The facts: there are huge quantities of fats in the trillions of cells that make up the human body. But they’re not the kind of fats you might imagine: they actually form envelopes which enclose the whole of the living cell and bear no resemblance to the large quantities of excess fat that are sometimes stored in adipose tissue (and which produce those horribly-familiar ‘bulges’). Without these layers of fat surrounding our cells, nothing in the body would work properly. Not only do they form the demarcation line between a cell and its environment, they also enable the cell to carry out its functions, to flourish, multiply, feed itself, neutralize pathogens … in short, they enable it to live.
But there’s a serious problem affecting these layers of fat: their quality is plummeting. While they should be similar in consistency to olive oil, they are instead becoming less and less fluid, with a more solidified texture, which significantly interferes with and obstructs cells. Without the right material to produce them , the body simply uses what’s available, which results in a kind of ‘budget’ membrane that poses significant health risks. Widespread inflammatory diseases, accelerating cognitive decline and the high death toll from cardiovascular-related problems may all be directly linked to this. And there’s worse to come as this unwelcome development intensifies, along with almost all of today’s problems related to the industrialisation of our food.
Before we go any further, let’s first describe these fat layers. As you know, we are made up of trillions of cells which work together and interact with the external environment.
Each cell is separated from the outside world by a layer of fat called the plasma membrane. It’s in some ways the edge of life, the demarcation line between the internal and external world. Though this fatty layer is extremely thin – for example, 8000 such membranes are as thick as one sheet of paper – it is of vital importance. In either allowing or blocking the passage of certain substances, it enables the exchange of molecules – the essential driver of life. It allows cells to lock together and secrete substances such as enzymes, hormones and mucus, and nerve signals to be transmitted (which is how you are able to read this article and assess its relevance).
This membrane is actually composed of a very thin bi-layer formed from an infinity of tiny, constantly-moving molecules called glycerophospholipids (or phosphoglycerides). Produced by the body, these fatty substances are all very similar: they have a head, which is always identical, and two ‘tails’ which differ depending on what materials are available for their construction. Genetic information in DNA provides the body with ’instructions’ as to the best materials for building these ‘tails’. The problem is that the body does not always have a choice. Provided exclusively by the diet, these materials are rather like LEGO® bricks: they all interlock with the head but the finished structure varies. You can end up with short tails, kinked tails, twisted tails or very narrowed tails. For example, cooking meat with groundnut oil will provide different ‘bricks’ from those produced using rapeseed oil and thus the resulting ‘tails’ will have a different shape.
The best ‘bricks’ for forming the ‘tails’ of phosphoglycerides are essential fatty acids, particularly the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found almost exclusively in oily fish. When the body uses these two compounds to produce phosphoglycerides, the resulting tails are ‘kinked’ in such a way as to prevent the fatty substances from clumping together. This makes the plasma membrane healthy - a veritable sea of oilsaturated fatty acids, such as those found in cheese or cooked meats, the tails are as stiff as a post: the fatty substances are thus able to close up which makes the plasma membrane congealed and rigid, rather like those previously-mentioned fats in leftover food. Circulation therefore becomes very difficult and all the mechanisms which require good membrane fluidity slow right down.
This is what’s happening in the vast majority of people right now and the effects on the brain are dramatic.
While this rigidification of fats is a problem for the whole body, the area most seriously-affected is the brain. After adipose tissue, the brain is the body’s fattiest organ (it’s estimated to be nearly 60% fat). Its cells, called neurons, are highly stretched and therefore need better quality membranes than most other cells. In addition, these cells’ membranes are in constant use, communicating with other neurons. The membrane enables electrical impulses to be conveyed and plays a key role in transferring information-containing chemicals between neurons. But in order to fulfilll this role, the fatty membrane must be able to change its shape, cut and stretch itself - in a flash.And as you will appreciate, a rigid cell membrane is a real handicap here.
A team of researchers demonstrated this very clearly: there’s a sharp contrast between an omega 3-rich membrane and a rigid one. They injected a protein that stimulates membrane remodelling into both a rigid cell and one rich in omega-3. In just a few seconds, they observed that the latter cell membrane underwent a number of fissions (splitting), in contrast with the stiff membrane. Images provided even more striking evidence of the difference. Unsurprisingly, the scientists also showed that it was in these areas of membrane remodelling that levels of omega-3 fatty acids were highest. Indeed, it is these fatty acids which maximise the speed of remodelling and the transmission of information.
This explains a number of the correlations observed in the thousands of studies conducted on omega-3:
It’s clear then that we need to urgently replace our ‘congealed’ fats with fluid layers of oil to prevent these problems from become really serious. You’re no doubt wondering how this can be achieved. Is there a way of doing this that’s quick, reliable and scientifically-supported? Yes, yes and yes.
