Do you gather wild plants to eat? Do you hunt wild game for your meat? If not, you are likely one of the 99 percent of people who are deficient in the most important ingredient bodies need for normal cell and brain function- omega-3 fatty acids.
Your brain is built from fat. And omega-3 fats are the most important building blocks for a healthy brain and cells. Yet, in the last 150 years, we have seen an unprecedented change in our fat intake. Refined omega-6 inflammatory oils, including corn, soy and safflower oils, have replaced omega-3 fats from fish, wild game and wild plants. Specifically, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in our diets has increased from 1-to-1 to 10-to-1 or 20-to-1, and the effects have been disastrous.
All of the major diseases of aging, as well as the epidemic of brain disorders, including mood problems, are directly associated with this change in our diet. Specifically, low levels of omega-3 fats have been linked to everything from depression and anxiety to bipolar disease and dementia.
Our brains don’t work without omega-3 fats. Period. Why? Because omega-3 fats, together with phospholipids, form the basic structure of all our cell membranes. In the brain, specifically, each brain cell is connected to every other brain cell by about 40,000 synapses, and they are all sending messages constantly. Each of those connections meets at the cell membrane.
Healthy cell membranes- those formed with an ample supply of omega-3 and other healthy fats are fluid and flexible and allow for easy communication from cell to cell. This supports not just happier, more balanced moods, but clearer thoughts and a sharper memory.
Conversely, if a cell’s membranes have been formed from unhealthy substances that lack flexibility and fluidity (such as trans fats, rancid fats or industrial oils), the cell’s membranes become rigid. Effectiveness and speed of communication slows down. That leads to poorer mental function, memory problems and mood disorders.
Feed Your Brain: Fats
- Cold-water fish, such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, small halibut and sable (black cod)
- Omega-3 eggs, a rich source of choline (a type of phospholipid) for your brain
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Unrefined or expeller-pressed sesame oil (for high-temperature cooking)
- Flax, hemp and nuts such as walnuts, pecans, almonds and macadamia nuts
Proteins and Amino Acids
The trillions of cell membranes in your brain are the ears that listen for messages that tell your brain to be happy or sad, to focus or be inattentive, to relax or be stressed. Protein or more specifically, the amino-acid building blocks of protein are the messengers, or neurotransmitters, that do the talking in your brain and throughout your body. If your cells are going to get the message, they need protein.
All protein is made from only eight amino acids we must get from our diet. These essential amino acids are the raw materials we use to make all our neurotransmitters and the receptors or docking stations on our cells on which they land to transmit their messages. If you don’t eat adequate protein at every meal, your brain can’t work properly. You will be sluggish, foggy, anxious, unfocused, tired and depressed.
To illustrate how what you eat affects your mood, take the neurotransmitter serotonin. A severe lack of serotonin is what makes people feel depressed and turn to drugs like Prozac and Zoloft. Interestingly, one of the reasons many people crave refined carbohydrates and sugars is that eating them results in a serotonin surge. But the effect is only temporary: Serotonin levels then crash, causing renewed cravings for something starchy or sugary. Unfortunately, this same dynamic ultimately makes us feel more depressed.
Serotonin is necessary for maintaining a happy mood, reducing anxiety and irritability, and helping us sleep. But in the daily activity of this or any neurotransmitter, there are several things that can go wrong and cause it to malfunction. Here are just a few examples of how serotonin levels go south:
A tryptophan-deficient or low-protein diet. Tryptophan (present in many protein sources, like eggs, fish, poultry, milk and spirulina) is the primary amino acid from which serotonin is created. No tryptophan equals no serotonin equals a very unhappy mood.
Blood-sugar imbalances (insulin resistance or prediabetes). This condition comes from eating a processed-food, high-sugar diet. The imbalance briefly spikes and then depletes your serotonin, leading to mood swings.
Magnesium deficiency. This is an incredibly common deficiency in our society because stress, caffeine, sugar and alcohol all deplete magnesium. The deficiency, in turn, prevents the body from making serotonin.
These are just a few of the ways that production of one neurotransmitter can be inhibited. And every one of these neurotransmitters including GABA, which helps you relax, and acetylcholine, which helps you learn and remember things is similarly influenced by our diet and lifestyle.
Drugs like Prozac generally help to improve only half the symptoms half the time and typically involve a variety of side effects, some of them serious. If you can get equal or better results plus positive side benefits from simply optimizing your nutrition through good, whole-food sources of protein and other natural nutrients, isn’t that worth a try?