Are You a Fat Head?

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Yes, you’re a fat head… and that’s a great thing, because 60% of our brains are made of fat.  We can all agree that Omega-3’s are amazing, but since we’re focusing on the brain in this series, then we’ll just talk about DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid).  DHA accounts for about 30% of the structural fats in your gray matter and 97% of the total omega-3’s in the brain.


Studies on DHA have exploded and it’s been found to be good for us from 9 months before the cradle, and all the way to the grave.  I’m not joking, DHA is critical for the developing brain of a fetus through infancy. There have have been very positive studies done on children, young adults, middle aged, and the elderly… did I leave anyone out?  It’s also been shown that people suffering from conditions like Alzheimer’s, ADHD, and Depression generally have very low levels of DHA.


It’s important to note the studies that looked at Alzheimers have mixed results, but a study that tested age related cognitive decline was very positive… suggesting maybe we should pay attention to this sooner than later.


Fat Head

photo by jarnocan

What does it do for the Brain that’s so important?

They are still trying to figure out exactly how it does what it does, but it looks like it’s not just one thing.  One study was able to show that increased DHA was associated with higher levels of oxygenated hemoglobin entering the brain. The researchers were able to measurably show better blood flow to the brain while performing cognitive tasks.


Also, when DHA is at the correct levels, it accounts for 40% of the membrane phospholipid fatty acids in the brain.  DHA is the longest and most unsaturated fatty acid, and with so many double bonds, it can bend, twist, and fold under the slightest pressure.  This flexibility in the membrane allows your brain cells to transport proteins and signals at it’s best.  Did you just picture Rocky standing atop the steps in Philly with arms raised?


Here’s a good illustration (from Dr Emily Deans)  of a membrane consisting mostly of saturated fats and cholesterol:


now add some DHA:


In an introduction to one study, it was put simply; “DHA is essential for maintaining normal brain structure, function and metabolism and its brain concentration depends on dietary DHA…”


Ok, so DHA rocks, but why do I need to think about it?

Because DHA has 4 very big strikes against it…

  1. It is an essential fat, meaning your body cannot produce it from other fats (well, it can convert ALA from plants like Flax, but you still have to eat it).  Your body will also only convert about 2% of the ALA you eat into DHA, so it’s not very efficient.
  2. Grain-fed beef (which is most of it today) has a lower level of DHA than the grass-fed beef of old.  That said, even tho grass-fed would help, it’s still not enough.
  3. Cold water fish like salmon, tuna, and cod have loads of DHA, but most of us just aren’t eating enough.
  4. It competes with Omega-6 (found in oils like corn, sunflower, and sesame) for use and limited storage space.


#4 is worth talking about because it’s not just how much DHA we get, it’s also the ratio between Omega-6 and Omega-3.  Our ancestors set up a nice easy ratio for us at 1:1.  It turns out we’ve strayed a little in recent years to around 20:1.  I realize most of you getting this email are much more health conscious than the general public, but research is finding issues with diets greater than just 4:1.


What’s the answer?


How much DHA do we need?

The typical American gets less than 100mg of DHA per day from their diet.  Most experts are recommending between 200-400mg/day.  Many of the studies used between 750-1000mg/day.  Of course whatever you do, you should talk to your doctor first.


Co-Founder of NutritionGeeks, retired USAPL drug-free powerlifter, volunteer youth wrestling coach, father of 3 amazing boys and interested in all things health

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