While it’s perfectly normal to have low moments, when they persist it can lead down a treacherous path. Obstacles look bigger than they really are. We lose perspective – and as a result, we lose faith. Sometimes we just give up. We resort to worse habits and feel worse as a result. But the good news is that it’s not just you. It’s what you’re not getting and what you’re not getting in your diet. You are likely consuming too much of the omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) from processed seed oils, and too little of the omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from seafood and algae oil.
Why Omega-3s Support Whole Body Systems (Including Your Central Nervous System)
While omega-3s may sound like snake oil to some, it becomes clear just how powerful they can be for myriad health conditions when we look at how they work in our bodies. The omega-3s EPA and DHA are used in every cell of the 37 trillion in your body.
They are incorporated in our cell membranes and in structural parts of our cells that are involved in cell signaling, elimination of toxins, and transmission of nutrients.
When we consume too little omega-3, our efficient human machines will substitute them with other fats that do not have quite the same functions. The inflammation-regulating power of EPA and DHA is replaced with the pro-inflammatory effects of linoleic acid (LA) from seed oils, arachidonic acid (AA) from animal fats, or even the man-made artificial trans fats (AKA partially hydrogenated or fully hydrogenated oils). This throws our inflammation balance off kilter everywhere in the body, creating a cascade of potentially negative effects. When it comes to our mood and brain health, the negative effects can range from worsening attention and focus to severe headaches to, quite literally, an inflamed brain.
We Are Fat Heads
Did you know that 60% of the brain is made up of fat, and half of that fat is the omega-3 DHA? If you’ve read any prenatal literature, you might already have heard that DHA makes up half of the fat in your brain and eyes – but you might not understand why that really matters. DHA is responsible for maintaining healthy cell-to-cell signaling supporting our neurotransmitters and dendrites. Consuming enough DHA every day is positively associated with memory, sharp focus, and attention. When we get enough DHA in our diets we tend to have a more positive outlook. Our energy is better. We remember where we put our keys.
The omega-3 EPA has been shown to have a direct connection to mood health. The reason scientists believe it works this way has to do with its power to support the creation of resolvins in our bodies. Resolvins act to resolve inflammation. Once the inflamed brain returns to a healthier state, your mood invariably improves.
The Problem of Brain Inflammation
A 2015 study dove deep into the effect of dietary omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids as it related to psychological distress in patients with chronic headaches that were not treatable by medication. They found that by reducing consumption of the omega-6 LA while increasing consumption of the omega-3s EPA and DHA, the frequency, length, and severity of headaches all declined. This effect was, however, not seen when the omega-6 was reduced alone. Patients needed to both reduce their omega-6 consumption and increase their omega-3s simultaneously. They further found that one of the symptoms associated with headaches, an inflamed brain, was reduced in those who lowered LA consumption while increasing their EPA and DHA.
Having personally suffered from migraine headaches for stretches of my late teens into my 30s, I can tell you that severe headaches dramatically affect your mood and your outlook on life. When a migraine headache strikes, whatever plans you had for that day are completely washed. I felt like I was a hostage to the pain – an unseen enemy that came out of nowhere – starting just behind my eyes and erupting from there.
Thankfully, it has been years since I’ve experienced this kind of debilitating pain. By modifying my stress levels, leading a more balanced life, and incorporating a healthy diet and exercise plan, headaches are but a distant memory. I attribute some of this success to balancing my fats – and scientific literature suggests this is not merely anecdotal.
Furthermore, it appears that seed oils — which are high in the omega-6 linoleic acid — are simply terrible for brain health. Limiting their consumption while increasing our omega-3s can only do good things for our brains, and for our bodies.
But Is Linoleic Acid Really All That Bad for Brain Health?
In 2020, Ameer Y. Taha published a peer-reviewed study in Nature that sought to answer a simple question: Is linoleic acid good or bad for the brain? He concludes:
“Pre-clinical and clinical studies dispel previous assumptions that LA is a benign fatty acid in the brain. On the contrary, when present in excess and chronically, it induces ataxia in chickens, promotes neuroinflammation in rats and is linked to abnormal neurodevelopment in humans.”
Abnormal neurodevelopment can lead to a cascade of mental health concerns, from mood disorders to even severe disabilities. So, while balancing your fats is key, scientists increasingly recommend limiting your consumption of the omega-6 LA altogether. LA is found in seed oils that are used for cooking, in grains, and in highly processed foods.
As detailed in this earlier article on balancing your fats, most Americans consume 15 times more omega-6 than they do omega-3. This is largely the result of one primary culprit: seed oil. Eliminating seed oils from your diet may sound like a drastic step – and even difficult to achieve – but it is also a simple way to ensure you are getting closer to a desired ratio of 3:1 instead of 15:1. If you are curious about your specific ratio, and want to better understand if your present consumption habits are setting you up to fail, you can take a simple blood test through Omega Quant for $49.00 – $99.00.
To achieve a better balance of omega-6:omega-3, limit your consumption of:
- Fried foods
- Fast food
- Highly processed foods
- Foods that contain soybean oil, canola oil, or corn oil (read your labels!)
- Baked goods
And eat more of these foods:
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds and high-lignan flax oil
- Wild-caught seafood and grass-fed and finished meats
- High omega-3 eggs (chickens fed flax and algae)
- Supplement with omega-3s from a sustainable source with superior absorption like Örlö Nutrition
While Balance Is Key, the Takeaway Message Is Simple
Decrease your consumption of omega-6s (particularly LA from seed oils), and increase your consumption of omega-3s (especially EPA and DHA) for a better mood and better brain health.