Correct your fats and essential fatty acids (EFAs)
As we have seen in imbalances in fats and EFAs, consuming the wrong fats can be detrimental to your mental health, while consuming the right fats can support your mental health. The brain is made of 60% fat, and in addition to glucose, can use fat for fuel.
Therefore, for optimal mental health make sure you avoid bad fats, and focus on incorporating plenty of healthy fats into your diet. Below are some guidelines on which fats to consume and which to avoid.
Any fat, even healthy fats, can become toxic when processed, cooked at high heat, or gone rancid through oxidation. Some fats are more vulnerable to oxidation than others.
Make sure that you know your fats and how to cook them and store them:
- The ideal way to store fats is in dark glass bottles or jars, away from light and heat
- For high heat cooking, use butter, ghee and coconut oil, because they are more stable at high temperatures
- To consume raw, use flaxseed oil, extra virgin olive oil or hemp oil drizzled over cooked or raw food Talbott, S. (2007). The Cortisol Connection. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, pp. 23-26.
Processed fats which are used in processed foods can be very unhealthy for the brain:
- Don’t consume products that contain trans-fats, trans-fatty acids, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and don’t eat deep fried foodsFord, P. A., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Lee, J. W. and Tonstad, S. (2016). Trans fatty acid intake is related to emotional affect in the Adventist Health Study-2. [online] Nutrition Research 36, pp. 509-17. Available at: https://www.deepdyve.com/lp/elsevier/trans-fatty-acid-intake-is-related-to-emotional-affect-in-the-4PUcPod3rf [accessed 6 Sept. 2017].
Monounsaturated fats (MUFA) are liquid at room temperature. They are a healthy alternative to other forms of fat such as trans-fats and processed polyunsaturated fats.
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
- Avocado oil
- Walnut oil
- Fish, meat and dairy from grass-fed animals
- Nuts and seeds
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Hazel nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Sesame seeds
Soak all nuts, seeds, grains and pulses overnight in twice their volume of water with a pinch of mineral-rich salt such as Himalayan pink salt or unrefined sea salt. This will make them more digestible and enhances their mineral content.
Consumed in excess, saturated fats can cause fatty deposits on the arteries compromising cardiac function Li, Y., Hruby, A., Bernstein, A. M., Ley, S. H., Wang, D. D., Chiuve, S. E., Sampson, L., Rexrode, K. M., Rimm, E. B., Willett, W. C. and Hu, F. B. (2015). Saturated Fats Compared With Unsaturated Fats and Sources of Carbohydrates in Relation to Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Prospective Cohort Study. [online] Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 66 (14), pp. 1538-48. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26429077 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017]., and increasing rates of certain cancers such as breast Sieri, S., Chiodini, P., Agnoli, C., Pala, V., Berrino, F., Trichopoulou, A., Benetou, V., Vasilopoulou, E., Sánchez, M. J., Chirlaque, M. D., Amiano, P., Quirós, J. R., Ardanaz, E., Buckland, G., Masala, G., Panico, S., Grioni, S., Sacerdote, C., Tumino, R., Boutron-Ruault, M. C., Clavel-Chapelon, F., Fagherazzi, G., Peeters, P. H., van Gils, C. H., Bueno-de-Mesquita, H. B., van Kranen, H. J., Key, T. J., Travis, R. C., Khaw, K. T., Wareham, N. J., Kaaks, R., Lukanova, A., Boeing, H., Schütze, M., Sonestedt, E., Wirfält, E., Sund, M., Andersson, A., Chajes, V., Rinaldi, S., Romieu, I., Weiderpass, E., Skeie, G., Dagrun, E., Tjønneland, A., Halkjær, J., Overvard, K., Merritt, M. A., Cox, D., Riboli, E. and Krogh, V. (2014). Dietary fat intake and development of specific breast cancer subtypes. [online] Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 106 (5). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24718872 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017]. and prostate cancer Labbe, David P., Zadra, G., Yang, M., Lin, C. Y., Reyes, J. M., Cacciatore, S., Ebot, E. M., Cotter, M. B., Creech, A. L., Jaffe, J. D., Kantoff, P. W., Bradner, J. E., Mucci, L. A., Chavarro, J. E., Loda, M. and Brown, M. (2016). Abstract 2674: High fat diet accelerates MYC-driven prostate cancer through metabolic and epigenomic rewiring. [online] Cancer Research 76 (14), p. 2674. Available at: http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/76/14_Supplement/2674 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
The right kinds of saturated fats, however, are essential for mental health.
