Get "the skinny" on fats for brain health
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are crucial for healthy neurotransmitter production and nervous system function. EPA is a potent anti-inflammatory, while DHA contributes to the fluidity of cell membranes. Omega-3 fatty acids are called "essential" fats for good reason; our bodies cannot make them, so we must get them from outside sources. EPA and DHA are found directly in fatty fish like salmon, and shorter chain omega-3 fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are found in flaxseeds and walnuts, however the body must convert them into EPA and DHA for maximum benefit. Because these foods are not typically eaten in large amounts in North America, omega 3 supplementation has become an important source of these nutrients.
Omega-3 fatty acids are so important to the development and proper maintenance of the brain that some scientists have proposed that it was the ingestion of omega-3 EFAs that allowed the brain to evolve to the next stage in human development.
DHA plays a vital role in the structure and function of the brain and is a significant component of nerve cells and myelin. DHA's effects may be due, in part, to its effect on increasing the fluidity of cell membranes, which improves their ability to release neurotransmitters, but it may also improve cell signaling. DHA has shown to exert complex effects on the secretion of a number of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, glutamate and dopamine. Additionally, DHA plays a key role in neurotransmitter receptor function.
EPA is more involved with modulating the effects of inflammation in the brain. Unlike acute brain inflammation, as seen with meningitis and encephalitis, chronic brain inflammation can be silent except for its behavioral manifestations. Chronic brain inflammation can be the result of a number of conditions, such as abdominal obesity, latent viral infections, autoimmune diseases, metabolic syndrome, and deficiencies in omega-3 oils. Studies have revealed a close correlation between chronic inflammation and depression. It may be that omega-3 oils improve depression and other disorders by reducing brain inflammation.
Testing neurotransmitter levels often reveals imbalance in our patients. While targeted amino acid and cofactor supplementation are recommended to address specific imbalances, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may be an important addition to any treatment plan.
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