Maintaining a Healthy Brain
With growing frequency, news items appear about the benefits
of fish oil – especially about studies showing that fish
oil helps the brain in some way. Fish oil has been said to thwart
depression, lessen the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and
keep a host of other brain disorders at bay.
The central theme of this article is that consumption of high
doses of fish oil dramatically alters our brain function (how
we think, focus, and reason) and quite probably boosts our intelligence.*
I put forward the critical need to define wellness if we are
to make it the goal for twenty-first century medicine. The brain
operates under the same conditions as the body. Just as you want
to achieve a state of wellness for your body, you also want to
achieve a state of wellness for your brain. Your brain isn’t
in a state of wellness just because you don’t have some
obvious neurological problem, like depression or attention deficit
disorder. Your brain is in a state of wellness only if you’re
thinking at peak efficiency. This means you’re unhampered
by mental fuzziness, jittery nerves, inability to complete tasks,
or a sense of doom and gloom. Ask yourself these questions to
see if your brain is in a state of wellness:
- Do you have a hard time concentrating on your daily tasks?
- Do you find yourself moving from project to project without
ever completing the one at hand?
- Do you have a hard time getting organized or remembering
- Do you find it difficult to look forward to the future?
- Are you feeling down more often than you’re feeling
- Are you finding yourself acting less civil to others?
If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,”
your brain is in a state of subchronic illness. I could list dozens
of additional questions about mental health, but you get the idea.
You know when you’re operating in slow motion or just not
feeling the mental zip that you had when you were younger. You
might even blame your mental decline on advancing age. I can’t
tell you how many forty- and fifty-year-olds tell me that their
mental capacity is diminishing as they reach middle age. I tell
them that their brainpower may be diminishing, but this has nothing
to do with their age. They’re simply not maintaining the
brain in a zone of wellness.
Because of its amazing complexity, the human brain remains shrouded
in mystery. We’re not exactly sure how it works. As a result,
when the brain goes wrong, we feel powerless to fix it. There
are two points in your life when your brain is most vulnerable:
when you’re an infant, and it is still developing; and when
you reach old age, and it begins to fail. In one case, your brain
can be robbed of reaching its full potential; in the other, you
have lost your ability to take a lifetime of experiences and integrate
them into a cohesive and meaningful mosaic. This is why our greatest
fear, as we age, is that the brain will give out before the body.
My dietary program can dramatically alter brain function at both
ends of the age spectrum and in all the years between. By following
this plan, you give your brain what it loves and avoid giving
it what it hates. As a result, you keep it humming at peak efficiency
at every stage of your life. As hokey as it sounds, if you’re
good to your brain, your brain will be good to you.
Just like body wellness, brain wellness depends on increased
blood flow and decreased inflammation. In order to achieve both,
you have to give the brain what it loves and avoid the things
it hates. Fortunately, the list is pretty short.
|Adequate blood flow
|Stable blood sugar
||Loss of key neurotransmitters
|Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Let’s look at each one of these items in more detail. You’ll
begin to see just how much dietary control you have over your
brain’s state of wellness.
WHAT THE BRAIN LOVES
Adequate Blood Flow
The most important thing the brain needs is an excellent supply
of oxygen, and this comes only from adequate blood flow, since
your blood cells carry oxygen to your brain and the rest of your
organs. Your brain’s energy, as well as the energy in the
rest of your body, is made by energy powerhouses called mitochondria
that are found in each cell. Oxygen enables mitochondria in your
brain cells to pump out an energy chemical, adenosine triphosphate
(ATP). Without adequate levels of ATP, your brain has an energy
drain and its function decreases.
As you age, the mitochondria become less efficient at pumping
out ATP, and a primary reason for this is decreased blood flow
to the brain. Although the brain represents only about 2 percent
of your total body mass, it accounts for more than 25 percent
of the blood flow. Without adequate blood flow, your brain is
deprived of oxygen and thus is unable to manufacture enough ATP
to operate at peak efficiency. Below a critical level of ATP production,
brain cells can begin to die. A stroke is an extreme example of
this: blood flow and oxygen to a portion of the brain are restricted,
and brain cells in that region die off.
