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:
- Infants who have low amounts of DHA in their diet have reduced brain development and diminished visual acuity.
- The increased intelligence and academic performance of breastfed compared with formula- fed infants has been attributed in part to the increased DHA content of human milk.
- Cultures whose diet is high in omega 3 fatty acids (such as the Eskimos who eat a lot of fish) have a lower incidence of degenerative diseases of the central nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis .
- Experimental animals whose diets are low in DHA have been found to have smaller brains and delayed central-nervous-system development.
- Some children with poor school performance because of ADD, have been shown to have insufficient essential fatty acids in their diet. (See A.D.D. – A Nutritional Deficiency?)
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)
- Consider vitamin supplements. Studies indicate that schoolchildren whose diets are supplemented with vitamins and minerals to insure that they received the standard recommended dietary allowances showed improved learning and scored higher on intelligence tests. Here are some of the vitamins which have been shown to affect behavior and learning:
- Vitamin C is required by the brain to make neurotransmitters. In fact, the brain has a special vitamin C “pump” that draws extra vitamin C out of the blood and concentrates it in the brain.
- Vitamin B12 is vital to maintaining healthy myelin, the tissue that covers and insulates nerve tissue.
- Vitamin B6 deficiency causes hyper-irritability and fatigue.
- Folic acid deficiency seems to affect neurotransmitter function, resulting in symptoms associated with depression.
- Insure enough iron. The symptoms of iron deficiency include irritability and diminished mental alertness. Studies show that when the iron level of students increases, they concentrate better and learn better. Iron is necessary for healthy brain tissue and for adequate neurotransmitter function.
- Care about calcium. Calcium is not only important to growing bones, but also to growing brains. Children with calcium deficiency may show impaired behavior and learning. In his book Feeding the Brain: How Foods Affect Children (Plenum, 1989), Dr. C. Keith Conners reports that children who were more hyperactive had significantly lower calcium intakes than less hyperactive children. Other studies have shown that school children in the habit of skipping breakfast exhibit calmer behavior when given milk in the morning. (See Brainy Breakfasts to Improve School and Work Performance.)
- Don’t forget fiber. An apple a day may keep the A.D.D. doctor away. While fiber is not directly involved in brain function, it does influence how other nutrients affect the brain. Soluble fiber, such as fruit pectin, helps lower the glycemic index of foods, thereby having a stabilizing effect on blood sugar. As we discussed above, the more stable the blood sugar, the better the brain functions. A bowl of bran for breakfast and an apple as a mid- morning snack keep brains working at top form until lunchtime.
For more information about omega-3s, check out The Omega-3 Effect, by Dr. Bill and Dr. Jim.