Brain Food

On the Shangri-la diet forums, many dieters have reported better sleep. (“Woke up feeling like I could fight tigers. Have not felt this way since 2003. . . . I would stay on this method just for the sleep benefits,” wrote bekel.) To learn how widespread this was, I did a poll. Forty-two people answered. Two-thirds of them reported better sleep (half “much better” sleep, half “slightly better” sleep). Only one-tenth of them reported worse sleep (all “slightly worse”, none “much worse”). Almost all of them were doing SLD with oil, implying that the improvement was due to a few tablespoons of oil per day.

This was exciting. A small, almost trivial dietary change seemed to be causing a big important improvement. I had switched from sugar water to ELOO about three years ago and had not noticed any sleep improvement. Perhaps this was because the improvement is due to omega-3 fatty acids, of which ELOO has much less than other oils. And because I ate a few servings of fatty fish (such as salmon) per week, I might have been less omega-3 deficient than most. Thinking about the poll results, I remembered I had slept unusually well about a week or so earlier. At roughly the same time, for reasons I can’t remember, I had taken six or seven flax-oil capsules. This vague correlation was curious. It raised the possibility that a large dose of omega-3’s might have a noticeable effect.

To test this idea, I made two changes: (a) I started drinking 2 tablespoons/day of walnut oil. Walnut oil (12% omega-3) is a much better source than olive oil (1%) or canola oil (7%). (b) I started taking 10 flax-oil capsules/day (= 100 calories/day). Flax oil (58% omega-3) is an especially good source. (I drank Spectrum refined walnut oil, which has little flavor, and I mixed it with water to reduce its flavor. Another walnut oil I have tried, International Collection, has a strong walnut flavor.)

It seems to make a difference. Three differences, actually: (a) Better sleep. I wake up more clear-headed, less foggy. (b) Better mood. My overall mood is slightly better, in a hard-to-describe way. (c) Better balance. For the last two years, I have often put on and taken off my shoe-laced shoes while standing; even after two years of practice there was plenty of room for improvement. Suddenly this became much easier. All three changes began the day after the dietary change (about a week ago) and since then have not only persisted but if anything have gotten stronger.

Do these bits of data — survey and self-experimentation — mean anything? I think so. Consider other facts:

1. SLD dieters using oil report many other improvements that seem unrelated to less hunger or weight loss. Most of them fall into three groups: (a) Skin. Everyone reports softer skin. In addition, spacehoppa’s eczema and keratosis pilaris (permanent gooseflesh) got much better “It’s like I’m correcting a major nutritional deficiency,” she wrote. Shrinkingbean found her eczema improved after only 10 days. CarolS‘s acne has gotten much better. (2) Mood. Easier to give up smoking and coffee. More libido. (3) Stiffness. “I have been a person who gets stiff when sitting too long, ever since I was in high school. . . . Sitting in one place for 15 minutes would cause me to stand up from the chair like a 90 year old. . . . It just dawned on me that that is no longer true!!!!” wrote Ann. Two others noticed similar effects.

2. Several studies of patients with mood disorders have found their symptoms improved when they were given fish oil (high in omega-3) compared to a placebo group. A review of these and similar studies notes that “the marine-based omega-3 fatty acids primarily consist of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and appear to be highly biologically active. In contrast, those from plants (flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil) are usually in the form of the parent omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid. Although dietary alpha-linolenic acid can be endogenously converted to EPA and DHA . . . research suggests that this occurs inefficiently to only 10%-15%.”

3. Several surveys of the elderly have found an association between (a) reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and less cognitive decline and (b) greater fish consumption. At the other end of life, omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for proper development of our brains, a point made here. The effect of an essential nutrient is likely to be clearest in those who are most vulnerable (such as babies, the elderly, and the mentally ill).

What makes the overall idea — we need more omega-3 than most of us get — even more plausible is that a pre-existing theory makes sense of these facts. That theory is the aquatic-ape hypothesis, the idea that humans became big-brained primates while living near water and eating lots of fish. In 2005, Sir David Attenborough, whose nature documentaries I love, made a fascinating radio show about this theory. The end of the show provides new supporting data that I find especially persuasive.

