Healthy Brains

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:

  1. Add omega-3 and antioxidants to your diet.
  2. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise three times per week.
  3. Sleep well.
  4. Take control of your stress level.
  5. 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.

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  • Response
    Response: superior papers
    The Omega-3 which is the vitamin needed by the brain, but that cannot be achieved from the daily usage food. And for that sake, many guys take the fish capsules for fulfilling the fatty acid need. And else way of gaining this vitamin is usage of fish.
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Reader Comments (13)

I don't think the low-fat fat-free craze helped our country any. Obesity is up more than ever. It just replaced good fats with chemicals. Unfortunately there are still so many misconceptions out there about good fats but the cloud seems to be lifting with books like "In defense of food" and this blog.

We use avocados and nuts generously around here and butter, olive oil, and coconut oil for cooking. I also like to make a fruit smoothie and throw in a generous handful of spinach so I know my kids are getting some greens. I've made fruit smoothies with and without spinach and the spinach actually enhances the fruit flavor. Even my kids prefer it now.

1 cup yogurt
1/2 cup orange juice or apple juice
1 banana
1 handful ice
2 handfuls of frozen or fresh berries (usually use blueberries and strawberries)
1 (or 2) big handfuls of spinach.

Blend and serve.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

LC, thanks for your thoughtful comment. The brain is mysterious and unknown territory, I think, based on nearly a day-and-a-half without comments. And you're right the lingering misconceptions about fat in our diet. You still hear people who should know better touting low fat dairy, or other low-fat processed foods

The demonization of traditional fats, foods that people had safely eaten for millennia, followed by the marketing of man-made, refined and hydrogenated, vegetable oils as heart-healthy without substantive proof, followed by faddish low-fat foods juiced up with vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup is a travesty that people will laugh about when the history is written. Perhaps it's the greatest failure of science in the last half century.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

These teachings [against dietary fat] have affected my family a lot by contributing to me developing an auto-immune disease in my early 20's.

What we do:

Walnuts in granola & granola bars
Flax seeds
Green smoothies
Salad each day for me
Pasture butter for toast
Coconut & olive oil
Canned wild caught Salmon on salads and I'm going to experiment with making Salmon burgers soon. (I must confess, I'm getting frustrated with the information about fish. It's not clear to me how to eat fish without killing the environment or getting too much mercury)

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith

It saddens me to see how afraid people are of fat. I grew up thinking that "low fat is the best, because nonfat just tastes gross and full fat makes you fat". When I got married, my husband needed to gain weight, so I started buying full fat dairy for the first time in my life...and using butter! (My family has always used margarine, and even the low fat versions of that.) I do not struggle with my weight, and my husband is at a pretty healthy weight too. (Even by now, at 2 years of marriage, I've seen couples gain 25-50 lbs. each.) For getting DHA, we absolutely love eggs (from the chickens that live in our yard!) and salmon. I usually get canned salmon and make patties, bones and all. Delicious. Plus, the patties use eggs, so extra DHA!

Just as a side note, I've found it much easier to give up desserts (which I do on a regular basis now) when I'm getting enough fat to eat. Healthy fats are so satisfying that there's no need to eat desserts all the time. I think that trying to cut out fats is a big reason that so many diets fail. Nothing tastes good that way! Plus, the sugar in non or lowfat items makes people crave more sugar and not feel good.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

Sacha, your point merits more discussion—that full fat food is more filling and in your experience, results in less craving for sweet desserts. Many of the flavors that make food so pleasing are fat-soluble, so reducing fat reduces flavor. To replace the missing flavors the food corps substitute the trio of salt, sugar, and vegetable oils, plus artificial flavors. We should feature more recipes with the traditional fats, especially the omega-3 fats, and reduce or avoid the unhealthy vegetable oils. My Mom prepared salmon patties years ago, but they have fallen out of favor. Could we share recipes for canned salmon, or sardines? Thank you.

July 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I loved reading this post and the comments. There really is so much misconception about fats. I was cooking eggs at my in-laws the other day and my father-in-law commented about how I'm going to have high cholesterol. I just smiled but honestly, I'm concerned about him as far as heart health goes because of all the sugar and processed food they eat. I've sent them links (to your blog and other articles and such) but food is a very emotional issue that they don't seem to want to deal with. The sad thing to me is that they really think their diet is healthy because they choose processed food with added "health benefits" (fiber! only 90 calories! antioxidants!)

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Lindsey, thanks for your comment. Unhealthy processed foods that make front-of-package claims that infer a wholesomeness or healthiness for the food that is really not true, are the dark side of Food Inc. And we all encounter, people who for different reasons just aren't ready to hear someone tell them they haven't been eating right. It's a challenge, but a battle well worth our best efforts. Best.

July 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Great post! It struck me that I know very little about my brain. I am continually thinking about how to make the rest of my body healthy but leaving out my brain. I guess the fact that I forget about my brain means I need to give it extra attention, ha. Thank you for putting things into perspective for me.

July 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChelsea

I'm really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one today.

Skip: Thanks for the compliment; sorry to remove your watch ad. This really is a noncommercial site.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdaday

You can make a tuna or salmon sandwich with sardines or anchovies, mashed up or straight from the can. Also my mom loves them on homemade pizza!

September 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

I forgot to mention the salmon croquettes my grandma made too, there was cooked italian rice (leftover from risotto) and canned salmon and maybe some cheese and some spices too (probably basil and garlic)? Dipped in egg and breadcrumbs then fried in olive oil til crispy and honestly they were one of my favorite things growing up! SO much better than frozen fish sticks from that blue box. I'm going to try making them with whole wheat crumbs and then oven frying them to get them really crispy.

I also loved tuna or salmon pot pie! Any one have a recipe to share?

September 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

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November 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlzdeqy lzdeqy

While I was young we had a cow, which we milked by hand twice a day. My family was large and we drank all that milk every day. Mom used the cream to make butter or to eat on our oatmeal. We were all healthy and didn't have weight issues (except dad). As an adult I gained weight, and totally bought into the low/non-fat craze, and ate 10-20% of my daily calories as fat. At first I was able to lose weight and maintain weight eating that way, but after 10+ years I was struggling to keep the weight off although I was still eating only 10-20% of my calories as fat. I was also more and more concerned about my health because my blood pressure had gone up and my cholesterol was funky for the first time of my life. I started seeing a naturopath who helped me realize again that butter was ok to eat, along with olive oil. I've also switched back to whole milk. Recent tests showed that my cholesterol is fine, no diabetes and absolutely no blockage in my heart or kidneys.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

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