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DHA is the primary structural component of brain tissue, so it stands to reason that a deficiency of DHA in the diet could translate into a deficiency in brain function. In fact, research is increasingly recognizing the possibility that DHA has a crucial influence on neurotransmitters in the brain, helping brain cells better communicate with each other. Asian cultures have long appreciated the brain-building effects of DHA. In Japan, DHA is considered such an important "health food" that it is used as a nutritional supplement to enrich some foods, and students frequently take DHA pills before examinations.
Just how important is DHA for brain development? Consider these research findings:
While a baby is in the womb, the brain grows more rapidly than in any other stage of infant or child development. And during the first year after birth, the brain continues to grow rapidly, tripling in size by an infant's first birthday. So, it would make sense for a pregnant and lactating mother to supplement her diet with brain-building nutrients, primarily the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish and flax oil (one tablespoon of flax oil daily, four ounces of tuna or salmon three times a week). In fact, some nutritionists recommend that pregnant and lactating women take 200 milligrams of DHA supplements a day.
Smart fats. Besides being found in human milk, DHA appears in high levels in coldwater fish: sardines, salmon, and albacore tuna. Besides fish oils, vegetable oils (primarily flaxseed, soy, and canola) are also rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids, with flaxseed oil being the best. The two F's, fish and flax, are the top brain-building foods for growing children, and adults.
Dumb fats. Avoid factory fats, which are biochemically-altered fats recognized by the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" in the fine print on the package label. The hydrogenation process produces trans fatty acids which may affect brain function and health in two ways. The trans fats enter the cells of the central nervous system where they may compete with the action of natural fats, so that the nerves in the brain don't function as well as they were designed to. Also, hydrogenation turns unsaturated fats into saturated fats, in which the fat molecules pack together tightly, like lard. Brain researchers worry that the same type of packing could occur in blood vessels, compromising the blood flow to the brain. Avoiding hydrogenated fats is especially important for the growing brains of children, since children who fill up on these undesirable fats are likely to eat less of the omega-3 fatty acids that are good for the brain. (For more about the effects of hydrogenated fats on health and well-being, see Hydrogenated Fats)
Feeding Senior Brains
Once upon a time it was believed that the brain doesn't grow as people get older. New research, however, has shown that the brain cells continue to branch out and make connections throughout a person's life. Eating the right diet can help the brain make the right connections - at all ages.
For more information about omega-3s, check out The Omega-3 Effect, by Dr. Bill and Dr. Jim.