How do essential fatty acids boost our mental health? It’s all about brain function.
WHAT ARE FATTY ACIDS?
Essential fatty acids are Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), Linoleic Acid (LA) and the fish Oils EPA and DHA. They are essential because they are required for life, but the body cannot manufacture them from scratch. They must be supplemented by our diet.
ALA, EPA and DHA belong to the Omega 3 family, while LA belongs to the Omega 6 group. You should get about 4 times as much Omega 3 fatty acids in your diet than Omega 6. This is because Omega 3 fatty acids inhibit inflammation caused by compounds derived from the Omega 6 group.
The best sources of ALA are flaxseed oil and then hempseed oil. Walnuts are also a very rich source. EPA and DHA are found in cold-water fish oils that come from salmon, sardines, mackerel and halibut. LA can be found in other plant source oils such as sunflower, corn and safflower oil.
You can add
flaxseed oil in its raw form to salad dressings and to foods. It should not be
used for cooking, however, because of its low smoke point. This means that it
starts breaking down at low cooking temperatures, potentially releasing toxic
oxidized compounds. For cooking purposes, the best choice is avocado oil. It has a high smoke point and it has a large proportion of
The reason some fatty acids are inflammatory and some anti-inflammatory is a complex metabolic process. The Omega 6 fatty acid called Arachidonic Acid forms pro-inflammatory compounds called prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes. The Omega 3 EPA and DHA also form these compounds, but in contrast to the ones formed from Arachidonic Acid, they are either less inflammatory, neutral or inhibit inflammation. The inflammatory effect is based on which type of receptor the compounds binds to or how they affect specific enzymes.
Since prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotienes are the primary and main compounds that cause inflammation, supplementing with Omega 3 fatty acids and especially with the fish sourced EPA is paramount. The three compounds named above are directly implicated in type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis (the cause of heart attacks and strokes), and inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and fibromyalgia, among others.
THE MENTAL HEALTH CONNECTION
But how is all this related to mental health? Some 50% of the brain’s weight is DHA. Without DHA, we would experience brain shrinkage. Both EPA and DHA contribute to the structure and fluidity of brain cell membranes. Without such structural integrity and fluidity, the membranes cannot function properly. This causes receptors and neurotransmitters to malfunction.
Omega 3 fatty acids are the precursors of many messenger molecules in the brain that modify the function and the firing of neurons. They do this by influencing receptor function as well as the decoding of DNA for protein synthesis.
A prime example of this is the synthesis of Anandimide (the naturally occurring endo-cannabinoid) from essential fatty acids. Similar to the cannabinoids found in cannabis, this naturally occurring compound effects the brain’s adaptability, neuro-protection and memory.
So considering how important essential fatty acids are to proper brain function, it is no surprise that a lack of them has been linked to depression, mood disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and even Huntington’s disease — a serious neuro-degenerative condition. Supplementation with EPA at a dose of 1000mg/day for a period of 3 months and beyond has shown significant improvements in the symptoms of all of these conditions. You’ll also benefit your heart.
So please remember: eat your cold-water fish— or better yet— supplement with a high EPA content fish oil supplement.
See you next time.