Fish Food for Thought

Have you heard about omega-3s? You may have seen headlines in the New York Times or CNN touting their benefits. Maybe you have seen them highlighted on cereal boxes and other food products. What are they and why is it such a big deal?

The fat brain

Omega-3s are one type of Poly-Unsaturated Fatty Acid or PUFA that are incredibly important for your heart and brain. In fact, your brain is about 25% PUFA by weight and about 40% fat overall. Yes, the brain is a big fat organ! This is one reason why low-fat diet fads are not the best option.

Omega-3s are actually important for every cell in the body but they are especially high in brain cells. They help your brain cells signal to each other appropriately and keep things running smoothly.

So what kinds of foods have them? Actually, there are three main kinds of omega-3s. One that comes mostly from plants, like flaxseed and some nuts, and two others that come mostly from fish. They are all important for the body but the omega-3s found in fish appear to be most important for the brain.

Food for your mood

The interesting thing is that societies who eat more fish have lower rates of depression, suicide and violent behavior. Also, omega-3s have been found to be lower in blood samples from suicide victims, schizophrenics and bipolar patients.

These types of studies are called ‘observational’ because you can’t say that low omega-3s caused these conditions. However, one study that took place in a British women’s prison showed that giving inmates omega-3 supplements actually reduced violent behavior. Also, omega-3s have shown promise in small clinical trials treating depression and bipolar illness. Other studies in animals show that omega-3s affect the levels of neuro-chemicals that control mood, like dopamine and serotonin.

This is not to say that if you don’t get enough omega-3s that you will get mentally ill, but there appears to be a real link. Many factors contribute to mental illness, including, genetics, chronic stressful experiences, physical activity and yes, diet. Omega-3s look like they are one piece in the puzzle.

What about Mercury?

So should you just eat more fish? This brings up another problem. Too much fish can lead to problems from mercury and PCBs. In fact, pregnant women are advised not to eat fish at all. This is a big debate in the medical community because omega-3s are incredibly important for development of the fetus and the growing baby will ‘steal’ omega-3s from the mother if she doesn’t get enough in her diet. Some researchers argue that this advice does more harm than good. Still, most doctors today don’t offer their pregnant patients any other alternatives – they just say don’t eat fish.

This is where fish oil supplements can come in. They are becoming very popular and offer a safe alternative – if you are careful. The thing to look for is ‘molecular distillation’ on the back of the bottle. This means that the manufacturer has tried to remove heavy metals and PCBs. Still, I would check with them to make sure they have some kind of quality control since the FDA does not regulate this claim.

Why now?

So why didn’t we have all these problems centuries ago. It’s not like all our ancestors took fish oil pills all the time. Well, there is another major factor that I haven’t mentioned yet – omega-6s.

Omega-6s are another kind of PUFA that are also important in the brain. The balance between omega-6s and omega-3s in the diet is very important. They are like the yin and yang of fats. They compete with each other for many biological functions and keep each other in check.

For example, omega-6s help the immune system by turning on inflammatory processes necessary to fight infections. Omega-3s help to turn it off and keep inflammation low. They are both important but need to be kept in balance.

We think that the ideal ratio between omega-6s and omega-3s is about 1:1 and this is what we probably ate throughout most of our thousands of year history. However, today’s western diet is closer to 10:1 or even as high as 30:1 in favor of omega-6s. We are getting too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s to balance them out.

Why? Omega-6s are high in oils from corn, safflower, canola, peanuts and soy. These are found in high concentrations in many of the foods we eat, especially processed foods. It has really been since the industrial revolution that we started to consume large amounts of omega-6s and lower amounts of omega-3s.

Many researchers, including myself, believe that this is one factor in the rise of many diseases today. Since omega-6s tend to promote inflammatory responses, we are essentially eating a high inflammatory diet. Inflammation is a major suspect underlying many diseases of the brain and body – the big ones being heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

So there it is. Omega-3s are important for many functions and they are a big deal because our dietary intake of omega-3s and omega-6s are out of whack. The best thing you can do is to stop eating many of the processed foods that contain high omega-6s and eat a little more fish. Personally, I take a high quality fish oil supplement daily and so do my wife and kids.

Copyright (c) 2006 The Brain Code LLC