Brain Fuel

By: David Servan-Schreiber, M.D. Ph.D.

The brain is part of the body. Just like all the cells of all other organs, brain cells are continually being renewed. Tomorrow's cells are therefore made up of what we eat today.

One key neurological fact is that two-thirds of the brain is composed of fatty acids. These fats are the basic component of nerve cell membranes, the "envelope" through which all communications with other nerve cells take place, both within the brain and with the rest of the body. The food we eat is directly integrated into these membranes and makes up their substance. If we consume large quantities of saturated fats -- such as butter or animal fat, which are solid at room temperature -- their rigidity is reflected in the rigidity of the brain cells; if, on the other hand, we take in mostly polyunsaturated fats -- those which are liquid at room temperature -- the nerve cells' sheaths are more fluid and flexible and communication between them is more stable. Especially when those polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 fatty acids.

The effects of these nutrients on behavior are striking. When omega-3 fatty acids are eliminated from the diet of laboratory rats, the animals' behavior radically changes in a few weeks. They become anxious, stop learning new tasks, and panic in stressful situations, such as seeking an escape route from a water pool. Perhaps even more serious is the fact that a diet low in omega-3 reduces the capacity for pleasure. Much larger doses of morphine are required in these same rats to arouse them, despite the fact that morphine is the very model of easy gratification.

On the other hand, a team of European researchers has shown that a diet rich in omega-3 -- such as the Eskimo's, consisting of up to 16 grams a day of fish oil -- leads, in the long run, to the increased production of neurotransmitters for energy and positive mood in the emotional brain.

The fetus and the newborn child, with their rapidly developing brains, have the greatest need for omega-3 fatty acids. A recent Danish study published in the British Medical Journal shows that women who take in more omega-3 in their everyday diet during pregnancy have heavier and healthier infants, as well as fewer pre-mature births. Another Danish study, published this time in the Journal of the American Medical Association, demonstrates that children who were breastfed for at least 9 months and who also received a great quantity of omega-3 in their diet have a higher IQ than others 20 or 30 years later. And women in countries with the highest consumption of fish and the highest omega-3 levels in their breast milk are also considerably less likely to suffer from post-partum depression. But the role of omega-3 is by no means limited to pregnancy.

*endnotes have been omitted

Reprinted from: Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D. © 2003, 2004 by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at

David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., PH.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and cofounder of the Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He codirected a National Institutes of Health laboratory for the study of clinical cognitive neuroscience and functional neuroimaging for several years and has published more than 90 scientific monographs. He's lectured at leading international academic centers, including Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, and Cambridge Universities. One of the original seven members of the United States board of Doctors Without Borders/Médicins Sans Frontières, he served on the board for 9 years and provided medical relief in Kurdistan, Guatemala, India, Tajikistan, and Kosovo. He continues to develop mental health interventions for victims of crises and to train therapists in crisis areas.

For more information, please visit the author's website at or

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