Fishing for Neuroticism

It seems like every time I turn around there’s another cool study on omega-3s, this time linking neurotic behavior to low levels of omega-3s in the blood. Researchers looked at measures of anxiety, angry hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsivity and vulnerability.

Amazingly, all but ‘vulnerability’ correlated with omega-3 and omega-6 concentrations in the blood. Folks that had more of a specific omega-3, called EPA, had better scores (less neurotic) and those with higher levels of an omega-6, called AA, had worse scores (more neurotic). The studies, published by Conklin et al. in Psychosomatic Medicine, are the first to link the omega fats to neuroticism in otherwise healthy adults.

It’s all in the Balancing Act.

I have written several articles in the past talking about the importance of maintaining a good omega-3 to omega-6 balance in your diet. In light of the new data associating both types of omegas with neuroticism, in opposite directions, a few more details seem pertinent.

First off, you can’t really label omega-3s as ‘good’ and omega-6s as ‘bad’. We need them both, but we need them in balance. Nutritionists believe that the perfect balance lies somewhere between 1:1 and 1:5 of 3s to 6s, and this is probably what we ate throughout most of history, up to about 100 years ago.

Today, the average western diet is about 1:20 in favor of omega-6s. This has created an imbalance and a need for more 3s and less 6s, which has earned the 6s a reputation as ‘bad’. But like I said, you need them both.

For one example, omega-6s help turn the immune system on. Without them, you can’t mount much of a defense against bacterial invaders. But, too much of them and the immune system may get out of control and lead to excessive inflammation. Unfortunately, this seems to be exactly what is happening in many westerners and may underlie a lot of things, like heart disease, some cancers and even Alzheimer’s dementia.

On the flip side of that, if you over-do the omega-3s and cut out all the 6s (tough to do in the western diet) then your blood may get too thin, unable to coagulate and lead to bleeding disorders.

So like I said….balance is key. Since omega-6s are found in high amounts in corn oil and many other common vegetable oils, we get plenty of those. Omega-3s on the other hand are found mostly in fish and fish oil supplements, as well as a few uncommon oils, like flaxseed. So, it’s still wise to try to increase your omega-3s and reduce your 6s because of the foods we typically eat. Personally, I take a fish oil supplement and plan to continue that.

The Long and Short of It.

One other point needs addressing regarding omega-3s. You see them everywhere: on cereal boxes, crackers, and all kinds of processed foods. But, this isn’t really what you want. Omega-3s come in different forms, from short to long.

The short forms are what you get out of flaxseed and other vegetable oils that have good amounts of omega-3s (some of these are also high in 6s, which the products don’t advertise). However, it’s the long forms that are required for brain health and that seem to be protective against depression and neuroticism in recent studies.

Some animals can eat the short forms and convert them to long forms, but humans aren’t very good at that. Cows and chickens, on the other hand, do okay, which is another health reason for eating free-range beef and poultry. Their meats are higher in omega-3s. If the cows and chickens eat grain feed (mostly corn) they load up on omega-6s. If they eat grasses they load up on omega-3s.

Still, the best source of long chain omega-3s are fish or fish oil supplements. Fish are great at converting short chain to long chain AND they eat a lot of long chain omega-3s as well. The other alternative is to eat the stuff that fish eat, like marine algae or insects, but I think I’ll stick to the fish source.

Reference: Psychosomatic Medicine (2007), 69:932-34

Copyright (c) 2007 BrainFit For Life