Salmon is one of nature's best sources of DHA, an essential fatty acid important for brain health. [Image credit: Flickr user James Bowe]
Salmon is topping the charts as one of the best foods to eat, but what makes this pink-fleshed marine animal a modern mealtime marvel?
Your brain is fat, really fat. Sixty percent of it is composed of fatty acids, the long snake-like building blocks of fat molecules required for proper brain structure and function. Fatty acids come in many varieties, yet the brain has a clear favorite — and salmon is packed with it. More than two-thirds of the brain’s fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in oily fish, although some vegetarian sources exist as well. Metabolically incapable of making DHA on our own, we must obtain it from our diet.
DHA is like a warm winter coat for your neurons, or brain cells, making up a majority of their cell membrane, the cell’s outer coating. And just like you wouldn’t want to leave your house in the winter without putting on a coat, you wouldn’t want to starve your brain cells of DHA. This essential fatty acid protects neurons from injury, reduces cerebral inflammation, helps produce neurotransmitters that tell cells what to do and is essential for quick information transfer down the axon, the neuron’s highway.
Even though you can’t produce this neuronal insulation on your own, you steal enough of it from your mom while in utero to help you through the first few years of life (that’s why mom’s omega-3 intake during pregnancy is so important). But as you age, DHA levels in your brain decline — imagine your winter coat slowly vanishing the longer you stay outdoors. This deterioration has been linked to memory loss, mood disorders, cognitive decline, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reduced brain volume and Alzheimer’s disease.
When you’re young, you don’t need to remember your coat when you go outside — a parent never lets you leave the house without it. But as an adult, this responsibility falls on your shoulders. If you don’t adequately layer up before facing the cold, you’ll pay the price. Similarly, if you fail to obtain enough DHA from your diet, your brain will be unable to fire optimally. You’ll leave your neurons exposed to injury, disease, inflammation and reduced cognitive capabilities.
Yet just because you may be feeling chilly now, there’s no need to go overboard with this oily fish. Two servings of salmon a week should do the trick for keeping your brain cells working properly and reducing your risk of neurological disease. So if it’s been a while since you approached the fish counter, you may want to think about paying a visit. I’m making this for dinner.