Fats and fatty acids
Fats are important building blocks in the body and have a number of important tasks (see list). Apart from the industrially produced trans-fatty acids, all fatty acids have a certain function in the human body. There are basically no “bad” or “good” fatty acids. Nevertheless, a large imbalance within the fatty acid groups can cause significant health problems. Today, this imbalance exists in particular in the ratio between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids and within polyunsaturated fatty acids between the so-called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The latter cannot be produced by humans themselves and are referred to as essential fatty acids.
Functions of fats
- Components of the cell membrane
- Main component of the nerve sheath (myelin sheath)
- Energy supplier and energy storage
- Heat regulation and insulation
- absorption of fat-soluble vitamins
- Prolongation of the feeling of satiety
- Starting point for hormones
- Conversion of β-carotene from food into vitamin A
- Absorption of mineral substances in the intestine
- Effective uptake of calcium into the skeleton and others
Omega 3 fatty acids
Brain ageing is an expression of an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency; vice versa, low levels of omega-3 fatty acid are a risk factor for the development of cognitive impairment. These include memory, reaction time and information processing.
Ketone bodies, the alternative source of energy
As already described on the page Sugar & Carbohydrates, the brain is the major energy consumer in the human body (approx. 25% of total energy consumption). This energy can easily be provided by the blood sugar (glucose). A big problem in today’s western diet is the flooding of the body with sugar. However, the supply of sugar is not essential. Energy can also be provided by metabolic processes in the liver in the form of ketone bodies.
Ketone bodies are the collective term for three compounds that are formed in the liver primarily during hunger metabolism (fasting, reduction diet or low-carbohydrate diet) and may lead to physiological ketosis (not to be confused with life-threatening ketoacidosis, e.g. in connection with diabetes mellitus and insulin deficiency). Keto bodies are acetoacetate (also called acetacetate), acetone and β-hydroxybutyrate or 3-hydroxybutyrate. The latter compound is the most important of the three. However, the ketone bodies formed in the liver during hunger metabolism merely represent an alternative form of energy transport. After absorption by the cell (CNS and muscle tissue), the ketone bodies are converted via enzymes into acetyl-CoA and the citrate cycle back into the cell fuel ATP. This is the reason for the fact that humans can survive also with strongly reduced carbohydrate supply over the fat transformation in the liver and explains the healing and purifying effect of fasting. Ketogenic diet thus describes a strictly low-carbohydrate form of nutrition that is also rich in fats and proteins.
MCTs and coconut oil
However, ketone bodies can also be formed directly through food intake without having to go the indirect route of hunger metabolism. One possibility for this is nutrition with so-called MCTs (MediumChainTriglycerides). Instead of taking the laborious and long way via the lymphatic fluid, MCTs are transported directly from the digestive tract (intestine) via the blood to the liver and metabolised for energetic purposes thanks to their compact size. MCTs are thus fast energy carriers that stimulate the metabolism and are either burned directly to satisfy energy requirements – for example in the skeletal muscles – or used to produce ketone bodies. Coconut oil and so-called MCT oils serve as sources.
As mentioned above, the keto bodies produced by the metabolism of MCTs in the liver can supply the brain with energy without the need for insulin. They are therefore a substitute fuel which, especially in neurodegenerative diseases that are closely related to insulin resistance of the cells, can lead to a significant improvement in brain performance and the regression of symptoms. An outstanding example of this is Alzheimer’s disease.