7 foods to support brain health no. 6 – omega 3s

Today I’m focusing on fat, an essential nutrient for the brain. After all, 60% of this important organ is made of fat. But not all fats in the diet are beneficial for the brain. And some, like omega 3 fatty acids, definitely are.

No doubt you’ve heard of the importance of omega 3 and omega 6.  Maybe you’ve had them as a supplement. These fatty acids are classified as ‘essential’ because, unlike other fats, we can’t make them ourselves, they have to be consumed in the diet. They’re key players in the inflammatory pathway that’s designed to protect the body from harm. As we evolved, they would have been available in foraged and hunted foods including nuts, seeds, seaweed, fish and meat (more about those in a mo).

Fats in the body

Fats in the diet can be burnt for energy. They’re also broken down into different types of fats – or lipids – that perform a variety of functions in the body. Like forming a fatty sheath around neurones in the brain, as an example. This provides protection as well as the rapid conduction of impulses. It’s these fatty sheaths that are attacked in multiple sclerosis, exposing the nerve to damage and slowing down nerve conduction.

Lipids are also found in cell membranes. This makes cells flexible so they can squeeze into tiny spaces if needed. The type of fat in cell membranes is important though as compounds and molecules need to get through the cell membrane into the cell. Mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid and pliable. A cell membrane formed mainly of these lipids makes it possible for glucose, minerals, vitamins and other compounds and elements to enter the cell to support function. And likewise enables waste products to leave. This is what you want to happen.

However, a cell membrane made of mainly saturated fat becomes rigid and blocked. The cell cannot squeeze and fold itself where it needs to go. It also can’t let glucose and nutrients in. This is the start of insulin resistance, where insulin may be able to send signals to open glucose channels but the messages, and therefore the glucose cannot get through. Insulin resistance is a major factor in neuro-degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s often now described as type 3 diabetes. It’s not just about sugar. It’s also not just about fat. It’s about both!

Omega 3 and 6

Mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are these flexible fatty acids that help make cell membranes squishy and clear for transporting compounds in and out of the cell. They’re also less stable than saturated fats and can spoil or go rancid when exposed to oxygen. This is not good for the food industry as it means foods either need to be refrigerated or have a short shelf life. It also means that processes are used and compounds added to make the fats more stable. This generally changes the structure, forming trans fats, or introduces stablisers that are harmful to gut health. Neither are good! And it’s one reason why ultra-processed foods are bad for health.

I said at the beginning of this post that these essential fatty acids are key players in the inflammatory process. In very simple terms, omega 6 is involved in sending signal to turn inflammation ON. Omega 3 sends signals to turn inflammation OFF. Both are essential otherwise a) the body won’t react to an invader that might kill it and b) won’t know that it can stand down once the danger has passed. Clever, huh?

All those years ago as we evolved, omega 3 and 6 would be consumed in balance so neither dominated. We know that meat from wild animals or domestic animals left to their own devices to graze outside all year long with no feeds etc have a good balance of omega 3 and 6. Same with wild oily fish. However, industrial farming techniques of today means that most animals and 70% of fish are farmed with limited or no space to roam, fed with fortified feeds that are high in omega 6 fatty acids. Apart from the terrible conditions and life these poor animals and fish lead, the outcome in the meat is excess levels of omega 6 fatty acids compared to omega 3. Even in the so called ‘grass-fed’ meats. The breeds used have a propensity to omega 6 fats and the animals are rarely feed without some kind of supplement.

Omega 6 fatty acids are found in most processed and ultra processed food stuffs as well in the form of oil – rapeseed, cotton seed, sunflower seed and general ‘vegetable oil’. These food stuffs are denuded of beneficial micronutrients, packed with processed macronutrients and topped up with omega 6 fats. Not good for the body. And not good for the brain.

Where are the omega 3’s hiding?

On day 3 of this series, I covered walnuts and almonds. These contain omega 3 fatty acids (in their natural form, less so in an oil). You can find them in good amounts in seeds too. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds tend to have more omega 6 than 3, but still have some. Chia, flaxseed and hemp have the best amounts though.

What about supplements?

Fish oil is high in omega 3 fatty acids. But fish is a big environmental issue now, partly from toxins found in the sea. But also because it’s an inefficient way of creating a supplement. Krill oil in particular is bad as over fishing is impacting the whales that depend on good supplies for their survival. The quality of the oil in fish oil supplements is questionable too.

Fish don’t have this oil naturally – they  make it by eating algae. So why not cut out the middle man/fish and supplement with algae oil? It’s a good idea – some people do. It’s environmentally sound as farming algae has a more positive than negative impact. However, it’s very expensive and therefore not accessible for a lot of people.

Stick to plant sources

Adding ground flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds to the diet is a great way to up your omega 3 intake. It’s also available in many different plant foods particularly:

  • Kidney beans
  • Soya beans
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Whole grain wheat (in the germ)
  • Broccoli!

There is often concern about whether our bodies can convert omega 3 fats into absorbable forms – EPA and DHA. We’re not very efficient at this. However, research shows that if we consume less foods high in omega 6 and more omega 3 is converted. That’s because the body favours omega 6 over 3. It will focus on making omega 6 active first, then if there’s enough energy and compounds left, will start converting omega 3. Because the western diet is so high in omega 6, omega 3 is not getting a look in.

What to eat

Eating a whole-food plant-based diet naturally reduces the intake of Omega 6. And if you eat a range of foods and include flaxseed, chia seeds and the like, you’ll be getting enough to maintain health. How can you do that?

  • Add ground flaxseed to your muesli or porridge in the morning
  • Add ground chia or flaxseed to a smoothie
  • Try these yummy oat and flaxseed cookies
  • Add ground flaxseed to form a pastry like in this quiche
  • Make a lovely chia dessert
  • Add hemp seeds to raw energy balls
  • Stir ground chia seeds into overnight oats
  • Always eat whole grain flour and whole oats that contains the oily germ.
  • Include beans like kidney and edamame beans in your diet

What about flaxseed oil?

As part of the Overcoming MS programme, I do supplement with cold pressed flaxseed oil every day. I add it to my food – between 20-30mls a day. Which is a lot but can be a pleasant garnish to a salad or meal. The high amount of omega 3 in this oil alongside a plant-based diet means I am getting a good amount of omega 3 over 6, which in turn means my body can break it down into DHA and EPA more easily. And that hopefully my brain cells are nice and clear and bendy so they get all the nutrient and energy they need to not only work but start healing.

Flaxseed oil is highly volatile and goes easily goes rancid – then it’s foul! I buy mine from Flaxfarm. It’s a quality product but a little expensive. You can buy flaxseed and hempseed oil in the shops. However, you don’t know how it’s been stored and more often than not has gone off by the time you open it.

If you are not dealing with a health problem, supplementing with flaxseed oil is probably not needed as long as you are consuming good sources of omega 3 every day.

I hope my rather rambling explanation has helped you understand more about how healthy fats support the body, and particularly the brain. It’s an area I find fascinating and I will be exploring it more in my next book about autoimmune disease.

 

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