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

How to Choose the Right Pillow

Posted April 17, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Wake Up Each Morning Pain Free

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT – The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney

 

how to choose the right pillow without headachesThe way you sleep is often a key to discovering the cause of headaches and more. If you wake up with neck pain, a headache, or you suffer from ringing in your ears, dizziness, or ear pain, there is a good possibility that it may be caused by the way you are sleeping. Your pillow may be the culprit.  But if you need to know how to choose the right pillow for you, it’s easy.   It just takes a little “investigation.”

 

How to Choose the Right Pillow if You Sleep On Your Side

Your head, neck, and spine need to always stay in a nice straight line, just as it is when you are standing up, but that takes a little thought and understanding of the way you sleep.  So, get comfy in your bed and then notice how your head is resting.

how to choose the right pillow to sleep painfreeIf you sleep on your side, your pillow needs to be just the right size, so your head doesn’t point down toward the mattress (your pillow is too soft) or up to the ceiling (your pillow is too thick). Either of these positions will make the muscles on the side of your neck stay in the contracted position for hours and pull your vertebrae in that direction, especially when you try to turn over to your other side.

Your SCM Muscle May Cause Serious Problems

You also need to notice if you turn your head a bit, especially if you are turning into your pillow or turning your head up toward away from your pillow. In either of these two cases you will be causing your sternocleidomastoid (SCM for short) to be held shortened for hours.

Your SCM originates on your collarbone and inserts into the bone behind your ear.  When it contracts you turn your head to the opposite side. However, if the muscle is tight (for example, when you’ve held your head turned toward one side for an extended period of time) and then you bring your head back so you are facing forward, the tight muscle will pull on the bone behind your ear and cause havoc.

The symptoms for a tight SCM are tinnitus (ringing in the ear), dizziness, loss of equilibrium, ear pain, headaches, pain in the eye and around the skull, pain at the top of the head, and even pain in the throat. Amazing! What’s even more amazing is that it’s rare that this muscle is considered when a medical professional is searching for the cause of your symptoms.

These are the things to know when considering how to choose the right pillow if you sleep on your side.

How To Choose The Right Pillow If You Sleep On Your Back

how to choose the right pillow for sleeping on your backIf you sleep on your back, your head should be on the mattress (not propped up with a pillow) and you should have a tiny support (like a folded washcloth) under your neck.  Or, you can have a wedge pillow that starts at your mid-back and gently raises your entire trunk and head up while still allowing your head and back to be in a straight line.

It’s always a challenge for people who toss and turn during the night, sometimes on their side and sometimes on their back.  The best thing I’ve found for this situation is to have the pillow below shoulder level so when you turn on your side your shoulder will automatically slide to the edge of the pillow while still supporting your head properly, and when you turn onto your back, the pillow will start at shoulder level so your head and neck are supported, but your head is being pushed in a way that causes your chin to move down to your chest.

hip pain causes and treatment pain freeIt’s tricky, but I can personally attest to the fact that it will work.  I can always tell when I’ve had my head tilted (I toss and turn during the night) because I will wake with a headache. When that happens I’m grateful that I know how to self-treat the muscles of my neck and shoulders so the headache is eliminated quickly.  If you already have Treat Yourself to Pain Free Living,  you can self-treat all your neck and shoulder muscles to release the tension.

How To Choose The Right Pillow If You Sleep On Your Stomach

If you sleep on your stomach, this is the one position that is so bad that it behooves you to force yourself to change your position. Your head is turned to the side and held still for hours, putting a severe strain on all your cervical and upper thoracic vertebrae. Not only will this cause headaches, tinnitus, and a list of other pains, but it can cause problems down your entire spine. It can also impinge on the nerves that pass through the vertebrae on their way to your organs.

If you do sleep that way, let me know and I’ll give you some suggestions that work to change your habit of sleeping. It takes time and energy, but the results are worth the effort.

In every case, the way you sleep may cause neck pain that won’t go away until the pillow situation is resolved.

Now you should know how to choose the right pillow for the way you sleep.

Wishing you well,

Julie Donnelly

About The Author

julie donnelly

Julie Donnelly is a Deep Muscle Massage Therapist with 20 years of experience specializing in the treatment of chronic joint pain and sports injuries. She has worked extensively with elite athletes and patients who have been unsuccessful at finding relief through the more conventional therapies.

She has been widely published, both on – and off – line, in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers around the country. She is also often chosen to speak at national conventions, medical schools, and health facilities nationwide.

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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