Amazing Omega-3s: Restoring Dietary Essential Fatty Acids Will Dramatically Improve Mental and Physical Health around the World

By Kreiter, Ted | The Saturday Evening Post, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Amazing Omega-3s: Restoring Dietary Essential Fatty Acids Will Dramatically Improve Mental and Physical Health around the World


Kreiter, Ted, The Saturday Evening Post


In their laboratory at the University of Minnesota in the late 1920s, researchers George and Mildred Burr made a discovery whose health impact is only now reverberating around the world. Working with rats, the Burrs encountered a new deficiency disease caused by the exclusion of fats from the diet. Rats that did not get certain essential fatty acids developed a characteristic disease and died at an early age. The Burrs later identified the fats as n-3 fatty acids, better known as omega-3s, which are found in plants as alpha linoleic acid (ALA) and in fish as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

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It wasn't until the 1970s that omega-3 deficiency was directly linked to heart disease in humans. Since then, the dietary balance of omega-3s has been associated with a wide range of conditions, including the brain disorders of schizophrenia, bipolar disease, depression, Alzheimer's disease, and ADHD, and such inflammatory diseases as arthritis and cardiovascular disease, as well as obesity and diabetes.

Although efforts are under way to restore omega-3s to our diets, most people today are not getting enough. To learn more about the health benefits of omega-3s, we spoke with Harvard-trained clinical psychiatrist Dr. Carol A. Locke. Dr. Locke took part in early research on omega-3s for treatment of psychiatric disorders. She subsequently started a company, Omega Natural Science, and formulated the first pharmaceutical-grade omega-3 supplement that is widely used in clinical trials and treatment.

Q: Why do we need omega-3 fatty acids?

A: Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential fatty acids because our bodies need them for life, but our bodies do not make them. The three main omega-3s differ by how many carbon molecules each one has. ALA has 18 carbon molecules, EPA has 20, and DHA has 22. Our bodies are unable to make ALA, and most people cannot elongate the 18-chain ALA to the 20-chain EPA or 22-chain DHA. The biology of our bodies requires omega-3s as the building blocks of health, including the first steps of the cell-making proteins and regulation of the energy cycle of the cell, as well as regulating electrical activity of the cell and many other functions.

Q: Why are we deficient in omega-3s, and what kinds of problems have resulted?

A: Before the agricultural revolution, we had in our diets higher amounts of omega-3 from cold-water fish, the many fruits and vegetables, and free ranging or wild game. With the agricultural revolution, suddenly our diet changed to be reliant on grain-containing breads and cereals and other foods, grain-fed animals, and grain oils, such as corn oil. Grains are high in omega-6, another essential omega fatty acid, and omega-6 is pro-inflammatory. Over the past 100 years, we have developed a pro-inflammatory diet and numerous inflammatory health problems now known to involve the inflammatory system, such as heart disease, stroke, arthritis, depression, mood disorders, asthma, auto-immune diseases, and many other conditions.

Q: You were involved in early research with omega-3 supplements for psychiatric diseases. What is the present status of using n-3 fatty acids in their treatment?

A: It's very exciting. The American Psychiatric Association released a position paper last year. There have been numerous studies showing benefit of omega-3 in addressing depression, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, postpartum depression, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and attention deficit disorder (ADD), both in children and adults. We have found it is the high-EPA omega-3--the 20-chain n-3 fatty acid--that seems most beneficial for mood disorders, bipolar depression, ADD, and schizophrenia.

The studies continue to investigate exactly how much EPA we need, and it seems to fall somewhere between one to two grams per day.

Q: Is it difficult to get that much EPA from supplements? …

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