Let’s start with that actually is Omega 3. (If you already know that, hope on to the next section). A human diet consists of 3 types of macronutrients: Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates. The fats (fatty acids) we eat can further be divided into:
1. Unsaturated Fatty Acids - nuts, seeds, avocado, plant oils
2. Saturated Fatty Acids Fatty Acids - ghee, butter, dairy, palm oil, coconut
3. Trans-Saturated Fatty Acids – chemically altered and very toxic to the body. Margarine, biscuits, crackers, croissants, cheap chocolates
The Unsaturated fats then further branch into: Monounsaturated Fatty Acids & Polyunsaturated fatty Acids
And finally, the polyunsaturated fatty acids branch into Omega 3 and Omega 6 families.
For now, we will only zoom-in to the sub-family of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA), called Omega 3 family. This is a category of fats that our body cannot make itself. They have a very complex and long chemical structure and can be difficult to source on a typical western diet. Omega 3 family consists out of several particular types of fats out of which 3 have exceptional health benefits and are necessary for our bodies:
ALA – Alpha-Linolenic Acid (flax seeds, chia, walnuts, line-seed oil)
EPA – Eicosapentaenoic Acid (linseed oil, fish oil, oily fish)
DHA – Docosahexaenoic Acid (oily fish, fish oil, algal oil)
Some of them such as ALA are fairly easy to extract as they sit on the top of the metabolic chain, others such as EPA & DHA have to be metabolised from extremely complex biochemical processes called Elongation and Desaturation. In each conversion, some of the components are lost so in most people the efficiency of conversion from ALA to EPA/DHA is somewhere between 8-15%. For this reason, it is essential to consume a variety of healthy fats from walnuts, line-seeds, flax-seeds, chia seeds, lines-seed oil and to have an occasional small oily fish such as sardine, mackerel or a wild-caught salmon. With the basics out of the way let us now look at why Omega 3 Fatty Acids family are important for brain
Picture Source: Nagy, K. Tiuca, I-D. (2017). Importance of Fatty Acids in Physiopathology of Human Body, Intech. Available at: <Researchgate.net>
WHY ARE OMEGA 3s IMPORTANT IN BRAIN?
The human brain operates like an electric transmitter, sending billions of signals every minute between different areas. All these signals are being sent through neurons, the most basic cells of our nervous system. The Omega 3 fatty acids, especially EPA & DHA, have an extremely important function in how our neurons function and how they communicate with each other, sending signals across vast and distant regions of the brain.
Out of the previously mentioned Omega 3s ALA, EPA and DHA, it is the latest that has the most important function in the brain. (which does not mean the other two are not essential). Deficiency of DHA, especially during development of a child inside its mother’s body can have negative consequences for the new-born's cognitive abilities and can increase a risk of it developing a psychiatric condition.
Deficiency of DHA in the brain can have a variety of negative consequences:
Increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dyslexia and dementia
Impaired memory, concentration and effortless attention
Inflammation in the brain
Reduced function of BDNF, a key molecule of neuroplasticity (will be discussed in another article)
Poor glucose utilisation in the brain – less energy and less brain power from the food eaten
Increased oxidative stress – from things such as pollution, radiation, toxins, heavy metals, certain medical drugs etc.
Supplementation of DHA has been shown to enhance school results in underperforming students across several studies. Unfortunately, DHA, EPA and ALA ) are extremely prone to a process called “oxidation”. This means they have a very fragile structure and can get damaged by heat, processing, improper storage or handling. When this happens they turn into something we call lipid peroxides, toxic molecules that can damage your healthy cells even DNA and long-term damage to DNA can cause anything from birth defects to cancer.
HOW TO STORE & HANDLE OMEGA 3 FOODS TO PREVENT OXIDATION
Store oils such as line-seed oil or flax oil in a dark glass bottle away from the direct sunlight
Keep any extra walnuts in the freezer
Once you crack open a bunch of flax seeds, keep them in freezer as well
Do not fry your fish excessively. Use medium heat and only the least amount of necessary time. Fried fish is not a good source of Omega 3s due to potential oxidative damage to the sensitive Omega 3 fats. Baking on medium temperature would be preferable or just boiling in a sauce.
ENSURING SUFFICIENT OMEGA3s in diet
Consume 30g of walnuts daily
Add 2 tablespoons of ground flax or line-seeds, chia seeds or hemp seeds to your meals. A good blender or manual coffee grinder are usually sufficient to break open the flax and line seeds.
If you consume fish, serving 2 portions of oily fish (sardines, mackerel or salmon) per week can be very helpful. When possible try to aim for products from sustainable fishery.
In terms of supplements: fish oil is the most versatile however it can be contaminated or rancid so always make sure not to buy the cheapest ones and from manufacturer that guarantees clean product. Fish oil is also not suitable for vegans or people who have moral or ethical conflict with these products.
Personally I prefer to combine 1000mg of line-seed oil with 300mg of Algal Oil and I take this combination 3 times a year for 1 month in a row.
Of course there is no need to supplement anything but it would be advised to have a regular source of Omega 3s on daily basis and to add an occasional teaspoon of line-seed oil (not heated) into your diet. if you do, make sure to store it in dark glass bottle away from direct sunlight and heat.
SUMMARY KEY POINTS
Omega 3s are family of polyunsaturated fats found in variety of nuts, seeds, oily fish, line seed oils, fish oils and algal oils.
Omega 3s especially DHA are essential for proper brain signalling
Regular consumption of walnuts, (ground) flax seeds/line seeds, chia seeds or hemps seeds as well as an occasional consumption of oily fish is generally recommended to ensure good levels in the body
For those who prefer not to consume fish, consider adding 1teaspoon of line seed oil daily and taking 300mg Algal Oil for a month 2-3 times a year.
Ensure that the oils are stored in dark glass bottle without direct sunlight and do not overcook the fish to ensure the omega 3s are not damaged
HAPPY NEW YEAR FRIENDS!
Wishing you all the best in 2021 and may all your goals come true.
Michal - Andro Health Nutrition
Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2008). 'Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function', Nature Reviews, Neuroscience, 9 (7), pp.569-578.
Simopoulos, A.P. (2002). ‘The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids’, Biomedicine & Pharmacology, 56, pp 356-379
Tiuca, N.K. (2017), 'Importance of Fatty Acids in Physiopathology of Human Body', InTech.