Updated: Aug 20
Which fats are good for your brain and which fats decrease brain function? Boost brain health by eating and avoiding the right fats.
In a previous blog The Delicious Way to Protect our Brains, I explained how important a healthy diet is for our brain health. I was very pleased to hear how many of you began adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet to increase antioxidants for brain protection.
Today I’d like to share with you how different oils affect our brain health so that you can wisely choose the oils and supplements that will keep your brain functioning well for many years to come.
The Fats in Our Brain
Our brain is a powerhouse. This organ works constantly, never ever being able to rest and it needs constant nourishment. Our brain is made up of 60% fat. The fats we eat ends up in our brain cells and the types of fats we consume affect how well our brain functions.
The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat. We've learned in recent years that fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain's integrity and ability to perform.
Essential fatty acids and human brain, Authors:Chia-Yu Chang, Der-Shin Ke
To understand the importance of the fats in our brain, I may make your brains work a bit remembering high school biology:
Every cell has a cell membrane (plasma membrane) that is made up of fats. The type of fat in brain cell membranes can affect the communication between our brain cells.
The area of the brain called white matter, is made up of many layers of fat (myelin sheath) that wrap around the brain cells (neurons.) These layers insulate the neuron and allow it to send signals 50 x faster than without these fatty layers. So if we don’t have the best fat in these cells, we may reduce our reaction time both mentally and physically.
The fats we eat affect brain function. Healthy fats make the brain cell membranes soft and cause good communication between cells. Unhealthy fats make the cell membranes hard and rigid. This will affect communication between cells, make the brain age faster and become less functional.
For the physiology/anatomy lovers who would like to learn more about the Neuroglia, the fat cells in the brain - this is an excellent clip by the Institute of Human Anatomy. (Warning – it shows a dissected brain.)
Healthy Fats for Our Brain Here is a quick healthy fats 101 summary so you can understand the different fat terms you have probably heard.
Unsaturated fats are healthy fats. They are divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which mean that in their chemical make-up the fat molecules have either a single (mono) or more (poly) chemical bonds.
This causes the chain of fat molecules to not stick together which is the reason unsaturated fats do not harden at room temperatures as do saturated fats. Unsaturated fats mainly come from plant sources.
Monounsaturated fats include olive, peanut and canola oil, avocados, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin, and sesame seeds.
Polyunsaturated fats include several plant oils, walnuts, flax seeds and fish
Essential Fatty Acids
Polyunsaturated fats also include essential fatty acids, which are the fats our body can not make on its own so we must get these important fats from food. There are two types of essential fatty acids, omega 3 and omega 6.
Omega 6 oils are found in many vegetable oils and we tend to eat enough and even too much of them.
Omega 3 Oils
Essential fatty acids are very important for brain health, especially Omega 3 oils. Omega 3 oils are found in cold water fish, dark green vegetables (another reason why I always encourage people to eat their leafy greens!), grains, seeds, and algae.
DHA (Docosaheaxaenoic acid,)
For our brain health, DHA is the most important of the Omega 3 fatty acids . DHA is the fat that is in our brain cells. It is important for communication between the brain cells and it also helps with the repair of brain cells. We can only get DHA from food or supplements.
On page 64 of his book, The Better Brain Book, David Perlmutter, MD, states that
Low levels of DHA lead to decreased cognitive function, depression, irritability and possibly Alzheimer’s.
Unhealthy Fats Mean an Unhealthy Brain
Saturated fats are unhealthy, not just for the heart, but also for the brain. Most saturated fats are made from animal products: meat, chicken, eggs and dairy. Saturated fats can cause cholesterol to build up in your blood vessels.
Cholesterol can also clog Brain Arteries which can lead to vascular dementia. You can read more about this in my blog The Dementia You Can Prevent
However, the worst of all fats are Trans-Fats, also known as trans fatty acids. These are chemically modified fats made to imitate saturated fats, but with a much longer shelf life. They are also more inexpensive to produce so they are used by the food industry in processed foods, baked items, and for many fried foods in restaurants. They are made from partially hydrogenated oils and are also solid at room temperature.
Trans-fats are known to cause heart attacks and death. They are a double whammy. Trans fats increase bad cholesterol in the body and lower the good cholesterol.
