Omega-3 fatty acids and mental health

Omega-3 fatty acids and mental health. How is this related?

Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for the normal functioning of our body. Their importance to health is very difficult to describe briefly, because these compounds are part of the membrane structure of each of our cells and perform many different functions, from suppressing inflammation to regulating the activity of more than a thousand different genes. Looking deeper into the effects of omega-3, it sometimes seems like a panacea that can solve all health problems. Of course, that's not true. Not all, but it can ease the course of many diseases, especially when it comes to the so-called "diseases of civilization", such as cardiovascular diseases, asthma, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases, depression, etc., caused by a decrease in omega-3 consumption. Today I'm going to talk about the links between omega-3 and mental health and obesity.

What are omega-3 fatty acids and where can you find them?

Omega-3 is not a single compound. And their source is not just salmon or fish oil capsules. Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of unsaturated fatty acids, of which the most important for humans are alpha-linolenic acid (ALR), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPR) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALR is found in a variety of plant-based products. It is particularly rich in flaxseed and flaxseed oil, walnuts, and chia seeds. EPR and DHA are found in animal products. Fatty marine fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, etc.) have the most of them, but EPR and DHA are also found in many other animal products (molluscs, meat, eggs, milk, etc.), but in much smaller quantities.

ALR is a basic and essential omega-3 unsaturated acid. Our body cannot produce it by itself, so it must be obtained through food. Meanwhile, EPR and DHR can be made from ALR, so they are not classified as irreplaceable. Only one nuance - the volume of that production is very small: approximately 6 percent. ALR turns into EPR and less than 4 percent. - DHA. The majority of ALR (approximately 70 percent per week from intake) is converted into energy. In other words, fuel for our body. It is also very important to mention that how much ALR exceeds EPR and DHA depends on the amount of omega-6 (another family of unsaturated fatty acids that are abundant in meat products and vegetable oils such as sesame or sunflower; their excess promotes the development and progression of inflammation and related diseases ). A diet rich in Omega-6 can reduce the conversion of ALR into EPR and DHA by up to 50%.

Why does modern man lack omega-3? And what is the grass here?

The answer is very simple: because we don't have enough of them in our food. And we don't have enough of them in our food because animal-based food doesn't get enough grass to grow. It sounds unbelievable, but yes, it is true. Meadow grasses and sea grasses (algae) are the primary source from which omega-3 reaches us through other organisms. How is it going?

ALR can be found wherever there are chloroplasts, that is, in all or parts of green plants, because ALR is a major component of the thylakoid membrane in chloroplasts. ALR is a purely plant-based omega-3 and accounts for more than 50% of of all fatty acids present in the green parts of the plant. 

ALR that enters animal bodies with grass is converted into other types of omega-3 acids, including EPR and DHA, so meat from grass-fed cattle or eggs from grass-fed chickens are named as sources of omega-3 for humans. However, the problem is that now farmed animals are more often fed not grass, but various grains and their products. Grains are not common feed and are not rich in omega-3 fatty acids, so foods from animals fed this way will also be low in omega-3s.

Research shows that meat from grass-fed cattle has significantly more omega-3 acids and a significantly better ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 than grain-fed cattle. In comparison, a large egg from grass-fed chickens has about six times more EPR and DHA than a scoop from grain-fed chickens.

What about fish and other marine animals? It is very important to mention that fish and other marine animals do not produce either EPR or DHA themselves, but obtain them through food, that is, by eating algae, plankton or other animals. In other words, EPR and DHA are produced by algae, they are eaten by plankton, plankton by small fish, small fish by large fish, and when humans eat them, EPR and DHA reach our cells. Just as land animals get omega-3 acids from plants, the main source of omega-3s for marine animals is algae. So if the fish is raised in unnatural conditions and fed with artificial feed, it is likely that it will not be rich in omega-3.

Farmed fish are fed a variety of feeds that are very different from normal free-range fish food and greatly reduce the omega-3 content of farmed fish and significantly worsen the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. If it is 10-14:1 for wild-raised salmon, it is 2-3:1 for farm-raised salmon. In humans, the ideal omega-3:omega-6 ratio is 1:1, but in Westerners it is around 1:15, which is a good indication of how badly we are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids.

So, if you're going to the store to buy salmon, you should check where the salmon is farmed before pulling out your wallet. If farmed, instead put it back on the shelf and choose mackerel, which does not look fancy at all, but is significantly more valuable in terms of omega-3.

How are omega-3 fatty acids and brain function related?

DHA makes up more than 90 percent. of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain, which is approximately 10-20 percent. of all lipids that make up the brain, and are necessary for maintaining normal brain functions. The amount of DHA is highest in metabolically more active parts of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, mitochondria, and synapses. 

Supplementing the diet with DHA has been shown to improve memory and reaction time in healthy young adults who normally get little dietary DHA. Other studies report similar results. It has even been found that regular weekly consumption of fish increases the amount of gray matter in the brain. Gray matter is responsible for movement control, memory and emotions.

