Maintaining a Healthy Brain

CBN.com With growing frequency, news items appear about the benefits of fish oil – especially about studies showing that fish oil helps the brain in some way. Fish oil has been said to thwart depression, lessen the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and keep a host of other brain disorders at bay.

The central theme of this article is that consumption of high doses of fish oil dramatically alters our brain function (how we think, focus, and reason) and quite probably boosts our intelligence.*

I put forward the critical need to define wellness if we are to make it the goal for twenty-first century medicine. The brain operates under the same conditions as the body. Just as you want to achieve a state of wellness for your body, you also want to achieve a state of wellness for your brain. Your brain isn’t in a state of wellness just because you don’t have some obvious neurological problem, like depression or attention deficit disorder. Your brain is in a state of wellness only if you’re thinking at peak efficiency. This means you’re unhampered by mental fuzziness, jittery nerves, inability to complete tasks, or a sense of doom and gloom. Ask yourself these questions to see if your brain is in a state of wellness:

  • Do you have a hard time concentrating on your daily tasks?
  • Do you find yourself moving from project to project without ever completing the one at hand?
  • Do you have a hard time getting organized or remembering things?
  • Do you find it difficult to look forward to the future?
  • Are you feeling down more often than you’re feeling good?
  • Are you finding yourself acting less civil to others?

If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” your brain is in a state of subchronic illness. I could list dozens of additional questions about mental health, but you get the idea. You know when you’re operating in slow motion or just not feeling the mental zip that you had when you were younger. You might even blame your mental decline on advancing age. I can’t tell you how many forty- and fifty-year-olds tell me that their mental capacity is diminishing as they reach middle age. I tell them that their brainpower may be diminishing, but this has nothing to do with their age. They’re simply not maintaining the brain in a zone of wellness.

Because of its amazing complexity, the human brain remains shrouded in mystery. We’re not exactly sure how it works. As a result, when the brain goes wrong, we feel powerless to fix it. There are two points in your life when your brain is most vulnerable: when you’re an infant, and it is still developing; and when you reach old age, and it begins to fail. In one case, your brain can be robbed of reaching its full potential; in the other, you have lost your ability to take a lifetime of experiences and integrate them into a cohesive and meaningful mosaic. This is why our greatest fear, as we age, is that the brain will give out before the body.

My dietary program can dramatically alter brain function at both ends of the age spectrum and in all the years between. By following this plan, you give your brain what it loves and avoid giving it what it hates. As a result, you keep it humming at peak efficiency at every stage of your life. As hokey as it sounds, if you’re good to your brain, your brain will be good to you.

Just like body wellness, brain wellness depends on increased blood flow and decreased inflammation. In order to achieve both, you have to give the brain what it loves and avoid the things it hates. Fortunately, the list is pretty short.

Brain Loves Brain Hates
Adequate blood flow Inflammation
Stable blood sugar Loss of key neurotransmitters
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) Excess cortisol


Let’s look at each one of these items in more detail. You’ll begin to see just how much dietary control you have over your brain’s state of wellness.


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.



While you’re providing your brain with the important things it needs, you also have to avoid giving it what it hates. And your brain absolutely despises inflammation. Inflammation appears to be the underlying condition associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. All inflammation is ultimately caused by the increased production of “bad” eicosanoids. What’s more, many of the proinflammatory cytokines (proteins produced by immune cells) lead to the production of more “bad” eicosanoids, and vice versa. So bad begets worse, and the inflammation cycle continues unabated.

The best way to stop this cycle is to produce high doses of fish oil to provide adequate levels of EPA. Not only will you choke off the production of “bad” eicosanoids (by decreasing the production of arachidonic acid), but you’ll also decrease the production of inflammation-promoting cytokines. This is a real win-win situation for your brain.

Loss of Key Neurotransmitters

The second thing the brain hates is any loss of key neurotransmitters. Those are the chemicals that control the flow of information transfer from one nerve cell to the other as they cross the gap (synapse) between different nerve cells. Without adequate levels of neurotransmitters, information slows dramatically. Two of the most important neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine. Consider serotonin to be your stress-adaptation hormone and dopamine to be your action hormone. When serotonin levels are low, depression and violent or impulsive behavior become more likely. When dopamine levels are low, there’s an increased likelihood of Parkinson’s disease (decreased motor skills) or attention deficit disorder (decreased ability to focus on immediate tasks).

A multibillion-dollar drug market has been developed to provide a wide variety of pharmaceuticals that are intended to increase either serotonin or dopamine. Unfortunately, if a drug increases one of these neurotransmitters, it often depresses the other. There is, however, one natural “drug” that can increase both dopamine and serotonin simultaneously. That “drug” is high-dose fish oil. By taking high doses of fish oil, you can maintain adequate levels of both neurotransmitters.

Excess Cortisol

Your brain also detests excess cortisol – the hormone your body releases in response to long-term stress. The more stress (which includes chronic pain or inflammation) you have in your life, the more cortisol is released to control it. Unfortunately, nothing kills brain cells (especially those in the hippocampus where memories are stored) faster than excess cortisol. Excess cortisol also inhibits short-term memory, like remembering where you put your keys.

My dietary recommendations reduce excessive cortisol production in two ways. First, EPA in fish oil decreases the production of arachidonic acid, which in turn decreases the production of “bad” eicosanoids. As the levels of “bad” eicosanoids decrease, the need for the body to produce cortisol decreases. Second, my dietary program stabilizes insulin levels, thus shutting down the need for the production of excess cortisol. Cortisol is sometimes released to stimulate the release of stored sugar into the blood when blood sugar levels dip too low. This occurs if you are not producing adequate levels of glucagon (the primary hormone to stimulate the release of stored carbohydrate), which can be suppressed by high levels of insulin. Although cortisol gives your brain what it needs for the moment (more blood sugar), you then have the problem of excess cortisol levels flowing through the bloodstream, causing damage to the memory center in the hippocampus in the brain.

The table below summarizes your brain’s desires and aversions – and what impact fish oil and insulin have on them.

Brain Loves and Hates
  Impact of Insulin Control Impact of High-Dose Fish Oil
Brain Loves    
Blood Flow   X
Stable Blood Sugar X  
Brain Hates    
Inflammation   X
Loss of Neurotransmitters   X
Excess cortisol X  


As you can see, insulin control accounts for about 25 percent of your brain function, whereas eicosanoid control accounts for about 75 percent. Thus, you need a combination of dietary measures (balancing carbohydrates and protein) and high-dose fish oil to give your brain what it loves and avoid what it hates. This is the foundation of my dietary program.

Excerpted from The Omega RX Zone: The Miracle of the New High-Dose Fish Oil by Dr. Barry Sears. Copyright © by Dr. Barry Sears.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. As with any natural product, individual results will vary.

For more information about Dr. Barry Sears, his incredible fish oil supplements, or the popular Zone Diet, please visit www.zoneliving.com.

If you purchase any Zone Labs, Inc. products, part of the proceeds support CBN ministries.