In the January issue of Psychology Today, an article by Dr. Barry Sears discusses what he calls “the Perfect Nutritional Storm” that is a result of radical changes in the American diet over the past 40 years. These dietary changes have produced an increase in inflammation throughout the body and specifically in the brain. According to Dr. Sears, brain inflammation and disruption of cell communication may be a major factor in the rise in stress and anxiety disorders in the United States.
Inflammation that occurs in the brain is not felt as pain, and occurs at the cellular level. This type of inflammation is caused by an excess of omega-6 fatty acids, which break down into inflammatory hormones called eicosanoids. The effect of these hormones in the brain gives rise to the subsequent failure in signaling between cells.
While anti-inflammatory drugs inhibit these inflammatory eicosanoids throughout most of the body; these drugs cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. The brain’s only protection against inflammation is sufficient amounts of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. A number of studies indicate that high levels of the essential acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) can reduce anxiety and help relieve stress.
There is an abundance of research showing that essential fatty acids have positive benefits for overall health, most especially the brain and nervous system. Essential fatty acids are nutrients that are are important to healthy functioning of the body and cannot be synthesized in the body.
Because we cannot manufacture the essential fatty acids in our body, we need to get these from our food. Many are concerned about weight control, and non-fat foods have become very popular on grocery shelves. However, there are “good fats” and “bad fats”; a “no-fat” diet is not healthy because without the right kind of essential fatty acids in our diet our body cannot function properly.
Essential fatty acids are needed for cell membranes, including brain cells, nerve cells. The retinal cell membrane contains 60% of the essential fatty acids; sufficient levels of this nutrient is important for good vision. The Omega-3 fatty acids are important to the structure and function of the neuronal cell membranes of the central nervous system. Healthy central nervous system cell membranes play a critical part in brain function and the function of our endocrine system.
Essential fatty acids also play an important role in the function of the immune system. Omega-3 fatty acid has been shown to boost the action of B cells, a white blood cell that is a defender against disease.
It is also very important to eliminate the “bad fats” … especially those products which contain trans-fats including many breads and baked goods. Choose cooking oils that are cold pressed, rather than heat extracted or chemically extracted. Most of your common cooking oils found on the grocery shelf have been processed using heat or chemicals, so you will need to do your research and choose only those that have been processed in such a way as to preserve their nutritional quality. Processing with heat and chemicals destroys many of the nutrients and alter how the oil is metabolized in the body.
Selecting trustworthy sources for healthy fats may require a bit of research and label reading. The easiest first rule is to choose sources that are the least processed. There are a number of healthy foods that provide essential fatty acids, including flax and flax seed oil, nuts and fish, especially fatty fish such as salmon. There are two forms of essential fatty acids; Omega-6 fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids.
The Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in a healthy diet. Foods that are rich in Omega-6 fatty acids include leafy green vegetables, seeds, nuts, whole grains and naturally processed vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, sesame seed, soybean and cottonseed oils. While Omega-6 fatty acids are essential, an overabundance of Omega-6 fatty acids relative to the Omega-3 fatty acids create health problems.
The Omega-3 fatty acids are all-too deficient in the modern Western diet. There are three kinds of Omega-3 essential fatty acids; alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body can metabolize into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenonic acid (DHA).
ALA can be found in flaxseed, walnut and flaxseed oil, soybeans, walnuts and wheat germ. Nuts, seeds, soy products, beans, vegetables and whole grains also contain the ALA Omega-3 fatty acid.
DHA is a critical building block of body cells, especially brain cells, nerve cells and retinal tissue of the eyes. DHA comprises fifty percent of a neuron’s plasma membrane. In severely depressed individuals the levels of DHA are reduced, and it is believed that nutritional deficiency in this essential fatty acid may be a contributing factor to chronic severe depression.
EPA fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory property that protects the brain from inflammation, and is considered an important nutritional defense against stress, anxiety and depression.
Often, a fish oil supplement is recommended by many health practitioners for its many health benefits. Fish oil is high in Omega-3 fatty acids and provides a rich source of the essential fatty acids that may not be sufficiently metabolized from the ALA found in purely vegetable sources.
When selecting a fish oil supplement, it is important to select high quality. If the fish oil begins to decompose (go rancid) it becomes unstable and releases unsafe free radicals. It is very important to select high-quality fish oil; if it is rancid, or has been improperly labeled, or has been prepared in such a way as to compromise its health benefits, it can have a negative impact rather than a positive benefit. Katherine Martinko offers a good overview of how to look at what is in your fish oil, and recommends the Labdoor site which provides a ranking of the top fish oil supplements.
For those who don’t want to use a fish oil supplement, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recommends getting Omega-3 essential fatty acids from plant sources. A teaspoon of naturally processed flaxseed oil or a Tablespoon of ground flaxseeds should provide the daily need for ALA Omega-3 fatty acids. Another excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids, even higher than flax seed, is chia seed, which also is high in fiber, protein and minerals. Chia seed is native to Mexico and Guatemala and is believed to have been a valuable cultivated food of the Aztecs.
Supplementing with essential fatty acids will help us to be more resistant to stress, enjoy better brain function, and relieve anxiety and depression. There are many health benefits to be gained by reducing those foods high in Omega-6 fatty acids, and including sufficient levels of the essential Omega-3 fatty acids.
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