Besides being heart-healthy, omega-3s also help build brighter brains. As you will soon see, the brain needs omega-3s as much as the heart, perhaps even more so. After all, the brain is one of the most vascular organs in the body. Which organ requires the most flexible, fluid multi-tasking, and the fastest response? The brain. Which fat has these same qualities? Omega-3 EPA/DHA. That’s why Omega-3s and brain function are perfect partners in health.
Your brain is sixty percent fat, so if somebody calls you a “fathead,” take it as a compliment. It’s interesting that perhaps our most important organ also has the most fat. Many fad diets want us to eat less of this prime structural component of the brain. To further emphasize how important are omega-3 fats, the three hardest working tissues in the body, the brain, retina, testes, and heart are highest in omega-3 content.
The human brain is the top performer, using 20 percent of the total food energy consumed (chimps use only 13 percent), even though it comprises only 1-2 percent of the total body weight. While there are many different fats that make up the brain, omega-3 DHA alone makes up 15-20 percent of the brain’s fat. Research shows that people with the highest blood levels of omega-3 DHA displayed the best brain performance. The higher the omega-3 blood levels (DHA), the higher the brain test scores.
Analysis of the brains of people with various nerve diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and macular degeneration, had plenty of omega-6s, but low levels of omega-3s in their brain tissue.
At least once a day I remind my patients: Right fat instead of low fat diets are best for the body and brain. This sounds like, pardon the pun, a no-brainer. Since omega-3 DHA is one of the top fats in the brain, you need to eat more omega-3s. Come with me inside your brain and I’ll show you how these omegas work to help you think better and feel happier.
When addressing military brass on why omega-3s could help combat troops make quick decisions and moves, Captain Joseph Hibbeln, M.D. summed up: “When you change your fats, you change your brain.”
Notice there are three important structures:
Omega-3s make each of these three components healthier so that your thoughts can fire faster.
Omega-3s make cell membranes stronger and function better. And, concerning the saying “You’re only as healthy as your cell membranes,” double that wisdom for brain cell membranes, which work harder than most other cells of the body.
Using the computer analogy of “intel inside” to explain the inner biochemical programming of the brain, omegas feed the “intel inside.” Omegas provide needed nutrients for brain growth, brain tissue maintenance and repair and brain food for all that nerve traffic that is working 24/7.
Science agrees: Experimental animals and humans whose diets were deficient in omega-3 fats or who had low omega-3 blood levels were found to have smaller brains. Omega-3s are grow food for the brain. Here’s how nerve-conduction researcher Dr. Tom Brenna explained the omega-3 effect to me: “Nerve traffic is like a wave in the sea traveling down the nerve cell membrane. Omega-3s act like tiny fish using their fins to assist the waves of nerve energy to travel faster.”
The two top omega-3s, EPA and DHA, help build the structural components of the cell membrane and, like the insides of a computer, they help the biochemical machinery of the cell membrane work better.
EPA and DHA are the brain brothers. DHA helps the structure and EPA helps the function of brain tissue. Omega-3s are appropriately called cell conditioners. Like hair conditioner makes your hair soft and flexible, omega-3 EPA/DHA works to make the membrane more flexible.
See those long fibers (called axons) extending from the brain cell, sort of like tentacles on an octopus? Coating these axons is a fatty sheath called myelin (white matter) that acts like insulation on electrical wires and makes the electrical messages in the brain travel faster, a process called myelination.
Myelin is 70-80 percent fat, made mostly of the stiff saturated fats and cholesterol (which is a perfect design for these particular tissues). Like frayed insulation on electrical wires slowing electrical impulses, damaged myelin causes thoughts to be fuzzy, forgetful, slower, and makes muscle movements uncoordinated. For example, multiple sclerosisis a debilitating disease in which the myelin insulation on the nerve fibers becomes frayed.
Myelination increases the speed and the amount of information that can travel across nerve fibers at one time. In Internet terminology we would call this “expanding the bandwidth.” We think faster, innovate, multi-task, and retain knowledge mainly because of myelin. In effect, myelin upgrades the nerve circuits to process information more efficiently. In fact, an increasingly popular explanation of neurologic and even psychiatric disorders is thought to be dysfunction in myelination.
The healthier you feed your myelin, the better your brain behaves and performs. My quest to discover the omega-3 effect on myelin prompted me to consult with one of the world’s top myelin researchers, UCLA neurologist, Dr. George Bartzokis.
Here’s what I learned: Hovering around the nerve cell tissues (grey matter) are millions of myelin-making cells called oligodendrocites. (You made more myelin by just pronouncing their name!) Let’s call them O-cells for short. These spider-like cells spin a web of myelin around the nerve like bubble-wrapping a precious glass.