They are also dangerous for your brain health. If you consume trans-fats, the body will use this fat in the cell membranes. This causes the membrane to become hard and rigid. According to Dr. Perlmutter, on page 63 of The Better Brain Book, this hardness of the membrane
destroys the cell’s ability to make energy, get adequate nutrition, or communicate with other cells. Trans-fatty acids will interfere with our brain’s ability to perform well. A brain filled with tans-fatty acids is going to age faster and become progressively less functional.
What is perhaps even more scary, is that even if you are eating wonderful, healthy omega 3 fats, if you consume trans-fats, your brain will use the trans-fats in your cell membranes instead of the healthy fats.
I’m going to repeat that because it is so important… Even if you are eating and taking supplements of good omega 3 oils to protect your brain, if you consume trans-fats, they are going to take the place of the healthier fats in your cell membrane.
Those Hidden Trans-Fats
Since trans-fats are the most dangerous fats for our brain, as well as our heart, it is important that we don’t consume any. You might be surprised how many trans-fats we may be consuming and not know.
Read the food labels! Check if a product has partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredients. In the United States, if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fats in a serving, the food label can read 0 grams trans fats. These minute amounts can add up if you eat several portions.
Don't be afraid to ask when eating out. Last month I was at a wonderful street food market in Jerusalem. I was very happy to see that several places had Vegan Friendly stickers on their places of business, so it was easy for me to know where to look for food. Sadly at each place when I asked what oils they use the answer was the same – margarine. One chef said he didn't know, which I take to mean trans-fats, because if someone was using a healthier oil they would be happy to tell me . Of all the many vendors that had vegan friendly options, there was only one place where I could order safely for my brain and heart's sake.
Sadly when the vegan movement began, many young people began replacing meat and milk products with ready made products that were made with trans-fats. I worked with several clients who became ill and did not realize it was from the dangerous foods they were eating to replace animal products. Luckily today, more vegans are aware of the importance of a plant based diet.
Always ask. Always read labels. If a package does not say no trans-fats, assume it has trans-fats. According to the Mayo Clinic Trans-fats may be found in:
Commercial baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, and pies
Refrigerated dough, such as biscuits and rolls
Fried foods, including French fries, doughnuts and fried chicken
Nondairy coffee creamer
The good news is that trans-fats are slowly becoming prohibited to use in foods and beverages around the world, but in the meantime read those labels and ask when you eat out what oils they are using. The best way to avoid trans-fats is to avoid processed foods and fried foods when eating out.
Omega 3 for Healthy Brains
I hope you now understand the importance of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA for brain health and that we can only get it from the foods we eat. The question now is if we can get enough DHA from our diet or do we need to take an omega 3 supplement?
According to Dr. Perlmutter, the author of The Better Brain Book, and someone I highly respect in the field of brain health, we unfortunately are not getting enough DHA in our diet. Studies have shown that there is even a decrease today of the amount of DHA found in breast milk!
If you are taking an Omega 3 supplement, Dr. Perlmutter recommends taking 300 mg of DHA daily, so check your omega 3 label to make sure how much DHA is in the capsule.
There are many vegan sources from algae that have DHA. Many feel the algae source is better because it doesn’t have the toxins found in omega 3 supplements from fish.
There are some omega 3 products that have very little or no DHA. Please check. If someone tells you that your body can convert another type of omega 3 fatty acid to DHA they are incorrect. (I know of several companies that sell borage or flax seed oil that make this claim.)
I have to warn here that there may be dangers associated with consuming cyanobacteria, also knows as blue green algae, so I suggest you find a supplement from a different algae source. I don’t want to go into the details here, but you may want to avoid blue-green algae even though it is sold in health food shops.
Always check with your own health professional before taking any supplements. For some people on certain medications, for example meds that slow blood clotting, an omega 3 supplement may be dangerous to take. I am only writing what I personally take and not suggesting that you should take these supplements. I have tried several brands and I can actually feel the difference when I take a good a supplement from a good DHA source. I am more focused, and my memory is better.
The DHA I feel works the best for me is from Nordic Natural. I order mine through iHerb. The supplement is made from from algal oil from Schizochytrium sp algae.
Review - Oils and your Brain
The best way to keep your brain healthy is to:
Make sure you are getting enough of the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA
If you are taking a non-fish omega 3 supplement, make sure it has DHA and it is not from a blue-green algae source.
Reduce consumption of saturated fats to keep the blood vessels to the brain clear from cholesterol
Avoid all Trans-fats
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