essential fatty acid status through better diet and/or supplementation both during and after pregnancy – especially while breast feeding.
References:
Birch, E.E., et al. A randomized controlled trial of early dietary supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and mental development in term infants. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology. 42: 174-181, 2000.
Glomset, J.A. Role of docosahexaenoic acid in neuronal plasma membranes. Sci STKE. 321: 6, 2006.
Litman, B. J., et al . The role of docosahexaenoic acid containing phospholipids in modulating G protein-coupled signaling pathways : visual transduction. J. Mol. Neurosci. 16(2-3):237-242, 2001.
O’Brien, J.S., and Sampson, L. Fatty acid and fatty aldehyde composition of the major brain lipids in normal human gray matter, white matter, and myelin. J. Lipid Res. 6: 545-551, 1965.
Salem, N. Jr., et al . Mechanism of action of docosahexaenoic acid in the nervous system. Lipids. 36(9):945-959, 2001.
SanGiovanni, J. P., and Chew, E. Y. The role of omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in health and disease of the retina. Progress in Retinal and Eye Research. 24:87-138, 2005.
Stilwell, W., and Wassall, S. R. Docosahexaenoic acid: membrance properties of a unique fatty acid. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. 126:1-27, 2003.
Svennerholm, L. Distribution and fatty acid composition of phosphoglycerides in normal human brain. J. Lipid Res. 9: 570-579, 1965.
Youdin, K.A., et al . Essential fatty acids and the brain: possible health implications. Int. J. Neurosci. 18: 383-399, 2000.