If our brains grew big while eating lots of fish, it makes perfect sense that they would work better when we eat lots of fish. More precisely, too little fish (or too little of fish’s crucial nutrients) should harm the portions of our body that evolved during that period (shaped to work well on a high-fish diet) much more than older portions (shaped to work well on a low-fish diet). The improvements associated with omega-3 fatty acids — reduction of cognitive decline in the elderly, mood improvements in the mentally ill — fit that prediction well. So does the conclusion of a recent meta-analysis that omega-3 does not clearly reduce heart disease or cancer.

And so do the benefits of oil (presumably from omega-3) suggested by the SLD forums and my self-experimentation. Sleep: My earlier self-experimentation suggested that sleep is influenced by morning conversations and amount of standing, implying considerable differences between our sleep and the sleep of other primates. Skin: Human skin has fat attached, like marine mammals but unlike the skin of other primates. (This fact inspired Alistar Hardy to think of the aquatic ape hypothesis.) In addition, we have much less hair than other primates. Stiffness when standing up and balance on one foot: Unlike other primates, we are bipedal.

How to measure my sense of balance? . . .

25 Replies to “Brain Food”

  1. Oh dear. I’m all for scientific iconoclasm, one reason I like the whole approach of SLD and the BBS paper, but I worry that you seem to have espoused Morgan, Hardy and Aquatic Apes so thoroughly. This is not the place for a detailed rebuttal of the ideas — which had to be considerably changed after new fossils brought the human-African ape split so much closer. I do think, however, that this is going to help mainstream, blinkered scientists to ignore some of your ideas.

    Maybe we do need an explanation of why omega-3 does seem to have so many cognitive benefits. Maybe we don’t. and I’m all for speculation. But I do not think Aquatic Ape holds enough water to make it worth using for this purpose.

  2. Seth’s posting on Omega 3s and effects of the oils is fascinating. In addition to depression and Alzheimer’s, there is research suggesting the EPA fatty acids in the omega 3 in fish oil helps neck and back pain:

    ADHD in young people:

    Bipolar disorder:
    A therapist friend treating a client who is mildly bipolar says that fish oil is on a standard list of mood stabilizers for manic depression that includes lithium and the other standard drugs. It is recommended for clients where the depressive side is pronounced.

    Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Known at the time (1990) as “Post- viral fatigue syndrome”)

    Andrew Stoll, the Harvard psychopharmacologist who has pioneered the omega 3 research,
    in an interview says he starts depressed people out on 1 gram of EPA, (an omega 3 fatty acid in fish oil) and waits a week or two to see if there is improvement. If not he goes to 2 grams a day and has almost never had to go higher than 6.

    Stoll claims positive effects for borderline personality and Huntington’s disease as well.

    That’s a wide range of research, but there are not a lot of studies in any one area, so we need a lot more. I started taking 3 grams of EPA a day — 18 capsules of the GNC fish oil product — about a month ago and had two surprising effects. First, after 3 days, I noticed that I had a lot more energy on my morning walks. Second, after about 5 days, I started spontaneously getting up about an hour and a half earlier, from 8:45 to 7:15 in the morning. This amazed me because I have always had to work hard to reset my circadian rhythms. I saw research showing that piglets who received fish oil had more serotonin in their brain. Serotonin is tied to circadian rhythms.

    The fish oil does appear to help my sleep. Also, I persuaded a friend who for several years has suffered from serious Chronic Fatigue Disorder (low energy, poor concentration, “foggy brain”, and forgetfulness, muscular aches and pains upon exertion, and more) to take 1.5 grams of EPA (9 capsules of GNC fish oil) a day and after 5 days, he is reporting less anxiety and better concentration…

    People may also be sleeping better because they are eating less and giving their digestive systems a rest, and are feeling a sense of “Shangri-La” hopefulness after realizing that they can reduce their hunger at will as long and as much as they want.

