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Success Stories: Omega-3 Fat Can Produce Remarkable Effects

What is an omega-3 fat?

Fats are important building blocks for hormones, signaling molecules and cell membranes throughout the body. Fats or fatty acids are long molecules made of carbon atom chains with a particular number of hydrogen atoms attached. A saturated fat molecule holds a maximum number of hydrogen atoms, and is therefore “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. An unsaturated fat has one or more double bonds between carbon atoms on the fatty acid chain. Each double bond takes the place of two hydrogen atoms; thus, these carbon chains are not “saturated” with hydrogen. Fat molecules are “poly”unsaturated if they contain more than one double bond. The number and position of double bonds in these molecules affect their physical properties as well the physical properties of other molecules the body makes these polyunsaturated fats into. 

The human body can make most kinds of fats from carbohydrate and protein, but some types of fats cannot be made and must come from the diet. These fats include the polyunsaturated omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are therefore termed “essential”. The terms “omega-3” or “omega-6” signify that the first double bond in the carbon backbone of the fatty acid occurs at the third or the sixth carbon–carbon bond, respectively.  Humans lack the enzymes to introduce double bonds at the omega-6 or omega-3 position of a long fatty acid molecule, and therefore, these fats must be obtained from the diet. Humans can inter-convert fats in the same omega family, but omega-6 fats cannot be converted to omega-3 fats. Many popular American foods are abundant in omega- 6 fats, and the typical diet contains excessive amounts of these fats. 

The 20- and 22-carbon long omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, respectively, are critical to human health. These omega-3 fats must be obtained directly through the diet (i.e. from seafood) or made in the body from shorter omega-3 fats such as the 18-carbon long omega-3 fatty acid found in plant sources such as canola oil, walnuts, or flaxseed. The manufacture of EPA and DHA can be limited, especially when the diet contains an excessive amount of omega-6 fat, which is why eating fish and seafood is often so critical for good health.    
 

Fish oil supplements such as traditional cod liver oil are a good source of EPA and DHA, however, fish oil does not contain all nutrients found in fish - supplements are always second best.  Also, fish oil supplements can sometimes cause stomach upset or diarrhea.  Yet, sometimes, especially when people have avoided eating seafood or have alcohol use disorder, the omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can produce dramatic health effects, particularly on the brain. Note: not all persons will have the same response to fish oil as the people in the following stories.

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Stories About Omega-3

When a friend who worked with the Salvation Army program in Tucson, AZ, was interested in my research with omega-3 fatty acids, I suggested that he provide high dose fish oil to the three most hopeless cases at the mission to see what would happen.  A few months later, he sent me this story from the Arizona Daily Star (September 7, 2005), written by Carla McClain:

“…Fired from his job, rejected by his family, John Palma bounced in and out of jails and hospitals as he sank into severe, suicidal depression, returning always to the drug that destroyed him.

"I just did not want to talk to anyone, see anyone, have anything to do with people and their insults. My mind was so scattered, I couldn't really grasp what anyone was saying," said Palma, 30… 

Flagged as an addict least likely to succeed in his drug recovery program at the Salvation Army, Palma joined a small, unscientific medical experiment there, when counselors began slipping little pills in his food.  

Today, five months after taking daily high doses of omega-3 supplements, Palma has emerged from his depression to rejoin the world, his head clear, his brain back in operation. The fog has lifted, as he puts it.  

… Palma and his counselors are firmly convinced the omega-3s are the key to his unexpected success. 

"I just think more clearly now," Palma said. "Before, I couldn't read the AA book. It was very hard for me - I would have to read it over and over just to get it. And I can honestly pay attention to what people are saying. My family has noticed it - everyone has."

Around the Rehab Center, the staff joked about Palma, so dramatic were the changes in him after about six weeks of taking the fish oil supplements.  

"It was - oh my God - who is this new person?" said Paulina Castillo, the center's director of rehabilitation services.

Palma was one of three meth addicts with especially difficult mental health histories who have tried the omega-3s in the Salvation Army experiment.

"In all three, the omegas have made such a difference," said Castillo, noting that two, including Palma, have graduated.”

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I worked part time as a primary care doctor for the homeless in Washington DC and Baltimore for almost twenty years, and I learned a lot about the practical importance of omega-3 fat and fish oil from my patients who lived on the streets. Often it seemed I could estimate a patient's fish consumption based on their presenting medical conditions. 

 

I treated a red haired young man who had been raised in a middle-class family. He had partially completed college but had more recently been in and out of institutions because of bipolar disorder.  The first time I saw him, I told him about research showing that fish oil can have a remarkable benefit for people with this disorder.  I told him to take as much cod liver oil as he could. Six months later he came back to my clinic just to say thanks. He had done what I suggested, and had been in complete remission for the past six months.

 

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A homeless patient who was originally from Jamaica came to my clinic for recurrent mood swings which often lead him to use alcohol or drugs as a temporary relief.  I talked to him about the benefits of eating fish, and that cod liver oil could help people with mood disorders.  He related that when he was a boy in Jamaica his mother had given him cod liver oil every day.  When he left Jamaica, he had stopped taking the cod liver oil, and that was when his problems started.  After our conversation, he started taking cod liver oil again.  Three months later I saw him in my clinic and he was doing much better.  He thought that taking the cod liver oil once again had made a big difference.

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A young man I saw at a DC homeless clinic had trouble with losing his temper. Since I knew that a diet abundant in omega-3 fat was associated with a less impulsive temperament, I gave him my standard talk about eating fish. I explained that fish was very important for the brain and particularly important in times of stress: the omega-3 fatty acids in fish would help him to make the right decisions. He listened intently, and then with some amazement in his voice, described that when he was growing up on the farm, his grandmother would tell him to eat lots of fish, because "fish is brain food". “Get outta here, Doc" he said.  "You gotta be kidding. That’s what my grandmother used to say.”