The more wrapping, the more protection. When myelin wears out – gets frayed – these O-cells click into the repair and protect mode and cells secrete more myelin. Those tiny myelin-making O-cells are what make human brains smarter. We make much more myelin than, say, a chimpanzee does. In fact, Dr. Bartzokis describes humans as “myelin beings.”
One day I was playing catch with my eighteen-month-old grandson, Landon, our little fish eater. Even as an infant, Landon seemed to have a talent for throwing a ball accurately. Ah ha, “future major league pitcher,” I thought.
So, immediately I clicked into my myelin-making mode. I realized that the more we played catch, the more he threw the ball, the more his O-cells cranked out myelin. That’s part of why “practice makes perfect.” I imagine that every time he throws the ball he’s wrapping more and more nerves in myelin. Playing catch, going fishing, and making myelin could be this little kid’s pathway to becoming a star pitcher.
Remember: omega-3s feed O-cells. So, each time you savor your salmon or down a fish oil supplement, imagine you’re making more myelin. O-cells are the active kids of the brain cells. O-cells produce three times their weight in myelin each day.
During myelin-making the O-cells use more than twice the energy of other brain cells, and their use of nutrients to synthesize brain fats is six times as high. This high metabolic rate makes these myelin-producing cells more susceptible to oxidation.
The antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3s on the O-cells prevents the oxidation of myelin. In simple language, high metabolic stress could make a metabolic mess of the myelin-making cells and lead to frayed insulation, or myelin.
Omega-3s protect nerve tissue by producing biochemicals appropriately called neuroprotectins. A way to remember how omega-3s protect brain cells from oxidation: One O (omega-3s) protects another O (the O-cells) against oxidation.
Structurally, myelin is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, its high percentage of fat makes it more receptive to nutritional and perhaps pharmaceutical interventions. On the other hand, this makes it more vulnerable to toxins, disease, disintegration, and nutritional deficiencies.
Research shows that an omega-3-deficiency can lead to damaged myelin, which can be reversed in people who take omega-3 supplements. Since myelin is the neurological weak link, it makes sense to eat more omega-3s to make and repair myelin. Myelin production seems to peak around age 45 and may decline thereafter unless we nourish and protect it.
An important omega-3 effect my expert consultants pointed out was that tissues that work the hardest, such as brain and eyes, have the highest concentration of omega-3s. In fact, some of the hardest working tissues in nature, the pectoral muscles of the hummingbird (which are half the weight of the bird) have extraordinarily high levels of omega-3s (more than 20 percent), as high as the eye.
One reason is that the flexibility of those tall omega-3s supports the rapid flexing of those energetic muscles. Omega-3s are potent antioxidants.
Omega-3 EPA/DHA acts like the brain’s communication director. The junction or gap between two nerve cells (called neurons) trying to communicate with each other is called a synapse, from the Greek “to bind together.”
The neurons have some of the highest concentration of DHA of any tissue of the body. Here’s how neurons communicate with one another: The neuron releases neurotransmitters, biochemical messengers that carry information like high speed ferry boats from one neuron across this synapse to another neuron.
On the receiver neuron cell membranes are microscopic receptor sites into which the neurotransmitters must fit. Think of the receptor sites as docks custom-made to fit the arriving neurotransmitter ferry boats.
Omega-3s feed these ferry boats, or brain messengers, enabling them to travel faster and more efficiently; these malleable molecules work their way into the receptor sites and tweak them so that they can more effectively receive the messages.
If you don’t eat enough omega-3s, three things can happen: the neurotransmitter ferryboats don’t travel fast enough, the ferryboats don’t fit into their respective docks; or, the cell membranes can become loaded and clogged with the wrong fats (such as factory-made hydrogenated fats) and the ferryboats won’t fit into the docks, distorting the shape of the docks and thus making docking more difficult.
What’s good for the brain is good for the eyes. Your ability to read this page is helped by the high concentration of DHA in your eyes. The back part of your eyes, the “projection screen” called the retina and macula on which your lens focus light, is simply an extension of your brain.
So if omega-3 EPA/DHA is good for the brain, it follows that it would be good for the eyes, too. The usual illnesses of the aging eye, such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), and glaucoma could be caused by inflammation and an omega-3 deficiency. The retina has the highest tissue oxidation capacity (wear and tear) of any tissue in the body. Seafood contains potent antioxidants, such as selenium and astaxanthin. So, focus on go fish! Pun intended.