Omega-3 fatty acids affect our mental health?

Omega-3 fatty acids are included in the composition of the membrane of each of our brain cells (this is the structure that surrounds the cell (like a wall surrounding a city) and regulates what can enter and leave the cell). If they are missing, first of all, the exchange of materials between the cell and the environment and the sending and receiving of signals from the environment become difficult. This immediately affects memory, reaction time, ability to concentrate and concentrate.

What's more, omega-3 fatty acids are processed in the brain into certain compounds that play a very important role as mediators (signal transmitters) of the endocannabinoid system (the same system through which cannabis, or CDB, works). They have many physiological functions, but this time I want to focus on the importance for mood and weight control.

Marijuana and omega-3 fatty acids push the same buttons in the brain

A bit of history

Cannabis (Canabis sativa) and its derivative marijuana are among the most well-known psychoactive substances that have been used by man since ancient times and are still among the most abused substances in the world. The world did not know what the main active substance of cannabis was until 1964, when Gaoni and Mechoulam first purified and determined the chemical structure of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Since then, THC synthesis and activity studies have begun. However, in almost a quarter of a century, progress was not made until 1988. cannabinoid type 1 (CB1) receptors were discovered. It is the stimulation of these receptors, in other words, that THC is able to push the CB1 button, and causes the effects characteristic of cannabis (a pleasant feeling of euphoria and relaxation, increased sensory perception (e.g. brighter colors), laughter, altered time perception and increased appetite and other unwanted effects) , which may vary from person to person. After the discovery of CB1 receptors in the brain, it became clear that the body itself should have substances that stimulate these receptors and could cause an analogous effect to cannabis. Active searches began in 1992. the first endocannabinoid (a substance naturally produced by the body that stimulates cannabinoid receptors) - anandamide - was discovered. Its name comes from the Sanskrit word "ananda" (inner bliss) and emphasizes the link to the effects of THC.

Interest in the endocannabinoid system has only grown. It is now known that this system is very important in regulating various body functions such as mood, appetite, pain, inflammation and more. Over time, new substances that stimulate cannabinoid receptors have been discovered. The first endocannabinoids discovered in the body are produced from omega-6 fatty acids (e.g. anandamide), and later (1999) the first endocannabinoid whose structure was based on DHA was also discovered. A whole group of compounds are now known that are produced in the body from EPR and DHA and work by stimulating cannabinoid receptors. It is very important that their effect is several to several dozen times weaker than the effect of endocannabinoids made from omega-6 fatty acids. And in order to feel good, it is very important to maintain a balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

So why doesn't a piece of mackerel produce a "grass" effect?

In the search for an answer to why cannabis produces a pleasant feeling of euphoria and relaxation, the entire endocannabinoid system has been discovered, with many functions and great importance for human well-being. The most interesting and unexpected twist to this story is the news that THC found in cannabis and substances made from omega-6 and omega-3 via the endocannabinoid system bind to the same receptors, stimulate them, and basically all have the same effect. The question is why taking a spoonful of omega-3 supplements or eating a piece of mackerel does not produce the "grass" effect? The answer is very simple. If we liken CB1 receptor stimulation to driving a car, THC bottoms out, omega-6-derived endocannabinoids consistently exceed the speed limit, and omega-3-derived substances drive at or below the legal speed limit.

So what? After all, constantly pushing to the bottom or driving at a higher speed than allowed irritates our endocannabinoid system. This leads not only to physical health problems (metabolic disorder, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc. ), but also to anxiety, paranoia, depression, cognitive impairment, and more. (all of them are also referred to as "herb" side effects).

So maybe the "grass" of the fish won't work anymore?

It may appear that if the CB1 receptor is washed away by a sea of ​​natural endocannabinoids derived from omega-6 or omega-3, there will be no effect after consuming cannabis? Unfortunately, no. THC has the strongest pull on the CB1 receptors and like some Cheek Norris it pulls everyone out of the way and reaches its destination. The endocannabinoids can only watch sadly as THC warms up in their place and "presses to the bottom", no matter how much they may be against it.

However, there is a slight difference between endocannabinoids made from omega-6 and omega-3. Omega-6 endocannabinoids are naturally stronger than omega-3 endocannabinoids and bind more easily to CB1 receptors. In order to avoid overstimulation, omega-3-derived endocannabinoids should be at least twice as abundant as omega-6-derived compounds should be significantly exhausted in the competitive battle for the receptor. Problems arise when there is a lack of omega-3 in the diet and omega-6 endocannabinoids occupy the CB1 receptors without a fight and we start constantly "running at a higher speed than allowed".

Do omega-3s really affect mood?

