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Adequate Blood Flow

The most important thing the brain needs is an excellent supply of oxygen, and this comes only from adequate blood flow, since your blood cells carry oxygen to your brain and the rest of your organs. Your brain's energy, as well as the energy in the rest of your body, is made by energy powerhouses called mitochondria that are found in each cell. Oxygen enables mitochondria in your brain cells to pump out an energy chemical, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Without adequate levels of ATP, your brain has an energy drain and its function decreases.

As you age, the mitochondria become less efficient at pumping out ATP, and a primary reason for this is decreased blood flow to the brain. Although the brain represents only about 2 percent of your total body mass, it accounts for more than 25 percent of the blood flow. Without adequate blood flow, your brain is deprived of oxygen and thus is unable to manufacture enough ATP to operate at peak efficiency. Below a critical level of ATP production, brain cells can begin to die. A stroke is an extreme example of this: blood flow and oxygen to a portion of the brain are restricted, and brain cells in that region die off.

The best way to increase blood flow to the brain (and every other organ, for that matter) is to generate more “good” eicosanoids (which are powerful vasodilators that widen the opening of arteries, veins and capillaries) and fewer “bad” eicosanoids (which are powerful vasoconstrictors that have the opposite effect). The long-chain omega-3 fatty acid contained in fish oil, EPA, will increase the production of “good” eicosanoids by decreasing the levels of arachidonic acid (the building block of “bad” eicosanoids). The higher the level of EPA in the diet, the more your cells will be induced to make more “good” eicosanoids.


Stable Blood Sugar

Even if you have adequate oxygen flow to the brain, you will need a stable supply of glucose, since the brain also needs this fuel to make ATP. The only way to maintain a steady supply of glucose to the brain is to control insulin levels. Having a spike in your insulin levels (which comes from eating too many carbohydrates) can drive glucose levels down so low that your brain function is compromised. That's why you feel so sleepy two hours after eating a huge pasta meal. Your thinking becomes fuzzy, you have difficulty concentrating, and all you want to do is take a nap.

At this point, your brain, deprived of adequate levels of blood sugar to make ATP, is desperately seeking any way possible to get more blood sugar. As a result you are driven by an almost manic urge to eat carbohydrates. That's your brain's way of telling you that you have to get some glucose into the bloodstream quickly ? or else. The more carbohydrate-rich that food is, the faster it can reach your bloodstream and then your brain. Candy bars, soft drinks, and other types of junk food are just a quick way to self-medicate the low blood sugar induced by elevated insulin levels from your last meal. These carbohydrate fixes temporarily solve the problem of low blood sugar but create a new cycle of increased insulin levels, and you soon find yourself with one bout after another of craving carbohydrates. To keep yourself out of this vicious circle, you need to prevent your brain from sending out the distress call in the first place. The way to do that is to keep it supplied with steady amounts of glucose by maintaining insulin levels within a defined zone that is neither too high nor too low.

The only way to stabilize blood sugar levels is by maintaining a relatively constant protein-to-carbohydrate balance every time you eat. You need some insulin to drive glucose into your cells for storage, but too much insulin reduces blood sugar to such low levels that brain function is impaired. By stabilizing insulin in the blood, you won't have a dizzying drop in blood sugar. And there's an added benefit: steady insulin will enable your body to maintain a steady level of the hormone glucagon, which releases stored blood sugar from the liver, allowing a constant supply of blood sugar for the brain. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, and protein stimulates the release of glucagons; that is why I always recommend balancing these two nutrients at every meal and snack.


Docosahexaenoic Acid

The final thing the brain loves is an adequate level of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This is one of the two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil (EPA is the other). More than 60 percent of the weight of the brain is fat, and most of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in the body are concentrated in the brain. Virtually all of this long-chain omega-3 fat, however, is in the form of DHA, since the brain contains very little EPA. One reason the brain demands such high levels of DHA is that it's critical for certain cell membranes such as the synapse (to transfer information), the retina (to receive visual inputs), and the mitochondria (to make ATP). Thus, the key brain cells can't perform at peak levels without adequate DHA in their membranes.

Trying to maintain your brain function without adequate DHA is like trying to build the sturdiest brick house in town without enough bricks. You might have the best architect, the best location, and the best contractor, but if you don't have enough bricks, the dream house will never be built properly. Without adequate DHA, your brain can't function adequately and can't form new neural connections, let alone maintain old ones.

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