Get your fats for good health.
Your brain consists of 60 percent fat. DHA, an Omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, is one of the most abundant types of fat in this crucial organ.
Fatty acids, explained
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are classified as Omega-3 fatty acids and the Omega-6 fatty acids. These fats all fall into the category of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs (versus saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids). While both Omega-3s and Omega-6s need to be included in the diet, we tend to eat more Omega-6 fatty acids than we should, and too little Omega-3.
There are basically three Omega-3 fatty acids to know: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Flaxseed is the richest source of ALA, which can be converted in the body to EPA and DHA. Fatty marine fish is rich in the Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
Although the brain needs a constant supply of EFAs, infants and seniors have the highest need.
Fatty acids and child development
Maternal Omega-3 intake could be critical for the development of the growing foetus. A study by the South African Medical Research Council pointed to the importance of supplementing the diet with DHA before conception and during pregnancy.
It's been proven that a child born to a mother with a good DHA status will be more advanced in terms of cognitive development at 18 months. Research shows that maternal Omega-3 intake could be critical for the development of the growing foetus.
Fatty acids, ageing and dementia
Dietary intake of these fatty acids also becomes increasingly important as we grow older. As we age, essential fatty acid deficiency can accelerate mental deterioration. EFAs play a significant role in brain structure by determining membrane fluidity, while also contributing significantly to brain function.
The cell membranes aren't structures, but liquids, and greater fluidity of the membranes improves the function of cells – also in the brain. This fluidity is thanks to the fatty acids that are incorporated in the cell membranes. Although the brain has the ability to produce some of the fatty acids by itself, this process is limited and becomes even more limited as we age. As we grow older, more of these fatty acids should come from the diet.
Experts agree that by ensuring an adequate intake of Omega-3s as we age, the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease could be delayed or even prevented.
Where to from here?
The Omega-3s are essential for brain health, and could possibly prevent dementia, so be sure to include more of these healthy fats in your diet. Doctors recommend about 500 mg of Omega 3 a day. On some days you may have more or less than on others, but aim for about 3 500 mg of EPA and DPA during the week.