Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Omega Ratio

The theory advanced by Dr. Lands and Hibbeln is that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is the crucial factor for mental and physical health, rather than the absolute amount of each. Omega-6 and -3 fats are essential long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. The number refers to the position of the double bond near the methyl end of the carbon chain.

The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (hereafter, n-6 and n-3) in the diet determines the ratio in tissues. Since these molecules have many cellular roles, it doesn't stretch the imagination that they could have an effect on health. Hunter-gatherer and healthy non-industrial cultures typically have a favorable ratio of n-6 to n-3, 2:1 or less. In the US, the ratio is currently about 17:1 due to modern vegetable oils.

DHA, a long-chain n-3 fatty acid, is concentrated in neuronal synapses (the connections between neurons) and is required for the normal functioning of neurons. n-6 fats compete with n-3 fats for space in cellular membranes (which have a fixed amount of total polyunsaturated fat), so a high intake of n-6 fats, particularly linoleic acid, displaces n-3 fatty acids. Lower tissue levels of DHA and total n-3 correlate with measures of hostility in cocaine addicts. Feeding mice a diet high in linoleic acid increases aggressive behavior, and increses the likelihood of rats to kill mice.

If the ratio of n-6 to n-3 in the diet predicts psychiatric problems, we'd expect to see an association with n-3 intake as well. Let's take a look:

This is homicide mortality vs. n-3 intake for 24 countries, published here. The association is significant (p> 0.001) even without correcting for n-6 intake. Of course, one could see this as a cloud of points with a few well-placed outliers. Here are some closer associations from the same paper:

It's clear that both a high n-6 intake and a low n-3 intake correlate with negative psychiatric outcomes. Together, the data are consistent with the hypothesis that the ratio of n-6 to n-3 impacts brain function. Dr. Hibbeln and Dr. Lands do not claim that this ratio is the sole determinant of psychiatric problems, only that it is a factor.

Now to address the big criticism that was brought up by very astute readers of the last post, namely, that the data were purely correlative. Believe me, I wouldn't even have posted on this topic if I didn't have intervention data to back it up. In addition to the animal data I mentioned above, here are more studies that support a causal role of fatty acid balance in psychiatric problems:
Most of those were placebo-controlled trials. If we can see a significant effect of n-3 supplementation in short-term trials, imagine how well it would work as a long-term preventive measure.