Smart Fats and the Brain

The following was written by Michael A. Schmidt

A fascinating but little known fact is that the human brain is roughly 60% fat. Myelin, the insulating sheath that surrounds the nerve cells and speeds nerve transmission, is 75% fat. Scientists once thought that dietary fat had little influence on the brain’s fatty structure –that the brain was insulated against dietary fluctuations and fatty acid intake. But today we know that fatty acids affect the brain throughout life, from developing fetus, through childhood, and on into adulthood and old age.(1,2,3)

The brain’s principal long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are: arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. While both can be made in the body from dietary linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) respectively, the process is inefficient and can be impaired by many factors. Fortunately, both arachidonic acid and DHA can be obtained from the diet. However, while arachidonic acid is abundant in today’s diets, DHA is not-although it is available in some foods.

DHA has received much attention recently because of it has been shown to affect both mood disorders and cognition. But essential fatty acids actually affect three main areas of brain function (4):

Mood and behavior
Cognition (learning, memory, etc.)
Movement and sensation
It is important to note that the balance of fats and oils appears critical to brain function over the long term.  Four key factors include:
Total fat intake
The balance among saturated, monounsaturated and unsaturated fatty acids
The balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids   (1:1 to 3:1 ratio) and
Avoidance of trans fatty acids.
Fatty acids thus fall into a category different form that of most brain-enhancing substances, since they are actually structural molecules required to form the brain’s architecture.  Using fatty acids-both in foods and as supplements– to improve brain function is not about short-term affects.  Rather, it is about improving long-term brain function, health and longevity, based on the fundamental role of fatty acids in the brain.

The story of essential fatty acids also calls into serious question the low fat/no fat recommendations so common today, since there are many circumstances in which low fat diets may be harmful to the brain.  This is especially true when they restrict essential fatty acids.  Pregnancy, lactation, infancy, depression, early senility, multiple sclerosis, aggression, bulimia and hyperactivity are but a small sample of conditions where low fat diets may be harmful.

Knowledge of how fatty acids profoundly affect brain function opens up many new and exciting horizons for the prevention and treatment of some of our most perplexing conditions.  (see Signal369 blend of omega oils 3, 6 and 9)

To learn more about essential fatty acids (efa) and their effect on high cholesterol, &  evening primrose oil benefits
Farquharson, J. Infant cerebral cortex and dietary fatty acids.  Eur J. Clin. Nutr. 1994;48(52):S24-S26
Hibbeln, J., Salem, N. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression:  when cholesterol does not satisfy:  Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 1995;62:1-9
Schaefer, E.  Decreased plasma phosphatidylcholine docosahexaenoic acid content in dementia.  Keeping Your Brain in Shape, Roundtable Discussion.  Cornell University School of Medicine, April 1997
Schmidt, M.A. Functional Neurology:  Essential Fatty Acids in Neural Architecture.  4th International Symposium on Functional Medicine. Aspen, Colorado, May 1997.
Michael A. Schmidt is the author of Smart Fats:  How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical and Emotional Intelligence.   He holds a B.Sc. in environmental toxicology from the University of the State of New York.  He is also a certified clinical nutritionist (CCN), International and American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists, Dallas, TX and a certified nutritional specialist (CNS), American College of Nutrition, NY, NY.  He is currently a Fellow of the Functional Medicine Research Center in Gig Harbor, WA