The best way to increase blood flow to the brain (and every other
organ, for that matter) is to generate more “good”
eicosanoids (which are powerful vasodilators that widen the opening
of arteries, veins and capillaries) and fewer “bad”
eicosanoids (which are powerful vasoconstrictors that have the
opposite effect). The long-chain omega-3 fatty acid contained
in fish oil, EPA, will increase the production of “good”
eicosanoids by decreasing the levels of arachidonic acid (the
building block of “bad” eicosanoids). The higher the
level of EPA in the diet, the more your cells will be induced
to make more “good” eicosanoids.
Stable Blood Sugar
Even if you have adequate oxygen flow to the brain, you will
need a stable supply of glucose, since the brain also needs this
fuel to make ATP. The only way to maintain a steady supply of
glucose to the brain is to control insulin levels. Having a spike
in your insulin levels (which comes from eating too many carbohydrates)
can drive glucose levels down so low that your brain function
is compromised. That’s why you feel so sleepy two hours
after eating a huge pasta meal. Your thinking becomes fuzzy, you
have difficulty concentrating, and all you want to do is take
At this point, your brain, deprived of adequate levels of blood
sugar to make ATP, is desperately seeking any way possible to
get more blood sugar. As a result you are driven by an almost
manic urge to eat carbohydrates. That’s your brain’s
way of telling you that you have to get some glucose into the
bloodstream quickly – or else. The more carbohydrate-rich
that food is, the faster it can reach your bloodstream and then
your brain. Candy bars, soft drinks, and other types of junk food
are just a quick way to self-medicate the low blood sugar induced
by elevated insulin levels from your last meal. These carbohydrate
fixes temporarily solve the problem of low blood sugar but create
a new cycle of increased insulin levels, and you soon find yourself
with one bout after another of craving carbohydrates. To keep
yourself out of this vicious circle, you need to prevent your
brain from sending out the distress call in the first place. The
way to do that is to keep it supplied with steady amounts of glucose
by maintaining insulin levels within a defined zone that is neither
too high nor too low.
The only way to stabilize blood sugar levels is by maintaining
a relatively constant protein-to-carbohydrate balance every time
you eat. You need some insulin to drive glucose into your cells
for storage, but too much insulin reduces blood sugar to such
low levels that brain function is impaired. By stabilizing insulin
in the blood, you won’t have a dizzying drop in blood sugar.
And there’s an added benefit: steady insulin will enable
your body to maintain a steady level of the hormone glucagon,
which releases stored blood sugar from the liver, allowing a constant
supply of blood sugar for the brain. Carbohydrates stimulate the
release of insulin, and protein stimulates the release of glucagons;
that is why I always recommend balancing these two nutrients at
every meal and snack.
The final thing the brain loves is an adequate level of docosahexaenoic
acid (DHA). This is one of the two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids
found in fish oil (EPA is the other). More than 60 percent of
the weight of the brain is fat, and most of the long-chain omega-3
fatty acids in the body are concentrated in the brain. Virtually
all of this long-chain omega-3 fat, however, is in the form of
DHA, since the brain contains very little EPA. One reason the
brain demands such high levels of DHA is that it’s critical
for certain cell membranes such as the synapse (to transfer information),
the retina (to receive visual inputs), and the mitochondria (to
make ATP). Thus, the key brain cells can’t perform at peak
levels without adequate DHA in their membranes.
Trying to maintain your brain function without adequate DHA is
like trying to build the sturdiest brick house in town without
enough bricks. You might have the best architect, the best location,
and the best contractor, but if you don’t have enough bricks,
the dream house will never be built properly. Without adequate
DHA, your brain can’t function adequately and can’t
form new neural connections, let alone maintain old ones.
WHAT THE BRAIN HATES
While you’re providing your brain with the important things
it needs, you also have to avoid giving it what it hates. And
your brain absolutely despises inflammation. Inflammation appears
to be the underlying condition associated with the development
of Alzheimer’s disease. All inflammation is ultimately caused
by the increased production of “bad” eicosanoids.
