The human brain is mostly fat, and good fat at that! To develop, grow and protect itself properly, the brain relies on us to give it a steady supply of this good fat, which cannot be made by the body but must come through the diet. However, most of us don’t give our brains enough of what it needs to work well. Instead of healthy polyunsaturated fats that supply omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, we often consume unhealthy saturated fats found in meats, margarine and processed foods. By turning this ratio around so that we get more good fats and less bad fats, we can truly change our “state of mind” — and it’s never too late or too early to start. Here’s a brief breakdown of the benefits of essential fatty acids (EFAs) throughout our lives.
Children: EFAs are brain building blocks
Early childhood is one of the most important times to ensure adequate EFA intake. In fact, mothers can give children a head start by supplementing with EFAs while pregnant since 70% of brain cell development occurs in the womb. One EFA called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) appears to be particularly important in early childhood. DHA (which is now added to some infant formulas) is found in fish oil and is a key building block in the developing brain. Research shows that infants who are low in DHA have lower visual acuity and are at greater risk for developing attention deficit disorder (ADD) and depression later in life. DHA may also reduce aggression in children and young adults.
Adults: keeping the brain balanced
The importance of EFAs for brain health is not solely a childhood issue. In fact, EFA deficiency is likely more pronounced in adulthood due to long-term poor eating habits. Dr Joseph Hibbeln, a respected omega-3 researcher at the National Institutes of Health, has linked the growing rate of depression among adults in the last century to the steady decline in the amount of DHA in the diet. Apart from depression, EFA deficiency in adults has also been linked to a higher risk for stress, bipolar disorder, memory lapses and schizophrenia.
Seniors: preserve your memory and mind!
Adequate EFAs may dramatically improve brain function and quality of life in our later years. In a new study on 1,613 subjects ranging from 45 to 70 years old, Dutch researchers found that those who consumed the most omega-3s had the lowest risk of impaired cognitive function. An earlier study found that memory loss and Alzheimer’s were more prevalent in those who ate the least fish.
Whatever your life stage, there’s a proven brain benefit to getting more EFAs through your diet or through a quality EFA supplement.
Sources: Healthy Fats for Life by L. Vanderhaeghe & K. Karst, Quarry: 2003; Earl Mindell’s Supplement Bible by E Mindell, Fireside:1998; Is Your Child’s Brain Starving? by M. Lyon, Mind:2002