It is now known that a diet high in omega-3s can have a positive effect on the neurological functions of the endocannabinoid system. In a study examining the relationship between diet, brain activity, and the endocannabinoid system, researchers fed mice a standard American diet high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 and monitored the mice's behavior and brain function. Mice deficient in omega-3s had altered brain function and cannabinoid receptor activity in brain regions associated with emotional behavior and mood disorders. Simply put, mice whose diet lacked omega-3 fatty acids developed depression-like behaviors. This effect was not observed in mice fed a balanced diet rich in omega-3.

This study reveals one possible mechanism by which omega-3 deficiency may play a role in the development of depression or other mood disorders. The scientific world is already talking about the fact that the lack of DHA can be one of the factors that increase the risk of suicide.

Many studies have also been conducted examining the relationship between prenatal and postpartum depression and omega-3 deficiency in the diet. There are mixed opinions and more research is needed, as results vary depending on the timing and dosage of omega-3. However, more than one study reports that a lack of omega-3 is associated with a higher risk of prenatal and postpartum depression. 

So, as incredible as it may sound, the roots of your bad mood may lie in the lack of omega-3 in our food. Of course, it's important to understand that it's not just a lack of omega-3 that throws our mental health out of balance. There can be many different reasons for this.

And how is the frequency of fish consumption and waist circumference related?

Good mental health is very closely related to our physical health. One of the scourges of this age is metabolic syndrome and obesity. In the management of these conditions, omega-3 participates in various aspects: it reduces inflammation, the level of triglycerides in the blood, increases insulin sensitivity, etc. However, I want to tell you about another effect of omega-3, which is still relatively little talked about in Lithuania, which is the influence of omega-3 on body weight. How is it going? Certain substances are produced from omega-6 via the already mentioned endocannabinoid system, which stimulate cannabinoid receptors in the brain and thus increase appetite and food intake. Moreover, they stimulate the growth of adipose tissue. If omega-3 is sufficient in the diet, then substances made from omega-3 compete with substances made from omega-6 for the same receptors. (Similar to people for a strategically better location). Only they (in this system) do not have such a strong effect of stimulating appetite and increasing the growth of adipose tissue. Interestingly, omega-3 suppresses appetite in obese people, but not in non-obese people. I want to emphasize that there are many causes of obesity and taking omega-3 can help solve only a few of them.

In conclusion

It's important to understand that omega-3s aren't a magic bullet that improves brain function or solves weight problems for everyone without exception. Such an effect is observed in those who lack omega-3. If you want to know if you are one of them, ask yourself the question: how many times a week do you eat wild-caught oily fish? If the answer is at least three, it is likely that you are getting enough of these substances in your diet. If less, you should add omega-3 food supplements to your diet and start watching how your physical and mental health changes.

A good question is how to choose omega-3 supplements?

As it becomes more and more difficult to get enough omega-3 through food, we need to take supplements to feel good. But how not to get lost in their abundance and choose the best ones? Here are some tips:

Omega-3 together with fat-soluble antioxidants . Why is this particularly important? Fish contains many natural compounds that protect unsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 among them) from oxidation. These are various water-soluble (eg vitamin C) and fat-soluble (eg tocopherols, carotenoids, ubiquinones) antioxidants and enzymes. During the refining and purification of fish oil, most of it is lost, and in order to keep the omega-3s intact, antioxidant compounds are added. These are mostly tocopherols. They keep unsaturated fatty acids stable in the bottle, but in the human body they are far from replacing the complex compounds naturally found in fish. This is one of the reasons why the results of clinical trials in which patients consume fish speak of greater health benefits than the results of studies with fish oil supplements. Therefore, it is very important that the food supplement contains antioxidants along with omega-3. One of the best choices, in this case, is polyphenol-rich olive oil, which protects fragile omega-3 acids by replicating the action of antioxidant compounds naturally found in fish. It protects omega-3 from damage not only in the bottle, but also in the body, and allows them to safely enter human cells and enjoy their benefits.

Omega-3 is extracted from small fish such as anchovies, sardines, mackerel. Why is this important? Small fish have a relatively short life cycle, which makes them more resistant to intensive fishing and has less impact on the environment. In addition, they are lower on the food chain than, for example, salmon or other large fish, and accumulate fewer pollutants.

A completely natural product. It is very important that no synthetic additives or preservatives are used in the production of the food supplement, so as not to make it even more difficult for the body to process and eliminate them. Omega-3s are supposed to be easily absorbed natural forms of triglycerides (they usually are).

Omega-3 content. It is very important to pay attention to how much omega-3 is in the daily dose. For an adult weighing about 70 kg, it is recommended to consume about 2-3g per day with food supplements.

The cleaner. Seas and oceans are very polluted, so fish accumulate a lot of pollutants. When choosing, it is important to pay attention that the product is as clean as possible.

liquid It is always better to choose liquid fish oil, because it is more convenient to dose, easier to swallow and uses fewer excipients.

Package. If you choose liquid fish oil/omega-3, make sure it comes in glass bottles. Glass is an inert material and will not contaminate the product.

Prepared by Dr. Vaiva Bražinskienė