For a healthy heart, most of our savvy readers know they need two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA from fish oils.
Probably there aren’t as many people who know they also need these fats if they want to optimize their brain function, including cognition and memory.
But few people know this: It’s a mistake to focus solely on these two fatty acids. There are many other fats that play key roles in brain function. Here’s what you need to know.
In two separate studies by the same research team from the University of Illinois, the scientists wanted to find out more about the importance of different fatty acids in the functioning of several brain structures.
Fatty Acids From Plants Boost Your Brain
In the first study, the researchers measured the volume of gray matter in the frontoparietal network of 100 cognitively healthy adults aged 65 – 75.
This network, which connects the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain, declines early, even with healthy aging. The network connections have important roles in fluid intelligence – the ability to solve problems a person has never encountered before.
The researchers tested this form of brainpower in their group of volunteers. At the same time, they also measured blood levels of six different omega 3 fatty acids.
It turned out that fluid intelligence corresponded to three fatty acids: alpha linolenic, derived from plants; stearidonic, from seed oils; and eicosatrienoic, found in flaxseed and some animal foods.
Participants who had higher blood levels of these nutrients had greater gray matter volume as well. The level of these three essential fatty acids predicted performance on fluid intelligence tests.
One of the research team, Marta Zamroziewicz, said, “A lot of research tells us that people need to be eating fish and fish oil to get neuroprotective effects from these particular fats, but this new finding suggests that even the fats that we get from nuts, seeds and oils can also make a difference in the brain.”
Need for Abundant and Balanced Omega-3 and 6
The fornix is a group of nerve fibers in the center of the brain that is important for memory storage and recall, and it’s one of the first regions to be damaged in Alzheimer’s disease.
In the second of the two University of Illinois studies, which enrolled a similar group of volunteers, the white matter structure of the fornix, memory, and the volunteers’ status for thirteen omega 3 and 6 fatty acids were evaluated.
The results showed that a larger fornix was associated with blood levels of omega 3 and 6 that are more abundant and in balance with each other. This predicted a healthier memory.
Marta Zamroziewicz summed up the two studies by saying that they have “important implications for the Western diet, which tends to be misbalanced with high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids and low amounts of omega 3.”
It’s important to note that omega-6 oils are not evil, contrary to what you may think. We need them. But we consume too many of them, while most of us consume few or no omega-3 oils. It’s essential to strike the right balance.
Lead author and cognitive neuroscientist Aron Barbey, Ph.D.,added, “These two studies highlight the importance of investigating the effects of groups of nutrients together rather than focusing on one at a time.
“They suggest that different patterns of polyunsaturated fats promote specific aspects of cognition by strengthening the underlying neural circuits that are vulnerable to disease and age-related decline.”
So don’t rely on fish or fish oil supplements alone. To reduce your levels of omega-6 oils, cut back on corn oil, dairy, margarine, cakes, cookies, sweets, snacks and processed foods.
Nuts and seeds are a healthy source of omega-6 oils. Flaxseed is an excellent source of eicosatrienoic fats; ground up whole seed is superior to flax oil, which is prone to spoilage. Flaxseed, chia and soy are rich sources of alpha linolenic acid, mentioned in the first of these two studies. Spirulina, and the seed oils of hemp and black currant, are sources of stearidonic acid.