Because it’s part of the brain, the retina of the eye has one of the highest concentrations of DHA in the body. These smart fats also feed the hyperactive cells of the retina, so-called because these photo receptor cells are so high functioning that they wear out quickly and need to be replaced almost daily by new cells.
Tissues that have high metabolic energy are prone to oxidation (wear and tear). Seafood contains powerful antioxidants. These cells are examples of what I call “high-need cells” – those that require a constant source of omega-3s to survive and thrive.
Research reveals that people who take DHA in fish oil in combination with the antioxidant lutein have increased pigment density throughout the retina. Pigment density is the term eye doctors use for the concentration of protective nutrients, mainly carotenoids, in the cells of the retina. These nutrients have powerful antioxidant properties, helping to mellow the wear and tear of sunlight photons striking sensitive retinal tissue.
Macular pigments decline with age, eventually leading to ARMD, the leading cause of blindness in seniors. Again, science validates common sense. Retinal tissue is primarily fat (DHA) and blood vessels. As in other tissues, the protective omega effect is probably due to both its tissue-building properties and the antioxidant effects on retinal tissue.
SCIENCE SAYS: OMEGA-3 DHA IS EYE FOOD
Here’s what research says about omega-3s for your vision:
Smart patients and doctors are searching for healthier alternatives to prescription psychiatric drugs, especially in light of recent scientific exposés revealing that, except for severe psychiatric illnesses, these risky medications may be no more effective than a placebo (sugar pill), and in many patients they can do more harm than good. Omega-3s to the rescue!
A depressing statistic which made headlines in the October 20, 2011, issue of USA TODAY: 12 percent of teens and 25 percent of adult women take prescription antidepressants. About 23 million American adults suffer from mood disorders, or what I call the “Ds”: depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder (BPD), and so on.
The reason I began prescribing omega-3 EPA/DHA in my medical practice is that it follows my general formula of practicing medicine: Prescribe medicine based upon good sense and good science.
Since mood disorders seem to be the result of misfiring and/or miswiring of neurotransmitters in the mood centers of the brain, and omega-3 EPA/DHA is the main structural and functional molecule of nerve firing and wiring, it seems logical that making sure the brain gets enough of these “happy molecules” should be a priority. Scientists agree.
A meta-analysis of studies shows clear benefits of omega-3s for depression and bipolar disorder, leading the American Psychiatric Association to recommend a dosage greater than 1,000 mg. per day of EPA/DHA as an add-on for general treatment of mood disorders and possibly in addition to appropriate psychotropic drugs.
Experts assembled by the Committee on Research on Psychiatric Treatments of the American Psychiatric Associated reviewed the current research and concluded that omega-3 EPA/DHA showed significant benefits in the treatment of bipolar and major depression. They also suggested that omega-3s may provide additional health benefits because of the prevalence of obesity and metabolic side effects of some psychotropic medications.
Psychiatric medicine teaches that depression is due to a “biochemical imbalance,” presumably of neurotransmitters like serotonin. While this neurotransmitter imbalance hypothesis remains unproven, preliminary studies suggest an omega-3 deficiency may be one of the biochemical imbalances in people with depression.
Imbalances of omega-3s have been found in the red blood cell membranes of some depressed persons. This finding reinforces the reigning hypothesis that the basic defect in brain biochemistry of mood disorders is inflammation. Since omega-3s are powerful anti-inflammatories, that would explain how omega-3s affect depression by a different mechanism than do prescription antidepressants.
Omega-3s are called mood mellowers because they provide the food for hormones like serotonin and dopamine, which I like to call the “happy hormones,” that are associated with joy and calmness. A study of the brains of experimental animals who were given omega-3 supplements showed an increase in the number of dopamine receptors on their brain cells.
“When you have an omega-3 deficiency, you get flaky skin – and a flaky brain.” - Joseph Hibbeln, M.D.
Omega-3s are “neuroprotective” against depression and other mood disorders. PETscans, radiology cameras that “look into” the brain, show that severely depressed patients suffer from shrinkage of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls memory and learning. Omega-3s from fish oil may benefit brain cell growth in this region.
On the contrary, diets low in omega-3s seem to destroy the brain’s connective feelers, the synapses and dendrites, in the hippocampus. A 2011 study revealed that omega-3 deficient experimental animals suffer a reduced function of nerve-cell receptors that facilitate healthy moods.
As we continue to learn more about the value of Omega-3s, it's becoming increasingly important to include enough in our diets! Learn more about this healthy fat here.
This is an excerpt from The Omega Effect, written by Dr. Bill Sears. Used with permission.
What are Omega-3s and why are they so healthy?