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Myelin Sheath and Essential Fatty Acids

By Laura Niedziocha

Your nervous system is a finely tuned machine, able to process feedback and send out signals in milliseconds. Whether you have to think about it or not, your brain is constantly sending signals to the rest of your body to regulate your heart rate, breathing, digestion and other cellular functions to maintain a homeostatic balance inside your body. Your brain and nervous system deserve the proper nutrients to maintain function and health.

Anatomy of the Nervous System

Your nervous system is made of small cells called neurons. A neuron possess the ability to express electrical signals to one another that end in a signal to the cells or group of cells that can carry out the function of the signal. Each neuron consists of a body that contains the nucleus, dendrites that receive a signal and an axon that transmits a signal. The axon is covered in a protective coating known as a myelin sheath.

Myelin Sheath Functioning

The myelin sheath surrounds the axon of a neuron. It is there to aid in the transmission of the signal down the neuron. Both the speed and quality of a signal is influenced by the condition of the myelin sheath. If the sheath is damaged or not functioning properly, signals are slowed and your response time or movement is affected.

Essential Fatty Acids and the Myelin Sheath

Your myelin sheath is 80 percent lipid. Lipids are fats, typically provided by the diet. Essential fatty acids, like omega 6 or omega 3 fatty acids, can influence the health of your myelin sheath. When a fat is termed essential, it means that your body cannot them; therefore, you must consume them from foods or supplements. According to "Anatomy and Physiology" by Kenneth Saladin, dietary fatty acids play a role in maintaining the integrity of your myelin sheath. In fact, in young children, dietary fatty acids are important for the development of the nervous system. Children are better off when served fatty sources of foods like fish and milk.

Implications of Disease

The most well-known myelin sheath disorder is multiple sclerosis, or MS. MS is an auto-immune disease that occurs when the myelin sheath has broken down. When your myelin sheath is affected, simple movements like writing or tying your shoes can be difficult. Eventually, MS can lead to the inability to walk. Since the myelin sheath is composed mostly of essential fatty acids, a diet rich in these fats can help reduce symptoms of MS as well as relapses, according to the National MS Society. Omega fatty acids can be found in fish and oils such as flaxseed or sunflower.

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