Where do you think the fats come from that make up the cell membranes of a new-born baby? From his or her mother, of course. When you were still in your mother’s womb, you drew upon her dietary intake and even on her personal reserves for your omega-3 intake! Indeed it’s thought that post-natal depression could be linked to total depletion of omega-3 from affected mothers’ cell membranes.
This accumulation of omega-3 in the body’s cells, especially in nervous system structures, occurs primarily during the last three months of pregnancy continuing up to the age of 2 (9). This is a critical period: the quality of fat intake at this time influences neuronal extension development, synapsis establishment and stabilisation, and myelinisation – everything, in fact, that gives a baby good motor, sensory and cognitive abilities. A lack of omega-3 at this stage of development results in sub-optimal visual and cognitive function. This is why women who are pregnant or breast-feeding are constantly advised to increase their intake of omega-3. In a study published in November 2018, adequate intake of omega-3 was even shown to reduce the risk of premature delivery (10) …
What happens after that? After the age of two, our EPA and DHA needs remain significant but the incorporation of fats into cell membranes takes place at a more gradual pace. The body establishes a rolling system of progressively replacing its fats so that it never gets to the point of having aging cell membranes. In order to maintain adequate omega-3 levels (and thus membrane fluidity), a regular intake over time is required. If not, omega-3s will gradually be replaced by other fats, and cell membranes will deteriorate.
It’s this ‘constant replacement’ that insidiously produces solidified fats, a decline in abilities and even neuronal degeneration because brain development processes (formation and maturation of neurons, migration towards appropriate sites, establishment of connections) continue until adulthood. They are still crucial beyond the age of 50! When omega-3 is missing from the diet, it automatically affects brain cell membranes, with varying loss of function depending on the region (11): -70% in the pituitary gland (an area that secretes many hormones), -40% in the prefrontal cortex (the site of superior cognitive function) and -25% in the cerebellum (which plays an important role in coordination). All this in just seven weeks!
But here’s the good news: just as we can gradually damage our cell membranes, we can also exert the opposite effect by providing the body with enough DHA and EPA. Provided, that is, that intake of these fatty acids is regular and sustained! In this way, the body will always have available the best possible ‘bricks’ to replace used ones.
The popularity of omega-3 fatty acids is not due to their ability to improve brain health. If, before reading this article, you’d been asked to name their principal benefit, you’d no doubt have said the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, and you’d have been right. It’s a long-recognized property of omega-3, demonstrated by thousands of studies, some more memorable than others.
Back in the 1970s, epidemiological studies revealed an incredibly low incidence of cardiovascular problems among Greenland’s Inuit population, whose diet was almost exclusively based on seafood (12-14). Some years later, similar results were seen in Japanese populations with a high consumption of fish (15-16).
In the year 2000, scientists conducted research into two villages on the island of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal off the north-west coast of Africa. One of the villages had maintained a pastoral tradition while the other was a fishing community. The inhabitants of both villages had similar levels of physical activity and cultural habits as a result of their geographical proximity. However, rates of cardiovascular mortality were significantly lower among the inhabitants of the fishing village who consumed 10 times as much fish as their farming counterparts (17).
We could go on and on quoting similar studies but fortunately, meta-analyzes have reviewed all the research published on the subject. Since there are dozens of these too, we’ll restrict ourselves to the latest, published in July 2018. It confirms the unequivocal positive effect of EPA and DHA on blood pressure and dyslipidaemia, two major risk factors for cardiovascular problems. The same analysis also confirmed their efficacy in relation to chronic diseases (18)!
What’s the explanation for these effects? The human body is able to extract the fats contained in membranes. Once ‘freed’, they circulate in the cell or in the external milieu. If you could observe in minute detail the free fats circulating in your body, you’d see a perfectly representative sample of the fats that make up your membranes. If, as is likely, your membranes are low in omega-3, you would find that very few omega-3 fatty acids are moving around outside your membranes. Instead, you’d find saturated fatty acids and ‘free’ omega-6 fatty acids.
Why is this a problem? Well these fats don’t actually circulate for very long: they are requisitioned by the body for conversion into active molecules. And the nature of these molecules depends precisely on the nature of the initial fats! Omega-6, for example, are converted into molecules that are vasoconstrictive (they have a narrowing effect on blood vessels), and above all, proinflammatory!
In contrast, EPA and DHA omega-3s are converted into molecules that have a positive influence on several biochemical processes: regulation of blood pressure, blood vessel elasticity, control of inflammation (19) (which plays a role in allergies, pain, chronic disease, asthma …) and even immune response. That’s why omega-3s are just as important for cardiovascular health as they are for cognitive health!
