Achieving an optimal supply is central, not only to intelligence and memory, but also your mood. As the speed of life and pace of change accelerates, and our lifespan extends, the brain, more than any other organ, feels the strain reflected in an ever-increasing incidence of depression, dementia and ADHD.
To what extent can these problems be avoided by an optimal supply of the brain makers? In May I reported on a study that found that B vitamins were remarkably protective against brain shrinkage in people with enough omega-3s, illustrating that brain makers work together.
Brainmaker No.1 - Essential brain fats
As far as essential fats are concerned the most abundant in the brain is DHA – it makes up a quarter of the brain’s cerebral cortex. Oily fish contain roughly equal amounts of EPA and DHA. Only ‘DHA, alone or combined with EPA, contributes to improved memory function in older adults (45+) with mild memory complaints’, concludes a meta-analysis in the Public Library of Services journal1. The benefit, they say, is apparently driven by DHA, at a daily level between 500 and 1,000mg. There is also evidence of benefit for schoolchildren.2
On the other hand, EPA has strong anti-depressant effects. Last year a meta-analysis concluded that ‘the use of omega-3 is effective in patients with diagnosis of depression’3. A similar dose is needed for an effect.
To achieve at least 500mg of both EPA and DHA does mean supplementing them, as well as eating fish. I take a twice daily capsule giving me 250mg of each, and eat oily fish three times a week, plus a tub of taramasalata – fish roe is a great source. I also eat chia seeds, the highest vegetarian source of omega 3.
Brainmaker No.2 - Phospholipids
All fish, not just oily fish, are an excellent source of the next brain maker – phospholipids, as are eggs. They are the backbone of brain cells – the essential fats literally hang off them creating the intelligent membrane the not only holds neurons together but contains the receptor sites for neurotransmitters, the brain’s communication molecules. They are semi-essential, meaning that the body can make them but growing evidence shows that we just don't make enough and need to get a direct source from diet or supplements.
The most abundant phospholipid in the brain is phosphatidyl choline. Also important is phosphatidyl serine and phospatidyl dimethylethanolamine – abbreviated to PC, PS and DMAE accordingly.
Both PC and PS4 have been shown to improve memory, concentration, speed of thinking and protect those with mental illness5. One study gave students a large dose of PC and reported memory improvement within 90 minutes.6
Lecithin granules or capsules are a direct source of PC. I supplement all three in my brain food formula, as well as making a point to eat six eggs a week, plus five servings of fish.
Brainmaker No.3 - Methylation nutrients
There are a billion ‘methylation’ reactions every few seconds in your brain. Methylation turns genes on and off, repairs DNA, makes neurotransmitters and phospholipids and is also needed to attach them to essential omegas. It is the builder, while omegas and phospholipids are the building material. If your homocysteine level in high you’ve got a methylation problem.
The three most important methylation nutrients are vitamins B12, folate and B6. But you also need methyl groups. Greens contain the natural ‘methyl’-folate vitamin, but it is an unstable form. That’s why most supplements contain the stable form called folic acid - but it has to be converted back into methylfolate to work properly and nto everyone is good at doing this. Recently, stable forms of methylfolate have become available and are preferable in lowering high homocysteine levels, thus improving methylation. Lentils, beans, nuts and seeds are also an important source of folates. Later in life B12 absorption can become impaired so B12 is especially important to supplement in relatively high doses – from a base of 10mcg to 500mcg if homocysteine level is high. TMG and zinc also help lower homocysteine.
What you need to eat for a healthy brain
So, for a healthy brain, you want to eat fish, eggs, greens, beans, nuts and chia seeds and supplement extra omega 3 fish oil, high in DHA and EPA, plus phospholipids and methylation nutrients – B6, B12 and folate, plus zinc and TMG. It is especially important for vegans to supplement these nutrients, including a seaweed derived source of EPA and DHA. Chia oil is also available in capsules.
1. K Yurko-Mauro et al, PLoS ONE 2015