For many years, dietary fat has been plagued with a bad reputation as low-fat diets took center stage and reduced-fat or low-fat products hit the shelves. Still, essential fatty acids and dietary fat are two critical elements of proper brain health.
Fatty acids play a role in just about every aspect of health, right down to the very cells that make up your body. Luckily, getting the dietary fat you need is easy – in most cases – and your body is even capable of creating its own fatty acids to prevent deficiency.
However, there are certain types of fatty acids your body is not capable of producing, and you must get through your diet. Commonly referred to as essential fatty acids, including enough of these healthy fats in your diet is crucial to preventing deficiency and maintaining optimal health.
A very good example of essential fatty acids are the Omega-3s, some of the most critical nutrients you can put in your body. Not only because of their potent anti-inflammatory properties but also because they help “build” some of the most important structures of your body: your nervous system and your brain. Not getting enough in your diet can increase the risk of chronic illnesses, so it is essential that you recognize the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids.
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What Exactly Are Fatty Acids?
You’ve most likely heard quite a bit about unsaturated fatty acids and saturated fatty acids as well as their effects on overall health.
So, what exactly are fatty acids, and why does our body need them?
There are several types of fatty acids, identified by the number of carbon atoms and hydrogen bonds that they contain. All these different types of fatty acids are important as they make up the cell membranes, provide energy, produce essential hormones, and help absorb certain vitamins and minerals.
Your body can get most of the fatty acids it needs from other fats. However, there are two types of fatty acids that your body is unable to synthesize:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 fatty acid) – which is converted in the body to its two active forms – EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
- Linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acid).
Both omega-3 fatty acid and omega-6 fatty acid are considered essential fatty acids because you can only get them through diet since your body can’t create them.
As for their benefits, essential fatty acids can impact almost every aspect of health. Their benefits can include better mood and brain health, promote mental health, improved immunity, cell signaling, help treat some diseases, decreasing inflammation, enhancing mental and physical performance, and improving body composition.
What Are the 3 Essential Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
There is no doubt that Omega-3 fatty acids are among the most important nutrients for proper brain health. However, what many people don’t know is that not all omega-3 fatty acids are equal. There are 11 different types of omega-3 fatty acids, and three of them are very important: DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid), and ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid).
You can get DHA and EPA mostly from animal foods like fatty fish and algae, while ALA is often found in plants.
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DHA is indispensable for proper brain function and development in childhood, as well as brain function in adults. Early-life DHA deficiency is correlated with problems later on, such as aggressive hostility, ADHD, or learning disabilities. A drop in DHA levels during aging can also be a determinant factor for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and impaired brain function.
DHA is also reported to have beneficial effects on diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and some cancers. DHA can also reduce blood triglycerides, and may lead to fewer harmful LDL particles. LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol, because it contributes to fatty buildups in arteries (atherosclerosis). This condition narrows the arteries and increases the risk for heart attack, peripheral artery disease (PAD), and stroke.
DHA concentrations are highest in fish (anchovy, carp, catfish, cod, eel, flatfish, halibut, herring, mackerel,salmon, sea bass, trout, tuna, and pike), fish oils, crustaceans (crab, shrimp, and spiny lobster), mollusks (clams, mussels, octopus, scallops, and oysters), and fortified egg/dairy products.
EPA’s primary function is to form eicosanoids – signaling molecules which play a number of physiological roles. Eicosanoids made from omega-6s tend to increase inflammation, while those made from omega-3s reduce inflammation. For this reason, a diet rich in EPA may reduce inflammation in the body.
EPA concentrations are highest in eel, shrimp, herring, sturgeon, and salmon. Grass-fed animal products, such as meats and dairy, also contain low amounts of EPA.
ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in the diet. However, ALA cannot be used by the human body as it is. First, it needs to be converted into DHA and EPA. The conversion process is very inefficient in humans, and only a small amount of ALA is converted into EPA, and even less into DHA. The amount of ALA that is not converted into DHA or EPA remains inactive and is either stored or used as energy, just like any other fat.
ALA is an antioxidant. Antioxidants protect against damage to the body’s cells. Furthermore, in Europe, ALA has been used for years to provide relief from the burning, tingling, pain, and numbing caused by diabetic neuropathy.
