Question: Since I’ve been taking essential fatty acids, I really think my mood is better. They’re supposed to be good for my baby’s brain—right?—but do they work on my brain too?

INGRID’S ANSWER: Yes! Essential fatty acids work on your brain too, and, as many of my clients have discovered, they can also work on your partner’s! It might further interest you to know—in a season clogged with family holiday stressors—that supplementation with fish oil daily can lead to significant reductions in blood pressure, and at the same time increase your levels of good cholesterol and decrease your levels of bad cholesterol. There is much exciting ongoing research regarding essential fatty acids in conditions ranging from asthma and arthritis to strokes and schizophrenia.

Essential fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes. They help nerve cells communicate with each other, which is crucial in maintaining mental health. DHA, in particular, is heavily involved in nerve cell processes.

What is DHA?

The main components of all fats are the fatty acids, which might be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. They are derived from plants and are liquid. They are called “essential” because they are necessary for human health but unlike saturated fats cannot be made by the body. We must obtain essential fatty acids from our food.

The PUFA family includes ALA (alpha linolenic acid), which is found in, among other places, the oils of flaxseeds, rapeseeds (canola), hemp seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, wheat germ, and to a lesser extent in legumes, whole grains, fruits and leafy greens. ALA is the “parent” to omega-3 fatty acids. The PUFA family also includes LA (linoleic acid), which is found in, among other places, soybean, safflower, cottonseed, and corn oils, sunflower and sesame seeds, nuts, and some vegetables. LA is the “parent” to omega-6s. (The “3” and “6” simply refer to the location of the first double carbon bond in a fatty acid molecule.)

After sprinkling flaxseeds (ground fresh in a coffee/spice-grinder and stored in your freezer!) over your nutty granola, enzymes in your body go to work to convert ALA and LA into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The omega-3s include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The omega-6s include AA (arachidonic acid) and GLA (gamma-linolenic acid).

Due in part to the common use of corn, soybean, and safflower oil in food processing, most Americans tend to have a much greater dietary intake of omega-6 fatty acids than omega 3 fatty acids. In fact, the typical American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega 6s than omega 3s, while a healthy omega 6-to-3 ratio is closer to 2:1, at most 4:1. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include extreme tiredness, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.

Omega imbalance contributors

Possibly contributing to the omega imbalances is the fact that animals fed LA-rich diets accumulate omega-6s up the food chain. AA predominates in commercial meat, poultry, and egg yolks. Although required by the body, AA acts as an inflammatory agent and in excess can contribute to chronic inflammatory conditions that are thought to contribute to so many diseases and discomforts, as well as mood disorders. The heavy presence of trans fatty acids in the American diet doesn’t help either. Trans fats result from the industrial hydrogenation of liquid (plant) fats. They interfere with the conversion of parent essential fatty acids into omega-3s and -6s.

We all consume ALA directly in plant form and make the necessary conversions into omega-3s, however there is evidence that human conversion of EPA and especially DHA is relatively inefficient. (Though young women convert ALA into EPA/DHA more efficiently than do men, an adaptation that appears to be related to the effects of estrogen.) There is also proven individual variation in the efficiency of our conversion enzymes. A dietary over-supply of omega 6s causes enzyme depletion, further restricting omega-3 conversion. This is where fish, fish oil and other omega-3 supplements come in.

Fish convert essential fats from algae into EPA and DHA and then accumulate them up the food chain, allowing you to consume significant amounts of omega-3s directly. Fish declared safe for pregnant and lactating women and children by the Environmental Protection Agency include mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, shrimp, light tuna, and salmon, in no more than 1 or 2 6-ounce portions per week. Fish oil supplements should be refined, purified and certified heavy metal-free. Because fish oil can cause flatulence, burping, or diarrhea, many people need to experiment with brand and capsule vs. liquid form until they find the right fit.

Farmed fish

As Alice Waters and others have pointed out, farmed fish is neither a solution to fish consumption restrictions nor to this particular tragedy of the commons. Farmed fish often are fed processed diets that may not convert to equivalent nutrients/flavor in the fish, and confinement often involves the use of antibiotics and other harmful chemicals to prevent the spread of disease. If you prefer to avoid fish sources altogether, Omega 3-enriched chicken feed has resulted in the widespread availability of omega 3-rich eggs. Some fungal and sea plants contain EPA/DHA, and safe vegan supplements are made from these (see pcrm.org or nutru.com).

Low DHA level outcomes

Low DHA levels have been linked to an increased tendency to depression, suicide, and violence. Repeated studies have shown large differences in the prevalence of several psychiatric disorders among populations with high or low measures of seafood consumption. These were backed up in epidemiological studies by examinations of omega-3 fatty acid tissue concentrations. Based on these findings, as well as findings that nutritional inadequacies during early development may leave residual neuro-psychiatric deficits, the National Institutes of Health in 2004 launched a project examining whether inadequate intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids increases the risk for depression, aggression and suicide. Lower intake of DHA and EPA was found to double clinically significant measures of hostility. In one of the NIH trials, 2 g daily of omega-3 fatty acids reduced future suicidal thinking, anger, and depression scores, while improving positive outlooks to life, in subjects who evidenced deliberate self-harm. In pregnant mothers at 18 and 32 weeks gestation, as well as at both 8 weeks and 8 months postpartum, deficient omega-3 intake was associated with nearly a doubling of the risk of depressive symptoms—“findings were robust after rigorous examination of potential confounding factors.” Deficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy was related to a doubling of the risk of adverse behavioral disorders among children. In that trial, a dose-related relationship was shown between prenatal omega-3 intake and increased conduct disorders in childhood such as fighting, lying, stealing, and disobedience. In a separate clinical study of nearly 100 boys, those with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids demonstrated more learning and behavioral problems (such as temper tantrums and sleep disturbances) than boys with normal omega-3 fatty acid levels. Another clinical study used omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid supplementation in 117 children with ADHD, showing significant improvements in reading, spelling, and behavior in the children over the 3 months of therapy. According to Gerard Hornstra, a European researcher on perinatal effects of essential fatty acids, the brain has its growth spurt in the third trimester of pregnancy and during early childhood. Therefore, an appropriate pre- and postnatal balance of essential fatty acids is needed for normal fetal and childhood growth, neurologic development and function, and learning and behavior.

If you experienced increased well-being from an increased intake of essential fatty acids, I would guess you had a deficiency. Isn’t it good to know it’s never too late to improve our balance?