Can the brain go rancid?

That's an interesting question. The brain is 60% fat, a large part of that being DHA, a polyunsaturated oil that can go rancid very easily. So wouldn't it stand to reason that the brain could go "rancid" as well?

Rancidity means that the fats have become oxidized or turned into lipid peroxides in a process called "oxidative rancidity." Oxygen molecules make their way into the structure of the fatty acid, profoundly changing its shape, function, and structure.

The more unsaturated a fat is, the more easily it goes rancid when exposed to heat or light. That's why it's advised not to cook with polyunsaturated fats or leave them on the shelf in a clear bottle. Once the structure of the fat is changed, it becomes unhealthy for consumption. It also tastes, well, rancid.

The order of susceptibility to rancidity from highest to lowest is:

Polyunsaturated → Monounsaturated → Saturated → Cholesterol

So what must occur for the brain to go rancid? Nutrition expert Michael Schmidt says that there are three components to this doomsday scenario.

1 Polyunsaturated oils.

DHA is the longest and most unsaturated fatty acid and a big part of what's between your ears is DHA.

Air Pollution

2 Exposure to free radicals through oxygen and other factors.

We need oxygen to breathe, but oxygen can drive rancidity, and the brain is the most oxygen-hungry tissue in the body.

Excessive carb intake, caffeine, stress, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, pollution, and otherwise living the life of a Jersey Shore bar-star can all lead to free radicals that negatively affect the brain.

3 Presence of metals, especially iron and mercury.

The presence of iron creates a risk for rancidity. When exposed to oxygen, iron rusts like the fenders on the old Schwinn you inherited from your sister. It's definitely the worst offender for "igniting" oxidation in the brain. Iron accumulation is apparent in debilitating neurological conditions like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, not to mention cancer cell proliferation.

Elevated mercury levels have disastrous potential to the brain, kidneys, and lungs. Consumption of mercury-tainted fish is a leading cause of mercury poisoning; something I've experienced personally. In 2005, my body reached toxic levels of mercury as a result of eating several pounds of orange roughy a day in a pre-contest phase. It can happen.

The above factors present a compelling argument that the brain can go rancid.

What can we do?

Strategies for Keeping a Healthy Brain

Giving your brain the raw material it needs is the first step. The fats that fit this role include EPA, DHA, and arachidonic acid.

What about linoleic, gamma-linolenic, and alpha-linolenic fatty acids? Aren't they valuable fats, too? Check out the diagram below.

Brain Fat

Omega-3's, or the foods that contain them, like flax seed, chia seeds, etc., aren't bad fats or fat sources to consume, but don't count on them to be converted to DHA. The body isn't very good at converting these fats to DHA, particularly as we get older. Focus your attention elsewhere.

Omega-6's, or the foods that contain them, like safflower, sunflower oil, etc., all receive high praise from health zealots, but they shouldn't be on your smart fat radar, either. Consuming too much omega-6 can increase inflammation in the body, not a great scenario from a training or general health perspective.

What you should target are the foods in the DHA and arachidonic acid boxes. Wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, grass-fed beef, raw milk, and organic eggs, fit the bill. These are your "money" foods, so commit your resources accordingly.

(If you don't like fish or are on a tight budget, try Flameout®. It's loaded with mercury-free DHA.)

Notice, I said grass-fed beef, pastured organic eggs, and raw milk. That's an important distinction. Omega 6 to 3 ratios are near perfect in grass fed beef, but are out of wack in conventional, corn-fed varieties. Similarly, cows fed grass have more omega-3 in their milk. Pastured (free range) chickens also have better ratios, especially when fed omega-3 enriched feed.

A free radical is essentially an atom with major issues. It's lost an electron, but rather than seek therapy and accept the loss, it pops a few Vicodin and embarks on a path of metabolic destruction by trying to steal an electron from another unsuspecting atom.

There are different kinds of free radicals, though.

Peroxyl radical. The most common free radical. Thought to be a major cause of Alzheimer's disease and other brain maladies, peroxyl radicals attack the cell membrane, which needs polyunsaturated and saturated fats to function optimally – but polyunsaturated fats are also susceptible to free radical destruction.

Hydroxyl radical. These are the most reactive and dangerous free radicals in chemistry. Hydroxyl radicals cause DNA mutation and can actually break the DNA strands. The list of pathologies that this radical can cause is extensive.

Peroxynitrite radical. This oxidant attacks proteins, cysteines, and methionines. It plays a role in the development of chronic inflammation, neurological disorders, depression, and many non-brain related issues such as diabetes. Peroxynitrite is one of the potent reactive metabolites for the initiation of lipid peroxidation.

Superoxide radical. Trouble with a capital T. When combined with certain elements, it creates the other radicals listed above.


Here are some of my favorites.

Protection against peroxyl radical and hydroxyl radical:

  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli (plus source of Vitamin C)

Source of Vitamin C:

  • Kiwi fruit
  • Oranges

Source of Vitamin E:

  • Red palm oil (contains all mixed tocopherols)

High ORAC fruit that fights oxidation:

  • Blueberries (also great source of anthocyanins)
  • Blackberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Pomegranates (also great source of anthocyanins)

Try Superfood because of it's incredibly high ORAC score. ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. It's a measure of the free radical scavenging activity against the peroxyl radical, the most common reactive oxygen species (ROS) found in the body. The higher the ORAC score, the better the food can help fight off free radicals. Superfood's ORAC score of 5000 means it's serious bang for your antioxidant buck.

The mitochondria are tiny organelles that live within brain cells. They produce ATP, which provides the energy for brain activity. Without the mitochondria, neurotransmitters wouldn't function, neurons wouldn't conduct signals, and to make matters worse, you'd die.

Some of the best nutrients to support mitochondrial function and protection against oxidation include:

  • CoQ10 (the Ubiquinone version)
  • NAC (N-acetyl cysteine)
  • Acetyl l-carnitine
  • R-form alpha lipoic acid

Notice I did not include Vitamin E or C. The evidence suggests that foods containing these vitamins do a better job than supplemental versions.

Chemistry geek alert: Of special interest is something called Fenton's Reagent. This is the iron-salt-dependent decomposition of dihydrogen peroxide that generates the highly reactive hydroxyl radical. The addition of a reducing agent like ascorbate, as in Vitamin C supplements, leads to a cycle that increases the damage to biological molecules, which is something to think about as you guzzle a hand-full of vitamins with your morning oatmeal.

That buff body you built isn't worth a hoot if your brain is left to fester like leftover sashimi. I hope you've learned something about keeping your noodle healthy, and send any questions my way in the LiveSpill!