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Omega-3 Boosts Brain Function in Boys

omega3The omega-3 fat DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) may alter the function of the brain associated with working memory, according to results of a new study with healthy boys.

Scientists showed, for the first time using neuro-imaging, that supplementation with DHA alters the functional activity in cortical attention networks in humans.

The study follows hot on the heels of backing from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for DHA-related brain and eye health claims for infants. EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) said DHA levels of 100 mg of per day were appropriate for 7-24 month-old infants, along with 200 mg per day for pregnant and lactating women.

Additionally, supplements of omega-3 fats, vitamins and minerals for prisoners may reduce the number of violent and aggressive episodes, according to another recent study.

Nutritional supplements containing vitamins, minerals, omega-3 and omega-6 fats were associated with a 34 percent reduction in violent incidents, according to findings of a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial with over 200 young adult offenders.

Meanwhile, there was a 14 percent increase in the number of reported violent incidents in participants in a placebo group.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

It is widely accepted that omega-3 fats are useful for health. Even the FDA allows claims for omega-3 for heart disease. This is one of the few food health claims that the FDA allows.

The benefits of omega-3 to your brain health in particular are receiving growing validation, and with neurological- and attention disorders of all kinds on the rise, it would be wise to pay attention.

According to the authors of this latest study:

“The present findings add to an emerging body of evidence from preclinical and clinical imaging studies that suggest that dietary DHA intake is a robust modulator of functional cortical activity.”

Another shorter chain omega-3 fat, ALA (alpha linolenic acid), has also been affirmed as important for the normal brain development of children up to the age of 18.

How Omega-3 Affects Your Brain Function

Most of the research that has been done on omega-3 and brain function has been confined to its impact on cognitive function, which is what sets this latest study apart. It looked at how DHA supplementation might affect functional cortical activity, and the results were quite impressive.

The study included 33 healthy boys between the ages of 8-10, who were randomly assigned to receive a daily dose of either 400 mg of DHA, 1,200 mg of DHA, or a placebo, for two months.

They then measured the boys’ brain activation patterns, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), while the boys were playing video games.

In the group receiving the highest daily dose, the DHA levels in the membrane of red blood cells (erythrocytes ) increased by a whopping 70 percent.

The lower dose group saw an increase of 47 percent, while the placebo group had an 11 percent reduction in DHA levels while performing this type of sustained attention task.

The fMRI data indicates that there were significant increases in the activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex part of the brain in the groups receiving supplemental DHA. This is an area of your brain that is associated with working memory. They also noticed changes in other parts of the brain, including the occipital cortex (the visual processing center) and the cerebellar cortex (which plays a role in motor control).

The researchers noted:

“These findings suggest that this imaging paradigm could be useful for elucidating neurobiological mechanisms underlying deficits in cortical activity in psychiatric disorders associated with DHA deficiencies, including ADHD and major depression.”

I’ve written about the usefulness of omega-3 in the treatment of depression before, and these findings strengthen my stance on this issue.

If you or someone you know suffers from depression, you may want to take a close look at your omega-3 to omega-6 consumption.

Pay Attention to Your Omega-3 versus Omega-6 Intake

Unfortunately, while a majority of people are already sorely deficient in this essential nutrient, our modern diet exacerbates the problem.

Processed foods, which account for a whopping 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food, are loaded with damaged omega-6 fats that can cause health problems when consumed in excess.

Food manufacturers are also deceiving you by slapping misleading omega-3 claims on their processed food products. Adding omega-3 to an otherwise unhealthy product clearly does not make it any healthier, but many consumers fall for this kind of dietary misdirection.

The problem with the excessive amounts of omega-6 consumed from processed foods is that it dramatically skews the ratios between these two fats.

It’s also important to realize that most omega-6 in processed foods is highly processed and therefore severely damaged, and it is this that causes the majority of its detrimental health effects and has led to omega-6 being vilified.

In reality, HIGH QUALITY omega-6 fats, in the appropriate ratio, are just as essential to your health as omega-3.

The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 1:1.

Today, though, our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 averages from 20:1 to 50:1! When the ratios between the two fats are this skewed, poor health is virtually guaranteed.

Researchers have agreed that including more omega-3 and less damaged omega-6 fats in your diet may help protect your tissues and organs from inflammation, one of the underlying causes of countless chronic diseases and aging.