What’s more, many of the proinflammatory cytokines (proteins
produced by immune cells) lead to the production of more “bad”
eicosanoids, and vice versa. So bad begets worse, and the inflammation
cycle continues unabated.
The best way to stop this cycle is to produce high doses of fish
oil to provide adequate levels of EPA. Not only will you choke
off the production of “bad” eicosanoids (by decreasing
the production of arachidonic acid), but you’ll also decrease
the production of inflammation-promoting cytokines. This is a
real win-win situation for your brain.
Loss of Key Neurotransmitters
The second thing the brain hates is any loss of key neurotransmitters.
Those are the chemicals that control the flow of information transfer
from one nerve cell to the other as they cross the gap (synapse)
between different nerve cells. Without adequate levels of neurotransmitters,
information slows dramatically. Two of the most important neurotransmitters
are serotonin and dopamine. Consider serotonin to be your stress-adaptation
hormone and dopamine to be your action hormone. When serotonin
levels are low, depression and violent or impulsive behavior become
more likely. When dopamine levels are low, there’s an increased
likelihood of Parkinson’s disease (decreased motor skills)
or attention deficit disorder (decreased ability to focus on immediate
A multibillion-dollar drug market has been developed to provide
a wide variety of pharmaceuticals that are intended to increase
either serotonin or dopamine. Unfortunately, if a drug increases
one of these neurotransmitters, it often depresses the other.
There is, however, one natural “drug” that can increase
both dopamine and serotonin simultaneously. That “drug”
is high-dose fish oil. By taking high doses of fish oil, you can
maintain adequate levels of both neurotransmitters.
Your brain also detests excess cortisol – the hormone your
body releases in response to long-term stress. The more stress
(which includes chronic pain or inflammation) you have in your
life, the more cortisol is released to control it. Unfortunately,
nothing kills brain cells (especially those in the hippocampus
where memories are stored) faster than excess cortisol. Excess
cortisol also inhibits short-term memory, like remembering where
you put your keys.
My dietary recommendations reduce excessive cortisol production
in two ways. First, EPA in fish oil decreases the production of
arachidonic acid, which in turn decreases the production of “bad”
eicosanoids. As the levels of “bad” eicosanoids decrease,
the need for the body to produce cortisol decreases. Second, my
dietary program stabilizes insulin levels, thus shutting down
the need for the production of excess cortisol. Cortisol is sometimes
released to stimulate the release of stored sugar into the blood
when blood sugar levels dip too low. This occurs if you are not
producing adequate levels of glucagon (the primary hormone to
stimulate the release of stored carbohydrate), which can be suppressed
by high levels of insulin. Although cortisol gives your brain
what it needs for the moment (more blood sugar), you then have
the problem of excess cortisol levels flowing through the bloodstream,
causing damage to the memory center in the hippocampus in the
The table below summarizes your brain’s desires and aversions
– and what impact fish oil and insulin have on them.
|Brain Loves and Hates
||Impact of Insulin Control
||Impact of High-Dose Fish Oil
|Stable Blood Sugar
|Loss of Neurotransmitters
As you can see, insulin control accounts for about 25 percent
of your brain function, whereas eicosanoid control accounts for
about 75 percent. Thus, you need a combination of dietary measures
(balancing carbohydrates and protein) and high-dose fish oil to
give your brain what it loves and avoid what it hates. This is
the foundation of my dietary program.
Excerpted from The Omega RX Zone: The Miracle of the New
High-Dose Fish Oil by Dr. Barry Sears. Copyright © by Dr. Barry Sears.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and
Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose,
treat, cure, or prevent any disease. As with any natural product,
individual results will vary.
For more information about Dr. Barry Sears, his incredible fish
oil supplements, or the popular Zone Diet, please visit www.zoneliving.com.
If you purchase any Zone Labs, Inc. products, part of the
proceeds support CBN ministries.
Dr. Barry Sears is a leader in the field of
dietary control of hormonal response. A former research scientist
at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his efforts over
the past 25 years to the study of lipids and their inflammatory
role in the development of chronic disease. He holds 13 U.S. patents
in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal
regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease.
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