Healthy Brain & Heart Function From Omega 3 Fatty Acids

by Ginger Marin

The human brain consists primarily of fat and cholesterol and the majority of the fatty acids in the brain are saturated. Saturated fats from animal and vegetable sources provide a concentrated source of energy in your diet and provide the building blocks for all your cell membranes as well as a variety of hormones and hormone-like substances. Some saturated fats function directly as signaling messengers that influence metabolism including the appropriate release of insulin. A diet deficient in healthy saturated fats, therefore, will rob your brain of the raw materials it needs to function optimally.

Omega 3 Fats: Essential To Health
Omega 3 essential fatty acids are a special type of protective fat that the body itself cannot manufacture. People who don’t get enough Omega 3 fatty acids in their diets are more likely to experience learning disabilities, dementia and depression. Omega-3s also reduce inflammation and inhibit blood clots, the underlying cause of most strokes. Omega-3s come from fish and krill (a type of shrimp-like marine invertebrate animal), flaxseeds and some nuts, but there’s a big difference in how well different kinds of Omega-3s are utilized by the body.
Fatty fish is also high in choline, a substance used to manufacture one of the main neurotransmitters (acetylcholine) involved in memory. Many people believe flaxseeds are an adequate substitute for fish. They’re not. Although flaxseeds contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a form of omega-3, only about 10% of ALA is converted to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the most beneficial forms of omega-3s, precisely the ones that are plentiful in fish oil.

Walnuts for Health
Walnuts play a role in a balanced diet and are a good source of alpha-linoleic acid. When it comes to their health benefits, walnuts definitely are regarded as a “brain food” not only because of the wrinkled brain like appearance of their shells but because of their high concentration of omega 3 fats. They’re also high in proteins and vitamins, especially in vitamins B and E groups.

Walnuts have many health benefits ranging from cardiovascular protection to the promotion of better cognitive function and the anti-inflammatory benefit that is useful for asthma patients, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis. Walnuts also contain an anti-oxidant compound called ellagic acid that supports the immune system and appears to have several anti-cancer properties.

Studies show that increasing the dietary intake of walnuts produces favorable effects on high cholesterol levels and other cardiovascular risk factors.

Omega-3s benefit the cardiovascular system by assisting in preventing erratic heart rhythms, making blood less likely to clot inside arteries which is the proximate cause of most heart attacks and improve the ratio of good (HDL) cholesterol to potentially harmful (LDL) cholesterol.

Walnuts also contain relatively high levels of L-arginine, an essential amino acid which becomes a special import in hypertensive persons. Human body according to experts converts l-arginine into nitric oxide, a chemical that helps keep the inner walls of blood vessels smooth and allows blood vessels to relax. Since individuals with hypertension find it difficult to maintain normal nitric oxide levels which may also lead to other significant health issues such as diabetes and heart problems, walnuts can serve as a great addition to their diets.

Recent research found that walnuts have significant antioxidant value and their consumption (a mere handful) at least 4 times a week can reduce by 37% the risk of coronary heart disease while each additional serving of nuts per week shows 8.3% reduced risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease. Prevention and control of high blood pressure is also one of the benefits derived from eating walnuts. A daily ounce of walnuts also improve the cholesterol profile in persons with type 2 diabetes. The nuts are found to reduce levels of several molecules that promote atherosclerosis.

So Which is Better: Walnuts or Fish Oil?

In a recent clinical trial comparing the two types of omega-3s, researchers at Loma Linda University in California found that plant-derived omega-3 in walnuts offers different heart-health benefits than the marine-derived omega-3 you would find in salmon. So for optimal heart health, you need to include both plant and marine sources in your diet. Unfortunately, a number of fatty fish contain mercury and so do some over-the-counter supplements made from them. When purchasing a fish oil supplement, look for “molecularly distilled’ on the label to ensure that the product you’re buying has been screened and filtered of all contaminants. Some people use eggs enriched with omega-3s, but in most cases the omega-3 is plant derived from flaxseeds, so you’re not going to get the benefit of high DHA as you would if consuming fish.

The study which was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that the omega-3 fats in walnuts significantly lowered total and LDL (bad) cholesterol more than the omega-3 fats in fatty fish, whereas fish lowered triglyceride levels more than walnuts. Interestingly, walnuts had no impact on triglyceride levels, compared with the control (no walnuts or fish) diet, while fatty fish raised HDL (good) and LDL cholesterol.

Walnuts were chosen as the plant source of omega-3 fatty acids because the FDA advises a daily intake of 1.5 ounces (about 14 whole walnuts) as part of a low-fat, low-cholesterol, calorie-stable diet for people who want to reduce their risk for heart disease. Salmon was chosen as the fish source because it is a particularly rich source of marine omega-3, and the American Heart Association advises consumption of two servings of four-ounces of fatty fish per week for prevention of heart disease. Note: Even though this particular study was underwritten by the California Walnut Growers Association, many doctors, particularly alternative medicine practitioners agree that walnuts are a valuable addition to any diet.

When it comes to your omega-3s, a diet rich in both types is certainly the way to go to improve both heart health and brain function.

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