Science in Action: Omega-3 (balance results)

Because many SLD dieters reported better sleep, I wondered if omega-3 improved sleep. I increased my omega-3 intake by switching from olive oil, which has little omega-3, to walnut oil and flaxseed oil, which have much more — especially flaxseed oil. The amount of oil stayed roughly the same. The night after the change, my sleep got better. To my surprise, so did my balance. The next morning, I found I could more easily put on my shoes while standing up. I had been putting on my shoes standing up for 2-3 years and it had never been this easy. (I put on my shoes standing up because I thought it might improve my balance.)

I devised a simple measure of balancing ability. I stood on one foot on a platform balanced on a small metal cylinder (a pipe plug). (I will post pictures.) The parts were easy to find. I tried cylinders of different sizes until the balancing was neither too easy nor too hard. The measure was how long I could stand on one foot on the platform, which measured with a stopwatch. I made these measurements in blocks of 20 (the first 5 were warmup, leaving 15).

My early attempts had two problems: (1) The dose was too low. I had been taking the flaxseed oil as capsules (10 1000-mg capsules/day). I started taking 1 T/day in liquid form (much faster). Then I increased the amount of flaxseed oil/day from 1 T to 2 T. My sleep improved: I woke up more rested. Because the sleep effect was now perfectly clear, I thought measuring the effect on my balance would be a good idea. (2) Practice effects were too large. How well I could balance depended on how often I measured my balance. To avoid practice effects, I measured my balance no more than once/day.

I did a baseline period of several days; then I replaced the walnut oil and flaxseed oil with the same volume of sesame oil, which is low in omega-3. I continued this period until the effects seemed beyond doubt. Then I did another baseline period with the original amounts of walnut and flaxseed oil.
Effect of Type of Fat on My Balance
Here are the balance results. Each point is a geometric mean over 15 trials. The bars are standard errors. After one day, my balance got worse with sesame oil. When I returned to the high-omega-3 oils, my balance returned to its baseline level. To measure the clarity of the effect, I compared the 17 baseline days with the last 4 sesame-oil days. This gave t(19) = 4.1. A very clear effect.

I made this graph in a cafe. The person sitting next to me asked what I was working on. I showed her the graph. I explained that I measured my balance as a way of measuring how well my brain was working. The results suggested that the type of fat in my diet affected how well my brain worked. She said the results were very interesting because most people will have diets closer to sesame oil than walnut oil and flaxseed oil. Many people will be interested in these results, she said. I hope so, I said.

I will post later on the background of these results, the questions they raise, and procedural details. If you can’t wait, read the posts in the omega-3 category. If you are interested in doing a similar experiment, please let me know.

6 Replies to “Science in Action: Omega-3 (balance results)”

  1. It would be interesting to repeat this but substitute EPA/DHA supplements instead of the flax/walnut oil. Presumably it is the conversion of the omega-3 FA in these oils to EPA/DHA that is the active agent in your sleep/balance. 2T flax plus 2T walnut translate to about 48g of oil with about 32% alpha-linolenic FA. At a conversion rate of about 10% to EPA/DHA, this results in about 1.2g of EPA/DHA (varies considerably per person and as a function of omega-6 FA levels).

    The concern with 4T of flax/walnut oil is that this is a very high load of polyunsaturated fat on a long-term basis, I’ve seen recommendations for about 4% of calories to be from polyunsaturated FAs, and 4T would put you way over this.

    The other issues are the uncertain conversion of alpha-linolenic FA to EPA/DHA, and finally whether it is this that is changing sleep/balance or some other component.

    So I would be very curious 🙂

    I’m currently taking 400mg/day of DHA, and have noticed an improvement in sleep and mood, but I made so many concurrent changes to get here that it is hard to break of the effect from just the DHA. But I might try increasing it to 1g/day and see if that has an effect.

  2. EPA/DHA supplements: Yes, I will certainly try other sources of omega-3.

    “This is a very high load of polyunsaturated fat on a long-term basis”: I’m going to try to find the type & amount of fat that makes my brain work best, measured by sleep, balance, and perhaps other things. Whether that is best for the rest of my body is of course unsure. But so is the 4% recommendation you cite. What is the 4% recommendation based on?

    400 mg/day of DHA: When I increased the flaxseed oil from 1 T/day to 2 T/day, my sleep suddenly improved. No question that it was cause and effect. Nothing I had read had suggested that would happen. Then I realized how little we know about all this and on what weak evidence current ideas are based. It isn’t a minor issue. Omega-3 is believed protective, in a big way, against heart disease, the #1 killer. If 2 T/day is twice as protective as 1 T/day, that would be good to know. Greenland Eskimos, with high omega-3 consumption, had about a tenth the rate of heart disease as Danes, with low omega-3 consumption.

  3. The 4% number comes from an article by Enig/Fallon at, they reference Lasserre, M, et al, Lipids, 1985, 20:4:227. (Enig has a PhD in biochemistry and did some of the first research on the effects of trans fat on metabolism. The Weston A Price site is on the natural foods/historical foods end of the spectrum in terms of dietary recommendations, but whenever I’ve checked the original research they cite it has supported them, so they do try to be science/research based.)

    The concern with high levels of PUFA is that they are less stable than SFA OR MUFA, so are more prone to oxidize and cause problems. There is some basis for thinking that the PUFA in atherosclerotic buildup is the trigger for clots/heart-attacks/strokes, beause it is more prone to oxidation and then triggers buildup of inflamation, which then causes the atherosclerotic plaque to break off.

    My understanding is that omega-3 fats are not equivalent, that the brain selectively prefers DHA and that this is the important supplement in terms of brain health (mood, memory, sleep, balance, etc). It would be interesting to see a study of the difference in the value of flax oil between people who produce the D6D (delta-6 desaturase) enzyme that converts to EPA/DHA vs those who do not, but I couldn’t find any via google 🙂 (Because of the effects you see from flax oil, it seems pretty clear that you have this enzyme.)

    Flax oil/flax seed is clearly good for you in a variety of ways, and I use flax oil in salad dressings as well as the DHA suplements I take as capsules. But I try to limit total PUFA levels, and keep a good balance between omega-3/omega-6 PUFAs. Actually pretty easy to do if you avoid modern oils (corn, soybean, canola, soy) and eat enough flax, fish and/or DHA supplements.

  4. From looking around on the net it looks like 1 Tbl of oil is about 12-,000-14,000 mg. Is that about right? I’m doing the calculation because i already have the capsules and thought I’d try the bigger dose. 10 capsules or 10,000mg hasn’t had a dramatic affect for me on sleep. Certainly nothing like the dramatic affect on hunger.

    I was curious about our aquatic ape ancestors or eskimos. Assume they got 80% of their calories from fish. Rda for calories is about 2000 per day (although they probably needed more). There are about 150 calories per 100g of fish. And .5 to 2 grams of omega-3s per 100 grams of fish.

    1750/150 ~= 11 servings of 100g of fish ~= 5.5 to 22 grams of Omega-3

    If Seth’s flaxseed oil is similar to mine it’s about 52% omega-3s. So his 2 tablespoons are 14g of omega-3s. Right in the range. Even 3 or 4 tablespoons would be near how eskimos and ancient aquatic apes lived every day.

    Did the Danish and more recent studies use high levels of omega-3s (more than 14g) or the smaller levels (less than a gram) that Tim is talking about?

    omega-3 per 100 grams of fish references here

  5. Thanks, Josh, that’s a helpful calculation. Yes, 1 Tbl of oil is about 14,000 mg.

    The Danish studies were surveys. I don’t have the details here but I will try to find them. However, I’m sure they involved high levels of omega-3.

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