Don't Forget the Fatty Acid

Fish oil and Olive Oil for Health

an food affect the brain? Scientists now believe certain kinds of fatty acid improve the structure and performance of the brain, slowing the effects of aging. The main sources of brain food are: omega-3 oil from fish—less so from flaxseed and walnuts; and omega-9 oil from olive oil.

When we look deeper, we find that scientists have now progressed much further than folklore. A French scientist reviewed the role of dietary fats in the brain. Jean-Marie Bourre reported that unsaturated fats in the brain help prevent the following chronic conditions:

  • Artery disease, including arteries supplying the brain, leading to stroke

  • Mental disorders, including depression, dementia, Alzheimer's disease

  • Behavioral disorders, such as adaptation to new situations and refusal to change behavior even when life enhancing

  • Sensory loss, including sight, hearing, taste and smell. Of these, reduced perception of sweetness may lead to excessive consumption of sugar, obesity and diabetes
As Jean-Marie Bourre explains, several factors account for the importance to the brain of unsaturated fats:
  • After body-fat cells, the brain is the organ richest in fats

  • Unsaturated fats affect the course of brain development and function from before birth into old age

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 oil) alters brain-cell membranes and other stuctural elements of the brain. Deficiency of omega-3 oil results in neurosensory and behavioral upset affecting visual and mental performance

  • Deficiency of omega-3 oil causes sores (lesions) to develop within the frontal lobe and the pituitary gland, causing change in personality, loss of reasoning and judgement and decline in hormones that regulate growth, muscles and kidneys

  • The reduced perception of sweetness can cause increased consumption of sugar, leading to excess weight, risk of insulin resistance and eventually, diabetes, a known pre-disposing factor for Alzheimer's Disease

  • Brain cells (neurons) develop before birth and must be preserved for life. Brain cells deprived of omega-3 oil lose their ability to function faster than well-fed cells. So-called "accelerated aging" may be a symptom of brain malnutrition

  • Most modern diets have adequate, even excessive amounts of most types of omega-6 oil. Thus the importance to the brain of omega-6 oil has not been studied

  • by contrast omega-9 fatty acids, as found in olive oil, cannot be synthesized by the body in sufficient quantities and should be obtained from foods

  • The body has limited ability to convert short-chain omega-3 fatty acids into the the long-chain form needed for brain health and this ability declines with age. Thus short-chain omega-3 fatty acids obtained from vegetable sources may be inadequate for brain health. For this reason, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids need to be obtained directly from the diet as fish oil or from supplements

  • Decreased turnover of fats in the brain results in increased oxidation by free radicals, underlining the importance of maintaining an adequate level of omega-3 fatty acid.

Fish Oil and Olive Oil for Health

Avoiding saturated fats makes sense, but unsaturated fats are important for maintaining health. Besides, unsaturated fatty acids, especially fish oil and olive oil, are easy to add to the diet. Further information can be found at Dr Floyd Chilton's web site.

Some fish oils are better than others. Farmed fish feed on grain and thus contain omega-6 oil rather than omega-3 oil. Wild fish vary widely in content of both omega-3 oil and mercury, caused by pollution. My own preference is for short-lived fish, low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acid. I prepare a salmon casserole from Alaskan pink salmon that is both brain and heart healthy. For baking, I use refined olive oil because it can stand the heat. For salads and hummus, I use extra virgin olive oil because it is loaded with anti-oxidants.

Boosting omega-3 fatty acid by taking a fish oil supplement may help reduce craving for sugar.

Author's note: The main points of this article come from J.M. Bourre's paper, but I have added to the original. Please refer to M. Bourre's text.


Bourre, JM. Roles of unsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) in the brain at various ages and during ageing. Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging. 2004;8(3):163-74.

J.M. Bourre is INSERM Director of Research in neuro-pharmaco-nutrition at the Fernand Widal Hospital in Paris, France.