While studies are still sparse, there is some evidence that ALA may have at least two positive benefits for individuals with type 2 diabetes. A few studies have suggested that alpha-lipoic acid supplements may enhance the body’s ability to use its own insulin to lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes
ALA is also a bit of a controversial fatty acid. Some observational studies have discovered a connection between a diet rich in ALA and a reduced risk of heart disease deaths, while other studies have concluded that high amounts of ALA may increase the risk of prostate cancer. This increase in prostate cancer risk was not associated with the other main omega-3 types, DHA and EPA, which unlike ALA had a protective effect.
ALA can be obtained from some animal fats and many plant foods, including spinach, walnuts, purslane, kale, soybeans, and many seeds such as flax, chia, and hemp seeds.
Best Omega-3 Fatty Acids Sources
If you are building a shopping list of best omega-3 fatty acids sources, then you are in luck because there are many options to choose from.
1) Seafood (wild caught, not farm raised) is one of the best sources of fatty acids. What to look for:
- Tuna (fresh)
2) Dairy products and juices. What to look for:
- Margarine (fortified)
- Soy milk (fortified)
- Juice (fortified)
3) Don’t forget about nuts and grains. What to look for:
- Peanut butter
- Pasta (fortified)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Flour tortillas
4) Vegetables are a good source of ALA. What to look for:
- Brussels sprouts
5) Oils contain high amounts of ALA too. What to look for:
- Flaxseed oil
- Canola oil
- Walnut oil
- Cod liver oil
- Soybean oil
- Mustard oil
6 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
1) Omega-3s can battle anxiety and depression
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to play a pivotal role in preventing and treating anxiety and depression. Among the three principal omega-3 fatty acids, EPA seems to be the most effective at fighting depression, which has become one of the most common mental disorders in the world. In fact, one study concluded that EPA is as effective against depression as a standard antidepressant prescription drug.
When people with anxiety or depression start taking omega-3 supplements, their symptoms typically improve and people who consume omega-3s rich foods regularly are less likely to suffer from depression.
2) Omega-3s can improve cognitive health during pregnancy and early life
Omega-3s are essential for brain development and growth in infants. Getting enough omega-3s (through supplementation or proper diet that includes omega-3 rich foods) during pregnancy and early life is vital for your child’s development, as it is associated with numerous benefits for your child, including:
- Decreased risk of cerebral palsy, ADHD, and autism
- Better social and communication skills
- Higher IQ
- Decreased risk of developmental delay
- Fewer behavioral problems
DHA accounts for 60% of your eye retina and 40% of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in your brain. So it’s no surprise that infants fed a DHA-fortified supplement have better eyesight than infants fed a supplement without it.
3) Omega-3 fatty acids can decrease symptoms of ADHD in children
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a behavioral disorder defined by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. Recently, researchers discovered that fish oil supplements were one of the most promising treatments for ADHD. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve concentration and reduce the symptoms associated with this behavioral disorder.
According to some clinical studies, children with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids than their healthy peers. Omega-3s were also shown to reduce aggression, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and restlessness.
4) Omega-3s can improve mental disorders
In 2014, Giuseppe Grosso and his team of scientists published research on the link between low omega-3 fatty acids levels and psychiatric disorders. The research “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Depression: Scientific Evidence and Biological Mechanisms” concluded that patients with mental disorders often have low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, while increasing omega-3 levels seems to improve symptoms. Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may also decrease violent behavior, which is a common occurrence in patients with mental disorders.
Omega-3s can fight Alzheimer’s disease and age-related mental decline
The deterioration of cognitive functions is one of the inevitable consequences of aging. Some studies connect higher omega-3 intake to reduced age-related mental decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Omega-3 fatty acid’ supplementation in Alzheimer’s disease: A systematic review,” a review of controlled studies published in October 2018, suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial in Alzheimer’s disease onset when disease’s symptoms are still very mild.
Omega-3 fatty acids may improve sleep
Good sleep is one of the key factors of good general health. While low levels of DHA have a direct impact on melatonin levels (the sleep hormone), DHA supplementation has been shown to improve the quality and the length of your sleep. Sleep deprivation has been linked to many diseases, including depression, diabetes, and obesity.
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