I strongly believe that, in the future, medicine will become more precise in this area and recommend avoiding or eliminating damaged omega-6 fats, especially trans fats, and replacing them with high quality, unprocessed or minimally processed, omega 6 fats, in the appropriate ratio to omega-3’s.

Omega-3 May Also Help Temper Your Tantrums

The second article above discusses additional research into omega-3s ability to reduce violent behaviour.

Previous research, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2002, found that giving violent offenders supplements of fatty acids and other micronutrients reduced violent offences by 39 percent or more.

The latest study supports that finding.

Over 200 young adult offenders were enrolled in the randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. Based on the documentation by the prison staff, the prisoners who were given nutritional supplements containing vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 and omega-6 fats, experienced a 34 percent reduction in violent incidents.

Meanwhile, the participants in the placebo group had a 14 percent increase in the number of reported incidents.

Research produced by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) in 2006 also suggested that violent behavior could be caused in part by nutritional deficiencies, and that a lack of the essential fats needed by the brain may be causing mental problems ranging from depression to aggression.

Omega-3 Deficiency is Also a Significant Factor in Premature Deaths

Fortunately the majority of the public already understands and appreciates the importance of omega-3 fats. Even the conservative FDA allows claims for the reduction of heart disease for omega 3 fats because of the overwhelming scientific evidence.

Remarkably, omega-3 deficiency is believed to be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year! Yes, this deficiency was recently revealed as the sixth biggest killer of Americans, so taking this recommendation to heart could prove to be life-saving.

The results of three studies published in 2008 also indicated that low concentrations of EPA and DHA resulted in an increased risk of death from ALL causes, and accelerated cognitive decline.

In addition, researchers are now also linking inadequate intake of these omega-3 fats in pregnant women to premature birth and low birth weight, in addition to hyperactivity in children.

Not All Omega-3 Fats are Created Equal

Unfortunately there is still plenty of confusion about omega-3 fats as many “experts” fail to appreciate the importance of animal based omega-3 fats. They advocate primarily plant based omega-3 fats that have ALA.

It’s important to realize that while plant-based omega-3 fats are necessary and highly beneficial, and should also be consumed, the evidence is very clear that they are not an acceptable substitute for animal based omega-3 fats.

This is primarily related to the fact that your body does not easily convert the ALA in plant based fats to the longer fats of EPA and DHA. And if you have diabetes, are overweight, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, your body has even more difficulty converting these fats.

Animal-based omega-3 fats contain two fatty acids crucial to your health, DHA and EPA. These two fatty acids, not ALA, are the ones that are pivotal in preventing heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases.

It is also important to realize that over 50 percent of your brain is made up of DHA.

In addition to everything already mentioned about DHA and your brain function, low DHA levels have also been linked to more serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, and plays a significant role in memory loss, and heightens your risk of developing Alzheimer's.

What’s the Optimal Source of Healthy Omega-3 Fats?

I first started emphasizing the importance of this healthy fat in 2000.

Unfortunately, many are still not getting enough omega-3 in their diet, even though they know they probably should.

The practical question becomes how you are going to obtain your high quality omega-3 fats?

Ideally we would all receive them from sea food. Unfortunately, due to industrial pollution most seafood is now contaminated with heavy metals like mercury, and industrial toxins like PCBs, PDEs and dioxins.

Because of this, most have decided to take a fish oil supplement. This is what I recommended ten years ago, but new evidence suggests that there may be even better sources of animal-based omega-3 fats.

My current favorite is krill oil. Krill are very tiny shrimp-like creatures that are actually the largest biomass in the world, far exceeding the amount of fish in the world. Their harvest is carefully regulated under current harvesting guidelines.

They are clearly the most sustainable source of animal-based omega-3 fats in the world today.

Additionally, because the krill fat is attached to phosphates, they are far more readily absorbed than fish oil, so you need FAR less. A typical dose is only 1 gram per day. Not the 3-5 grams that are used in fish oil. Their better absorption also virtually eliminates any problem with burping or belching.

Lastly they contain very powerful antioxidants, called astaxanthin, that help protect the highly perishable DHA and EPA fats, protecting and preserving them until they’re consumed.

About the only problem with krill is that they should not be taken if you have an allergy to shellfish.