You may be wondering why the brain requires a nutrient that is so scarce in our food supply and why we have not evolved to eat a fish-heavy diet.
There are two possible responses to this entirely logical question.
Do you recall that EPA and DHA were previously described in this article as being almost exclusively obtained from marine animal sources? In actual fact, this is not entirely true. With great effort, the body is able to produce EPA and DHA from a substance that’s become almost as scarce: ALA. This is a plant-source omega-3 which is very fragile and is only found in significant quantities in foods such as flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, walnut oil and hemp seeds.
In order to produce EPA and DHA from ALA, the body needs specific tools, in limited amounts. The problem is that these same tools are also used to convert omega-6 fatty acids, which are omnipresent in our diet - disproportionately so in fact. Nowadays, we consume 15-30 times more omega-6 than omega-3, while in theory, we should be consuming equal amounts. Scientists have shown that this balance existed in prehistoric diets and that it all started to go wrong for us at the beginning of the 20th century, when the industrialisation of food production favoured more stable oils with a longer shelf life which are lower in omega-3. It was also around this time that fish consumption decreased and processed foods (disproportionately high in omega-6) began to form part of our daily diet.
This major imbalance has two important consequences:
So there’s essentially no way you can rely solely on plant-source omega-3s to restore the fluidity of the fats in your cell membranes … In times gone by, this would indeed have been possible, but modern diets no longer allow that. These days, we need compounds that are instantly active and available.
To return to the original question, the brain does not, therefore, necessarily require fish. Having said that, eating more fish is virtually the only way we can now provide the brain with those compounds that the body used to be able to produce efficiently.
The second response to this question is more hypothetical. Stephen Cunnane, a neurobiologist and author of ‘Survival of the Fattest’, hypothesises that the dramatic increase in volume of the human brain was only made possible by the fact that man lived in close proximity to food sources rich in EPA and DHA. He theorises that the advent of farming would have resulted in humans moving away from these sources, increasing the total amount of dietary resources available (leading to a global population explosion), but significantly decreasing the quality of these resources (with a consequent deterioration in human health).
The only way of restoring fluidity to membranes is to increase your intake of EPA and DHA. And as already discussed, fish and seafood are the only food sources available through which to do this.
But it is in no way feasible to rely on these foods on a daily basis. Not only would consuming them every day ‘blow your food budget’ (fish stocks are in free fall and global demand has never been higher), but it would also pose serious health risks. Due to toxin and heavy metal contamination of fish, health authorities agree that we should not eat more than two portions of fish a week (!).
It’s therefore become necessary to turn to omega-3 dietary supplements. And as is so often the case with supplements, you need to choose carefully. Given the highly-fragile nature of EPA and DHA chains and the fish contamination issue, it’s vital to choose a supplement that containsantioxidants (natural-source is best) and one in which the final extract has been purified, in order to ensure it’s free from toxins such as mercury, dioxins and BPCs. Even better is a supplement made from the oil of wild fish. These contain higher levels of omega-3 as wild fish feed on small fish, crustaceans and microalgae which are themselves rich in these fatty acids. This is not the case with farmed fish, which are treated with antibiotics and are often farmed in inhumane and unsanitary conditions.
One of the best supplements on the market, which meets each of these criteria, is also one of the most popular: Super Omega-3. The levels of satisfaction reported by those who’ve tried it, its high quality (it contains EPA and DHA) and its dosage (it corresponds to WHO recommendations of at least 500mg of EPA+DHA a day) are undoubtedly key factors in its popularity …
But its simplicity is surely a factor too: three capsules a day taken with meals for at least two months (that’s one pack a month) is enough to provide your body with optimal amounts of EPA and DHA.
If you decide to take a course of omega-3 supplements, this is what you can expect. With each day that passes, the fats in the capsules will be incorporated into your cell membranes. This is a slow process: it follows the same gradual rate of membrane replacement that happens naturally in the body. So don’t expect to see amazing improvements after two days! It takes several weeks to fully obtain the multiple benefits that greater membrane fluidity brings.
But what’s also good about taking omega-3 supplements is that the benefits continue after you stop supplementing. Incorporated durably into membranes, they are ‘the gift that keeps on giving’, providing sustained-release beneficial effects. Weeks after you’ve stopped taking your supplements (though you can take them long-term), the omega-3s will be firmly integrated into your cell membranes and will continue to circulate freely in your body.
One last thing: the cold exacerbates loss of membrane fluidity. Fish that live in very cold waters have membranes made from omega-3 precisely to combat this natural effect.
In other words, cell membranes that are low in omega-3 will pose an even greater health risk in winter. It’s therefore the perfect time to begin a course of supplements lasting several weeks.
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