Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

Is it How Much You Eat, or How Much You Keep?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Brain HealthWhy do some studies conclude that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a strong mind, a strong heart and will wipe out inflammation – while other studies suggest that they are ineffective? The simple answer is that nobody really knows.

However, in the process of reviewing two recent studies on omega-3 fatty acids and brain health I made an interesting observation that offers a possible explanation for the discrepancies between studies. And if my hypothesis is correct, it suggests that the design of many of the previous studies with omega-3 fatty acids is faulty.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

The first study (J.K. Virtanen et al, J Am Heart Assoc, 2013, 2:e000305 doi: 10.1161/JAHA.113.000305) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain function in older adults (>65 years old). It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with better white matter grade and a 40% reduction in subclinical infarcts (Sorry for the technical jargon – but both of those are good things in terms of brain function for those of us who are getting a bit older).

The second study (C. M. Milte et al, J of Attention Disorders, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1087054713510562) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on children (ages 6-13) with ADHD. It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with improved spelling and attention and reduced oppositional behavior, hyperactivity, cognitive problems and inattention.

What Is The Common Thread In These Studies?

Why, you might ask, am I comparing a study in the elderly, where the concern is retention of cognitive skills, with a study on ADHD in children?

That’s because there is a very important common thread in those two studies. It wasn’t the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet that counted. It was the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood that made the difference.

The first study included a detailed dietary history to estimate the habitual intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the participants.

  • There was no correlation between estimated dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and any measure of brain function in those older adults.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3s and brain health in that population group.

The second study was actually a placebo controlled intervention study in which the children were given 1 gm/day of either omega-3 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Once again, there was no correlation between dietary intake of omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids and any outcome related to ADHD.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids or omega-3/omega-6 ratio and improvement in multiple measures of ADHD.

How Could The Effect of Dietary Intake And Blood Levels Of Omega-3s Be So Different?

Fish OilBoth studies were relatively small and suffered from some technical limitations, but the most likely explanations are:

  • Inaccurate recall of the participants as to what they eat on a habitual basis. (study 1)
  • Individual differences in the ability of participants to convert short chain omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as canola oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts) to the beneficial long chain fatty acids (found in cold water fish). (study 1)
  • Poor compliance in taking the supplements. (study 2)

Why Are These Studies Important?

The most important insight to come out of both of these studies is that it is essential to actually measure blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and not just rely on dietary intake or supplementation for a valid clinical trial.

That’s a concern because blood measurements of omega-3 fatty acids are expensive and have not been a part of many of the clinical studies that have been performed to date. Even the largest, best designed clinical study is worthless if the dietary recalls aren’t accurate or people don’t take their capsules.

We need to go back and reevaluate many of the clinical studies that have been published.

We need to ask:

  • Are their conclusions valid?
  • Did some studies fail to show that omega-3s were effective simply because they only measured dietary intake and not how much of the omega-3s actually accumulated in the blood?

The Bottom Line

  • High blood levels of omega-3s in the blood correlated with improved brain health in the elderly and reduced ADHD symptoms in children
  • These studies were small, but they are consistent with a number of other studies that have come to similar conclusions.
  • Blood levels of omega-3s are better predictors than dietary intake for evaluating the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Many previous studies that failed to find an effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain health, heart health or inflammation did not actually measure blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids. These studies should be reevaluated.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (7)

  • mary cardinale

    |

    Steve,

    Excellent information on brain health/fish oil as it provokes many other questions. Now, what could affect the blood levels of Omega-2 fatty acids in the blood. Obviously, many of the flawed studies assumed that if one consumed say 1200 mg of fish oil that it is a slam dunk. So, what factors could affect the absorption of the oil. How does one make sure that the supplements one consumes results in appropriate levels in the blood! Thanks so much for the umbiased and scientific information; it gives pause for thought about many of the other studies that come out over the media.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Mary,

      The problems I was talking about related more to inaccurate recall of omega-3 intake in a diet history, failure to faithfully take the omega-3 capsules, or variable ability for our bodies to convert short chain omega-3 fatty acids such as found in canola or flaxseed oil to the beneficial long chain omega-3 fatty acids such as found in fish oil. There is relatively little evidence for differences in the uptake or utilization of the long chain omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Steve Harper

    |

    Great detail and yet comprehensible for the non medically affluent in terminology. Intake versus actual blood content of omega 3 that is a good topic. Makes sense of why some studies say one thing and others just the opposite.
    Great material for thought and study.

    Thanks!

    Reply

  • Victoria Waple

    |

    Question: How does one determine what the Optimal Health blood level should be? Thank You!

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Victoria,

      We don’t yet have sufficient research to say what the optimal blood level of omega-3s is. Most of the research has been done comparing dietary intake of omega-3s with health outcomes. The authors of the study I quoted were measuring blood levels simply to verify the accuracy of their dietary surveys.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Victoria Waple

    |

    Another question: Is it safe to take Shaklee OmegaGuard while on a blood thinner?
    Thanks again for your the valuable infomation in your Health Tip newsletters.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Victoria,

      You should consult with your doctor and ask them to monitor your bleeding time so that they can help you achieve the proper balance between onega-3s and blood thinning medication.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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