Read more about the importance of saturated fats for mental health.
Saturated fats can be found most abundantly in meat and full fat dairy, and some plant oils such as coconut oil and palm oil.
Saturated fats from processed meats and dairy, industrially farmed meat and dairy, are far less healthy than saturated fats from organically raised and/or grass fed meat and dairy. So be sure to check the origin of your meat and dairy and make sure that it is organically and/or grass raised.
Butter and coconut oil, both containing saturated fats, have the following benefits for mental health:
- As with most fats, they slow the absorption of sugar from food, balancing blood sugars
- They help the absorption of fat soluble vitamins such as A and D
- Butter contains vitamins A and D, both essential for hormonal balance and mental health
- Coconut oil is full of medium chain fatty acids, which are more easily absorbed into cell membranes and digested Mercola. (2010, 22 Oct.). Coconut Oil: This Cooking Oil Is a Powerful Virus-Destroyer and Antibiotic… [online] Mercola. Available at: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/10/22/coconut-oil-and-saturated-fats-can-make-you-healthy.aspx [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
Scott, T. and Daniel, K. (May 2015). Real food for Anxiety: Butter, Broth and Beyond. [online] The Anxiety Summit, Season 3. Available at: http://season3.theanxietysummit.com/.
While excess cholesterol can lead to heart disease, cholesterol which is too low can lead to mental health issues such as depression, aggression and suicide. Amen, D. (2013). Unleash The Power Of The Female Brain. New York: Harmony Books, p. 116. This is especially important to know for those who use cholesterol lowering medication such as statins.
Cholesterol is naturally produced in our liver but we can also obtain it from certain foods
Food sources of cholesterol:
- Eggs (yolks)
- Meat and dairy
- (Shell) fish
Essential Fatty Acids
As the name implies, essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are a necessary dietary component. Our bodies cannot produce EFAs, and we must therefore obtain them through the food we eat.
They play a major role in brain function and mental health and are essential to reducing inflammation. The two main types of EFAs are Omega 3 and Omega 6. You can find out more about how they contribute to mental health by reading more about imbalances in fats and essential fatty acids.
Food sources of Omega 3
- The best way to obtain optimal quantities of EPA and DHA is to consume oily fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring, and salmon
- The body has to work harder to obtain EPA and DHA from vegetarian sources such as flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnut, as it still has to convert the Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) present in these foods into EPA and DHA Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 39.
- Vegetarians can be deficient in these essential brain fats unless they eat substantial amounts of ALA-containing foods and oils Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 36.
Foods containing notable amounts of omega 3
- Oily fish
- Whole anchovies
- Wild salmon
- Small halibut
- Sable (black cod)
- Plant Oils
- Flaxseed oil
- Hemp oil
- Unrefined walnut oil
- Chia oil
- Pine nuts
- Seaweeds Seeralan, A., Murugesan, S. and Sivaswamy, N. (2016). Profiling of Omega 3 fatty acids from marine green algae Ulva reticulata and Caulerpa racemosa. [online] International Journal of Phytopharmacy, 6 (2), pp. 46-50. Available at: http://www.ssjournals.com/index.php/ijpp/article/view/3258 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Green leafy vegetables
Omega 3 oils are very fragile. Processing such oils by heating, frying or cooking can damage the Omega 3s and destroy their health benefits Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 35..
Supplementing with Omega 3s
- Choose high concentrations of omega-3 with a high EPA/DHA ratio, at least 2:1
- Take 1000mg-2000mg omega 3 per day
- Within that, you need at least 200mg of EPA and 200mg of DHA per day Amen, D. (2013). Unleash The Power Of The Female Brain. New York: Harmony Books, p. 83.
- If you are a vegetarian, you can take flax seed oil, however the ALA in flaxseed oil can be hard for the body to convert to sufficient levels of EPA and DHA
- You can take 1 to 2 tablespoons of flaxseed oil per day, or 4 tablespoons of whole flax seeds freshly ground
Omega 6 fatty acids can be both inflammatory or anti inflammatory, depending on their source.
