I recently attended the DHA / EPA Omega 3 for Health Symposium that was co-supported by Dietitians of Canada and the DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute in Guelph Ontario. The event was also designated as a satellite symposium of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids [ISSFAL].
*note, for this post any mention of omega 3 fats refers to EPA & DHA and not plant-based ALA [these are not the same at all].
According to Bruce Holub, a world-renowned omega 3 fat researcher and Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph in Canada [who’s also a very funny guy and a riot to listen to as a presenter] there’s been a flurry of exciting new research and development in the area of omega-3 fats in the past 5 years. His goal with this symposium was to bring ‘the rock stars’ of omega-3 research [and yes, they are] to Canada to provide the audience with the latest research in the areas of cardiovascular health, needs during pregnancy, lactation, infancy and childhood, age-related health conditions, inflammation, mental disorders and the management of sports related concussions.
They didn’t let the audience down! Here are a few highlights
1. DHA, EPA and Child Behaviour & Learning
Dr Alex Richardson from the University of Oxford was amazing. With classic dry British humour, she presented on the relationship between omega-3 fat consumption and the increase in childhood behavioural and learning issues. She framed her presentation by pointing out the disconnect between the widely accepted and indisputable fact that nutritionally poor diets have a negative impact on children’s physical health but that the damage being done by the same nutritionally poor diets to their behaviour and learning abilities is ignored. [this echoes my experience in mental health and addictions; the real impact of diet on the biology of the brain and in turn it’s function, is largely under-valued].
The WHO predicts a 50 percent increase in child mental disorders by 2050. Dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD & ASD [autism spectrum disorder] have characteristics that all overlap. On a side note, it was refreshing to have a doctor point out that these diagnoses are descriptions and not explanations given that there no organic disease like there is with cancer etc.
How might omega-3 fats be important for childhood behaviour and learning?
In a nutshell, omega 3 fats [especially DHA], are critical in both brain and central nervous system development, structure and function. During the last century, there’s been a major shift in the types of fats that are found in the food supply; following industrialization, there’s been a significant increase in the use of grain & seed oils [rich in omega-6 fats] with a corresponding decrease in the amount of omega-3 fats [in part because we eat less fish & seafood but also because animal foods like beef, pork, chicken, eggs, butter etc are effectively devoid of omega 3 fats because livestock eat every little grasses and lots of soy & corn].
To put this in perspective, Canadians only get about 140 mg of omega 3 fats per day on average. This sadly missing the mark given that the recommended minimum intake is 250 – 500 mg per day.
The brain is 60-66% fat and the type of fat in the diet determines the composition of the fat in the brain. Without adequate amounts of omega-3s, omega-6 fats will happily take their place, or worse trans fats. DHA in particular is concentrated at the end of the brain cells [synpases] where the neurotransmitters do their magic and help to regulate mood by allowing brain cells to talk to each other.
Dopamine, serotonin, norepinepherine and other signalling chemicals are influenced by the amount of omega-3 fats in the brain: more is better.
Omega-3s are crucial during fetal and infant brain development. DHA, if available in the mother’s diet, will accumulate in the developing brain during weeks 35 in utero up to 2 years of age. The research is clear; maternal omega-3 deficiency impairs synaptic development. Research has shown that many behavioural issues such as ADHD, ASD, dyslexia & dyspraxia have improved with the use of omega-3 supplements using doses of 500 – 1000 mg of both EPA & DHA and/or higher intakes of fatty fish consumption.
2. Fish Consumption, Omega-3s & Risk of Heart Disease and Total Mortality
Dr Dariush Mozaffarian presented on where we stand in terms of omega-3 fats, fish and the risk of heart disease or mortality. He summarized that the contradictory evidence of late around fish/omega-3 fats and heart disease was due to researchers looking at different outcomes, or types of cardiovascular disease. The benefits are specific to fatal coronary heart disease due to a reduction in sudden cardiac death rather than other forms of heart disease [non-fatal heart attacks, congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation etc]. Having said that, fish as a food has many bio-active compounds which improve multiple cardiovascular risk factors [heart rate, blood pressure, triglycerides, inflammation etc]. As well, fish is rich in several health promoting nutrients: omega-3 fats, selenium, vitamins A & D, zinc, magnesium, calcium [soft bones], carnitine and more.
Bottom line: keep eating fish and/or using fish/algal/calamari oils to get the recommended intake of EPA & DHA and to reap their many established health enhancing benefits.
3. Omega 3 fats, Concussions, and Traumatic Brain Injury. What’s The Role?
Dr Michael Lewis is a military doctor who has experience working with soldiers with traumatic brain injuries from blast injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also has an interest in sport-related brain injuries and concussions and presented some interesting data on the role of omega 3 fats in treating this kind of damage. In the US, 44 million kids play organized sports and at least 500,000 are treated for traumatic brain injuries [TBIs]; concussion remains an ‘invisible’ injury.
About 1.7 – 3.4 million TBIs occur annually in the US costing the health care system billions. He used the very simply analogy of a brick wall to illustrate his point about the role of omega 3 fats in treating TBIs’ “if you have a brick wall that gets damaged, what do you do?” Provide the necessary building blocks and rebuild it however to date, standard treatment is largely supportive only.
Using several case studies and physiological/biological mechanisms, Dr Lewis demonstrated how high doses of omega 3 fats were able to reduce inflammation [confirmed on CT scan] and improve parameters of TBIs including visual, auditory, attention, vigilance, information processing, working memory. He notes that amounts needed are a log scale [a lot] greater than what is used for general health; doses in the 9 g range are required to saturate the brain to optimize the opportunity to heal.
For more on his research, check out Brain Health Education and Research Institute