  3. In regards to flavor of walnut oil, how about pinching your nose closed while swallowing the oil? I remembered from high school that smell affects taste significantly. I’ve found that when swallowing olive or other oil while pinching my nose closed and chasing that with a mouthful of water that I don’t taste anything.

    Shouldn’t this work? Heck, shouldn’t I be able to eat other “tasty” foods this way and lose weight?

  4. I too experimented with switching to all walnut oil + flaxseed oil caps and found that my sleep was affected, but not so positively: intead I experienced intense vivid dreams and awoke each morning feeling far less refreshed. After 2 weeks this efect did not modify and so I switched back to ELOO + flaxseed oil caps and immediately experienced more peaceful sleep. Has anyone else experienced something similar? I’m curious.

  5. I was just googling flaxseed oil and dreams, and found your website.

    I have started taking flaxseed oil, and have found an unexpected pleasant side effect in the vivid dreams that I have been experiencing. I recently was away on travel and didn’t take my flaxseed oil with me and I didn’t have any of these dreams (or that I could remember) while I was away. I didn’t immeditately begin taking the flaxseed oil when I got home as my new little habit had been interrupted, but when I started taking it again yesterday, I had a dreamfilled night last night! Of course this is not scientific but I do believe I have discovered a correlation between the flaxseed oil and either increased dreams or the ability to recall them.

  6. I think I had much more vivid dreams at first — when I started drinking flaxseed oil. But now the effect has gone away.

    I tried googling flaxseed oil and dreams and didn’t get my website. Did you google flaxseed oil and sleep?

  7. I just tried googling it again … your website actually comes up on the 4th page of results.

    Thanks for your response to my post. I had more of my vivid dreams last night, and I guess I will just enjoy it while it lasts!

  8. I just started taking a couple of Omega-3 capsules a day for mood last week, and the first three nights afterward I woke up completely remembering vivid dreams. That never happens to me. In the past I’ve known that I must have dreamed, but never remember anything. I didn’t have vivid dreams again after those first three nights, even though I’ve continued to take the capsules, so there must be some sort of initial spike that happens to cause that.

  9. Today I Googled ‘Omega 3 dreams’ as, since I began taking Omega 3 fish oil tablets four days ago I have had the most astonishingly vivid dreams. I am an artist and illustrator and have always had vivid colorful dreams but very rarely anything like these. Three in a row just before dawn. Since Omega 3 is the only change in my diet I wondered if there might be a connection. Sad to read they might end soon. Oh well.

  10. I too have noticed an increase in vivid dreams while taking flaxseed oil capsules.

    This is especially true if I take a capsule before bedtime.

    I began taking the supplement based on the recommendation of my pharmacist, who suggested that flaxseed oil would help my asthma.

    It has helped my asthma.

    So, long story short, I feel good and I sleep well. I will surely continue to take flaxseed oil.

  11. For four nights in a row now I’ve had unpleasant, violent dreams that I can recall when I wake up, which I’ve never been able to do. I’ve been taking a Fish, Flax, Borage OIl Supplement for the past 5 days. I suspected there might be a connection, but after reading all of the above posts, I’m convinced there is. I just wish the dreams were pleasant. I wish a medical professional would weigh in on this thread to assure me that the benefits of this supplement will outweigh these scary nights.

  12. Last night I took an Omega 3 pill before I slept and have had vivid dreams of my childhood. They were all happy memories of myself and my brother; interesting to note is that the memories were in chronological order, starting from when I was around 3 years old (yes i do remember a few things) to 5, 7 years of age… They were kind of memories with a little twist to them; since in the dream I (as a by-stander) was watching myself and my brother ride the bicycle together, swimming and playing in the pool, etc… any medical thoughts on this ? Maybe I have experienced near-death !!

  13. After 3 days of taking 2 T of ground whole seeds every morning my desire to smoke has also decreased. It’s day 5 and my desire has not returned.

    This is especially impressive because my smoking is tied to when I take my prescription for Adderall. Somehow methamphetamine no longer triggers the urge to smoke.

    I commented on this to my wife yesterday, calling it ‘weird.’ And I just made the connection now, after reading this post. Very interesting.

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