The Quick Answer: For brain health, include natural antioxidants and omega-3 DHA in your diet.
Want to keep your wits? Dr. Keith L. Black, chairman of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Hospital recommends these five ways to care for your brain:
- Add omega-3 and antioxidants to your diet.
- Get at least 30 minutes of exercise three times per week.
- Sleep well.
- Take control of your stress level.
- Learn something new.
We have discussed #2, exercise, here and here; #3 & 4 (sleep and control of stress) are planned for future posts. So lets review #1—dietary omega-3 fats and antioxidants—in this post, beginning with antioxidants.
Glucose, Oxidation, and Antioxidants
The brain never rests so it needs lots of energy. Though just 2% of our body weight, it consumes 25% of all glucose. It takes oxygen to burn all this fuel, so the brain also consumes 20% of your oxygen supply. We learned in a prior post that the body uses oxygen to burn the fuel we eat but the oxidized by-products, called free radicals, can harm cells if not neutralized by antioxidants. Some of these toxic byproducts are called “advanced glycation end-products,” known by the acryonym, AGE. It’s a good term because AGEs are theorized to cause the aging of cells that leads to disease and death. For this reason, a diet rich in antioxidant sources (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) is essential to protect against free radical aging.
The neurons of the brains are different from your other cells. Unlike cells which are regularly replaced, we keep our neurons for life. So a diet lacking in antioxidants will cause the accumulation of free radicals and AGEs in the brain’s neurons and the result can be dementia. To keep your wits, eat a diet rich in antioxidants.
The brain is 60% fat.
Let me introduce you to Dr. Michael Crawford, who practiced medicine for a time in Africa and studied the fats found in animals. He learned that wild animals have mostly polyunsaturated fat while domestic animals have more saturated fat. (He consequently wrote a controversial 1968 article in the New Scientist, “Are Our Cows Killing Us?”) Because the brain is mostly made of fat, it was inevitable that Crawford would also study the brain. He was surprised to find that while the composition of fat varied in the bodies of animals according to diet and activity, the brain fat of animals was remarkable consistent, with the essential omega-3 DHA fat comprising 25%. (We discussed DHA, termed the “Queen of Fats,” in a prior post.)
You’ll recall that certain vitamins, minerals, and amino acids are essential, meaning the body can’t make them so they must be included in the food supply. (There are over 50 of these essential nutrients—there should be a deck of playing cards featuring each, so we can learn nutrition while playing cards.) Among the various fats, the omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential. Here's the problem: We eat too much omega-6 and too little omega-3.
Because the omega-3 fats have a short shelf life once processed, they have been gradually removed from packaged foods. The removal of omega-3 fats from the American diet in order to improve storage was discussed in a prior post, “The Worst Food Mistake of The Last Century?” Dr. Crawford makes omninous comments about the shrinkage of brain mass since humans stopped eating wild meat, which is much higher in DHA than modern feedlot meat.
There are three main omega-3 fats—known by the acronyms ALA, EPA, and DHA. We get ALA from plants—all the green stuff we eat. The irony of ALA is though it’s deficient in the American diet, it’s the most abundant fat on the planet. There is true irony in this: The richest nation misses out on the most vital fat because it's too "common." To address omega-3 deficiency we had the Healthy Change of eating a green salad daily. The green smoothie is another source.
The body can process ALA into EPA, and then DHA but at a limited rate. So for best health, we need to also eat some DHA to protect the brain, eyes, and nerves. (DHA, ahem, plays an important role in fertility also.) Here are dietary sources of DHA omega-3:
- Cold water fish (wild or even farmed salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, shrimp, oysters, and crab),
- Eggs (especially if chickens are free range, or algae is added to the diet),
- Meat (particularly liver, which no one eats anymore) from pastured ruminants (cows, sheep, etc.),
- The omega-3 fish oil capsules.
A prior Healthy Change, as noted, encouraged eating omega-3 fats daily. This week’s change is more specific: Be sure to also get some DHA omega-3 most days. We try to eat fish twice a week (a tuna sandwich counts), or take a fish oil pill for each missed serving. Maybe one of our smart readers will invent a sandwich with sardines (because of their small size they’re the safest for mercury). We also buy the omega-3 eggs.
Budget Wisdom: For the parents of newborns, there is no better value than mother’s milk. Breast milk is high in the omega-3 DHA needed for brain development. Dr. Crawford’s understanding of the critical nature of DHA led to a 30-year crusade to get it included in baby formula. Finally, in 2002, DHA was approved for addition in the US, but is still not required. As a result, for years formula-fed babies received insufficient omega-3 and studies have shown lower IQs and poorer vision as a result.
Please comment: For a generation we were incorrectly taught that animal fat was unhealthy, that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol caused heart disease. Worse, man-made vegetable oils high in omega-6 and trans fats but deficient in omega-3 (due to processing and hydrogenation) were wrongly touted as heart healthy. Today the healthiness of traditional fats, especially the omega-3s, is being rediscovered. Please comment and share how this cycle of erroneous teaching has affected you and your family’s health, and what you are doing today to enjoy healthy fats, especially the omega-3s.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.