The concept of vitamins was first described by none other than Dr. Funk. In his landmark paper in 1912, he discussed the notion that there were complex compounds our body couldn’t make from scratch, so we had to get them from our diet. By the mid-20th century, all the vitamins had been discovered and isolated, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that we realized that certain fats were essential, too.
In 1929, the necessity for fat was definitively settled… “in the diet (of the rat),” but when one of the researchers tried a 99 percent fat-free diet on himself for six months, ironically, he felt better. His high blood pressure went away, he felt more energetic, and his migraines disappeared. This one-man experiment “fortif[ied] the medical profession’s doubt that essential fatty acids had any relevance to humans,” until TPN—Total Parenteral Nutrition, meaning feeding someone exclusively through an IV—was developed in the 1960s. TPN was initially developed for babies born without working intestines. Because we didn’t think humans needed fat, “the first preparations were fat free, and they rapidly induced severe EFA [essential fatty acid] deficiencies, ultimately convincing the medical community” that some fats are indeed essential. They started out using safflower oil, but, as they discovered in a young girl given the oil after an abdominal gunshot wound, we don’t just need fat—we need specific fats like omega-3s. So, when they switched from safflower oil to soybean oil, she was restored to normal.
The fact it took so long and under such extreme circumstances to demonstrate the essential nature of omega-3s illustrates how hard it is to develop overt omega-3 deficiency. Of course, the amount required to avoid deficiency is not necessarily the optimal amount for health. The vitamin C in a spoonful of orange juice would be enough to avoid scurvy (the overt vitamin C deficiency disease), but no one considers that enough vitamin C for optimal health.
As I discuss in my video Should We Take DHA Supplements to Boost Brain Function?, what would optimal omega-3 status look like? Well, doubt has been cast on its role in heart health (see Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?), which appears to have been based on a faulty premise in the first place (see Omega-3s and the Eskimo Fish Tale), so taking extra omega-3s for our heart might not make any sense (see Should We Take EPA and DHA Omega-3 for Our Heart?). But what about for our baby’s brain (see Should Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women Take DHA?)? Extra DHA may not help pregnant or breast-feeding fish-eaters, but those who want to avoid the contaminants in fishes can take supplements of pollutant-free algae oil to get the best of both worlds for their babies (see Should Vegan Women Supplement with DHA During Pregnancy?). What about adults? There doesn’t appear to be any apparent psychological (see Fish Consumption and Suicide) or neurological (see Is Fish “Brain Food” for Older Adults?) benefit of DHA supplementation for the general public, but what about in those who don’t eat fish?
The famous Alpha Omega Trial randomized thousands of people over three years to get either long-chain omega-3s from fish, short-chain omega-3s from plants, or placebo. The result? The study found no significant benefits for any kind of omega-3 supplementation on global cognitive decline. However, most of the subjects were eating fish, thereby already getting pre-formed DHA in their diets. General population studies like this, that find no benefit, can’t fully inform us about the role of DHA in brain health. It would be akin to giving half these people oranges, finding no difference in scurvy rates (zero in both groups), and concluding vitamin C plays no role in scurvy.
In 2013, for the first time, DHA supplementation was found to improve memory and reaction time among young adults who rarely ate fish. Previous randomized, controlled trials failed to find such a benefit among18- to 45-year-olds, but they only lasted a few months at most, whereas the 2013 study lasted for six months. If all the studies showed either no effect or a positive effect, one might give it a try. But in one of those shorter trials, DHA supplementation didn’t just fail to show benefit—it appeared to make things worse. After 50 days, those who consumed the DHA had worse memory than those taking the placebo. So, out of the six randomized controlled trials for DHA supplementation, four showed nothing, one showed a benefit, and one showed a harm. If it were just about boosting brain function in the short term, I’d err on the side of caution and spend my money elsewhere.
What about the long term though? See Should Vegans Take DHA to Preserve Brain Function?.
Michael Greger, M.D.
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