Making Brain Waves

Essential fatty acids help keep your nervous system on its toes

By Kelly Maguire

September 2008

Randal McCloy Jr. might gladly serve as a poster boy for omega-3 fatty acids. The only survivor of the January 2006 Sago mine explosion in West Virginia, McCloy was experiencing multiple organ failure and severe brain damage as the result of oxygen deprivation.

Then one of McCloy’s physicians, Julian Bailes, MD, chief of neurosurgery at the West Virginia School of Medicine, decided to try high-dose omega-3 fatty acids as part of the stricken miner’s overall treatment regimen. Eventually, the inflammation in McCloy’s brain eased and he went home within three months.

McCloy received eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two of the three omega-3 fatty acids. (The third, alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is converted to DHA and EPA within the body.) Vital for optimal brain health, some scientists even think that omega-3 in the early human diet is what allowed our brains to evolve. That’s because DHA is found in the gray matter of the brain, where it is needed for proper cell membrane function and nerve signal transmission.

Food for Thought

The average American diet is low in omega-3 fats, which are found in such coldwater fish as herring, mackerel, salmon, tuna and sardines. Omega-3’s cousin, omega-6, lowers cholesterol, supports healthy skin and helps blood clot. But because omega-6 is far more than plentiful in the processed food many Americans eat, experts warn that an imbalance between the two omegas can be detrimental to health. “When blood is too ‘sticky,’ it promotes clot formation, and this can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke,” says the American Dietetic Association’s Lona Sandon, RD.

Research shows that the most beneficial fatty-acid ratio is four parts omega-6 to one part omega-3. The current estimated balance of omegas in the American diet is around 20:1—20 parts omega-6 for every part omega-3. Researchers believe this imbalance may contribute to the rise in inflammatory disorders.

Babies and Omega-3

The need for omega-3 fatty acids starts early in life: A deficiency in a pregnant woman’s diet can impair development of the baby’s brain and retinas, which in turn can affect the child’s intelligence, nerve functioning and vision. Neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, MD, author of Health and Nutrition Secrets (Health Press), says, “Several studies...have shown that babies who receive adequate amounts of this vital fat have better-functioning brains and higher IQs.” In one study, children with reduced attention span who received an EPA/DHA mixture showed improvements in test scores (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 5/08).

Kids aren’t the only ones helped by omega-3 fats. “Japanese studies have shown that supplemental DHA sharpens memory in patients with dementia and depression, and improves behavior and speech in those with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Julian Whitaker, MD, author of The Memory Solution (Avery). Scientists believe that omega-3 can also help alleviate symptoms of mood disorders; one study found a correlation between an omega-6/omega-3 imbalance and depression (Psychosomatic Medicine 12/07). What’s more, the brain isn’t the only organ that benefits from omega-3 fatty acids, which help promote cardiovascular well-being and support peak skin and joint health as well.

Whether you’re an expectant mom or a great-grandmother, look to the omega-3s for a better brain.

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