Two important groups of omega 6 fatty acids found in food are Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) and Arachidonic Acid (AA). GLA produce anti-inflammatory substances which can help to balance the inflammatory effects of AA. Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 38.
Food sources of Omega 6
- Omega-6 fatty acids are found primarily in grains and abound in most vegetable oils and in animal fat, especially in meat of animals fed with grains Servan-Schreiber, D. (2005). Healing Without Freud or Prozac. London: Rodale, p. 144.
- Omega 6 from grains and animal fat contains AA. AA can have an inflammatory effect on the body if eaten in excess de Castro Cardoso Pereira, P. M. and dos Reis Baltazar Vicente, A. F. (2013). Meat nutritional composition and nutritive role in the human diet. [online] Meat Science 93 (3), pp. 586-92. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234010137_Meat_nutritional_composition_and_nutritive_role_in_the_human_diet [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
- Omega 6 rich oils such as starflower oil (also called borage oil) evening primrose oil and hemp oil contains GLA and have an anti-inflammatory effect
Supplementing with Omega 6
You can supplement with 1000mg of GLA per day 1000mg of evening primrose oil daily Gottfried, S. (2013). The Hormone Cure. New York: Scribner, p. 252. or 1000mg of Starflower oil daily Park, S. O., Hwangbo, J., Yuh, I. S. and Park, B. S. (2014). Gamma-linolenic acid egg production enriched with hemp seed oil and evening primrose oil in diet of laying hens. [online] Journal of Environmental Biology, 35 (4), pp. 635-40. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25004746 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017].
It’s actually the ratio between Omega 3 and Omega 6 which is important in reducing inflammation and supporting optimal brain function:
- Early homo sapiens consumed a diet with a 1:1 ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, which is considered the ideal ratio Chamberlain, J. G. (1996). The Possible Role of Long-Chain, Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Human Brain Phylogeny. [online] Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 39 (3), pp. 436-45. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8657555 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017]., Broadhurst, C. S., Cunnane, S. C. and Crawford, M. A. (1998). Rift Valley Lake Fish and Shellfish Provided Brain-Specific Nutrition for Early Homo. [online] British Journal of Nutrition, 79 (1), pp. 3-21. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9505798 [accessed 5 Sept. 2017]. In: Servan-Schreiber, D. (2005). Healing Without Freud or Prozac. London: Rodale, p. 145., Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 34.
- Today, the typical ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the Western diet is 1:10 or 1:20
- This is due to factors such as feeding livestock with grain rather than grass, and the use of omega-6-rich vegetable oil in processed foods
- The imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 can lead to inflammation Servan-Schreiber, D. (2005). Healing Without Freud or Prozac. London: Rodale, p. 144.
Phospholipids are important components of all cells in our body including our brain cells. They form the cells protective outer layer and help brain cells to communicate.
Food sources of phospholipids
The best food source for phospholipids is lecithin granules, 5-10g per day. Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, pp. 43-51.
Phospatidylcholine is a building block for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which plays an important role in memory and muscle function.
Food sources of phosphatidylcholine
- Organ meats
- Eggs (particularly the yolks)
- Whole grains
- Lecithin, which is found in grains, legumes, meat and egg yolks contains about 20% phosphatidylcholine and can be taken as a supplement, in granule or capsule form. Take 1 tbsp per day
25mg per day
Phospatodylserine is a fatty substance which plays an important role in the protection of brain cells and maintaining cognitive function.
Food sources of Phosphatidylserine
The body produces some of its own Phosphatidylserine, but most is acquired from diet, mainly from meat and fish:
- Organ meats
Modern diets, especially vegetarian diets, are low in phosphatidylserine. Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, pp. 43-50
300mg per day Lake, J. (2009). Integrative Mental Health Care. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 240., or delivered through the skin
DMAE is not a fat, however it is important for fat metabolism hence its place here among the fats.
Food sources of DMAE
Oily fish, especially sardines, salmon, anchovies Patrick Holford, Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible (London: Piatkus, 2004) pp.43-50.
Recommended dose: between 100 and 500mg Holford, P. (2004). Patrick Holford’s New Optimum Nutrition Bible. London: Piatkus, p. 47..