Protect Your Brain With Omega-3s

The Risk For Mental Illness You Didn’t Know About

Mental illness has grown to epidemic levels worldwide. And it’s more prevalent in the US than in any other country in the world. I’ll say that again.

There is more mental illness here at home than anywhere else.


Both genetics and environmental factors undoubtedly are involved in this complicated issue, but the modern Western diet is revealing itself to be a big factor. Elements of this diet not only can impair how the human brain works, but also how it develops physically. In particular, high consumption of vegetable-based oils and processed foods has kicked healthier oils and natural foods off the menu. But how is diet linked to mental illness?

Over 50 percent of the healthy human brain is fat, particularly the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid, DHA. Our body can’t efficiently make these fats, so we have to get them from food. The most reliable source is fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines.

Based on strong science, infant formulas and childhood supplements are now enriched with omega-3s to encourage normal brain development. And normal brain functioning and maintenance requires a steady supply of omega-3s in adulthood. When omega-3 levels are sufficient, blood vessels to the brain are nice and open, the neurons are pliable and plump, and electrochemical messages zip along fluidly from one neuron to the next.

Omega-3s also keep inflammation squelched, protecting us against inflammatory brain disorders and psychiatric problems, even when we’re traumatized or chronically stressed. In other words, the evidence suggests that robust omega-3 levels help us become more resilient to life’s challenges and less likely to develop a mental disorder.

But in the typical diet today, the rich supply of omega-3s we need for brain health have been displaced by pro-inflammatory omega-6s, found mostly in vegetable oils and processed foods. We’re supposed to have no higher than a 5-to-1 ratio of omega-6s to -3s in our diet, but today that ratio is greater than 10-to-1. As a result, our physical and mental health suffers.

Widespread Crippling Depression

 According to the World Health Organization, by 2020, depression will be the second biggest cause of disability in the world, after coronary heart disease.

Studies increasingly tie this epidemic to the growth and spread of the modern western diet and the resultant upset of our omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio. Countries with high fish consumption have significantly fewer cases of major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. And the results of a review study involving more than 3,000 people, showed that patients with depression had significantly lower levels of omega-3s.

The world can be a stressful place. Horrific things can happen. Our military combat personnel know this better than anyone.

Over the past 20 years, there’s been a steep spike in suicides in the US military, which have partly been linked to omega-3 deficiencies. From a shockingly big pool of active military suicides between 2002 and 2008, 800 cases were selected randomly, and their blood omega-3 levels were compared to 800 age- and rank-matched healthy military personnel. The suicide rate was 62 percent higher among those with the lowest omega-3 levels. Even the terrible trauma of witnessing team members wounded or killed caused less of an increase in suicide risk, at 54 percent.

A Clearer Picture of Psychosis

In psychotic diseases such as schizophrenia, the brain develops improperly, dooming its victims to a lifetime of scrambled messages along their neural pathways.

Based on early warning signs, there’s a category of people at “ultra high risk” (UHR) for developing psychotic disease. Usually, 36 percent of UHR people develop psychosis within three years.

Researchers consistently find much lower omega-3 levels in people with psychosis versus healthy people. In a recent study, researchers gave 20 UHR people 1.2 grams per day of omega-3 supplements for 12 weeks. Another group of 20 was given placebo for the same amount of time. A year later, just under 5 percent of the supplemented group had developed psychotic disorder, compared to almost 28 percent of the placebo group. That’s over a 500% difference.

A growing number of studies like this one have shown that early treatment with omega-3 supplements actually prevents UHR individuals from becoming psychotic. And, because good levels of omega-3s are necessary for optimal brain function overall, psychiatrists are looking at omega-3s to enhance the benefits of traditional treatment for their patients.

Making Progress

Omega-3 deficiency increases the risk of mental illness. A growing wealth of controlled clinical trials is showing that omega-3 supplementation can help prevent psychiatric conditions from developing, and reduce symptoms in those already suffering. The current hypothesis is that when long-chain omega-3 levels are appropriate, neurons develop more normally, and nerve transmission is more stable. These qualities are essential for mental health and resilience. And, while influencing big associations is a bit like steering a barge, the American Psychiatric Association now officially recommends daily long-chain omega-3 (DHA+EPA) supplementation for mental health.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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