Brain Food (part 6: a little more progress)

I did two balance experiments with a warmup of 8 trials. In one, the order of feet (which foot I stood on) was left, then right; in the other, right, then left. In both experiments I did much better (i.e., balanced longer) on my right foot than my left foot, ps < 0.001. This surprised me; I had never heard of such an asymmetry. The difference was so large that the platform size (0.75 inch) good for the left foot was too easy for the right foot. To make things as simple and easy as possible I decided to stop testing both feet and to only measure balancing on my right foot (and to use a 0.5-inch platform to make it more difficult and avoid a ceiling effect). I tested my balance (a) in silence and (b) listening to a book. The results were similar so I decided the standard condition will be listening to something. I want to make my balance test fast and pleasant. I came across several promising related facts: 1. On the Shangri-La Diet (SLD) forums, spacehoppa said she felt “solid on [her] feet” — which may mean her balance has improved. If so, the improved balance that I noticed may be widely true. She also said “my mind feels clearer,” another effect I noticed from omega-3’s, and more reason to think omega-3 improve brain function.

2. On the SLD forums, porkypine wrote, “I have a very strong reaction to the 1500 mg of OmegaBrite that I have begun taking in the morning. . . . During the day, I am not just happier, but actually chipper, which is not a normal state for me. I have wondered if I am getting too much Omega-3.” This supports one of the assumptions behind my upcoming tests of the effects of omega-3 on balance: the effects of omega-3 on the brain happen quickly. It also highlights an advantage of measuring balance rather than something else, such as mood — namely, it is reasonable to assume that the better your balance, the better your brain is working. As this quote shows, the mapping between mood and goodness of functioning is not so clear.

3. In a book about neurology (Defending the Cavewoman by Harold Klawans), including Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, I read: “A [Fore] woman in late pregnancy who was unable to walk easily across a narrow tree trunk bridging a gorge knew from that change in her balance that she had kuru and that she would die of it. The physicians examined her and thought she was normal, but in less than one year, she was dead.” This shows that balance is an especially sensitive measure of brain function, at least under demanding conditions. It’s relatively easy to notice worse balance.

Balance is also much easier to quantify than many other measures of brain function, such as mental clarity.

Brain Food (part 5: a little progress)

I’ve been doing small experiments on my balance to learn what affects it. Most research using new tools follows a progression. Step 1: you learn what people already knew. Step 2: you find new information that isn’t very interesting. Step 3: you find interesting new information. Earlier I found that I could balance on one foot longer on a wider platform — Step 1.

Now Step 2. I’ve done a few experiments comparing different footwear (sandals, shoes, barefoot). In each experiment I ran several conditions, each consisting of 12 trials standing on my left foot followed by 12 trials standing on my right foot. These trials had gaps of seconds between them. Different conditions (different footwear) were separated by at least 10 minutes and usually more.

The right-foot average was always more than the left-foot average. You can see examples of this in my earlier results. I doubt that the right foot/leg is actually better than the left so this suggests there is a substantial warmup effect, as there is in most tasks.

To make measurements more precise, it would help to have a warmup period before collecting the main, more stable data. How long should it be? The graph below shows data from many of the conditions I have run arranged by trial number, with a lowess summary line.

The y axis is in log seconds, not seconds; I used a log transform to make the distribution of the data more symmetrical. The maximum time was 30 seconds. (Log(30) = 3.4.) If I kept my balance for 30 seconds, I stopped, and recorded the result as 30 seconds.

The graph shows an early warmup period that lasts 6-8 trials long, followed by a slow improvement that lasts at least 24 trials. Here is something new and not very interesting: details about the warmup effect.

Brain Food (part 4: measuring balance)

Why is now a great time to be alive? Because Philip Weiss, one of my favorite writers, has a blog. Today’s entry mentioned a story about teaching the Torah while standing on one foot.

Speaking of standing on one foot . . . I devised a way to measure my balance. (To recap: I want to measure my balance to see if omega-3 improves it. When I increased my omega-3 consumption via walnut oil and flaxseed oil, it suddenly became much easier to put on my shoes while standing, which I’d been doing for years. The omega-3 also improved my sleep. Maybe omega-3 makes much of the human brain work better, especially the most-recently-evolved portions. Maybe this effect happens within hours.)

Here is the method. Equipment. At a hardware store I bought a series of 6 pipe caps, caps for 0.5 inch pipe, 0.75 inch pipe, 1.0 inch pipe, 1.25 inch pipe, 1.5 inch pipe, and 2.0 inch pipe (total $24). At a new-age pharmacy I bought a thick foot-sized cutting board (made of bamboo, $15). Below is a picture of these items and my stopwatch, which measures times to 0.01 second. Procedure. I put the board on one of the caps and balance on the board on one foot. I measure with a stopwatch how long I can balance on it before putting the other foot down. After 30 seconds, the trial stops — 30 seconds is the maximum possible score. I stand on my left foot for several trials (e.g., 12), then switch to my right foot for several trials.

The reason for six different caps — six different platforms — is to be able to adjust the difficulty so that it is neither too easy nor too hard — if either were the case the measurements wouldn’t be telling me much. With a little trial and error, the 0.75-inch cap seemed to be best. Below is data from that cap and the smaller and larger caps. With each foot I balanced 12 times; the graph shows the means and standard errors on a log scale. The sequence of conditions was: (1) 0.75-inch cap, (2) 0.5-inch cap, (3) 1.0-inch cap, (4) 0.75-inch cap. I balanced on each foot 12 times in each of the 4 conditions.

The results make sense: the smaller the platform, the less time I could balance on it. There appears to be a practice effect — better scores with more practice. I hope with more experience this effect will go away. The next step is to do these measurements several times per day for several days so that I can get some idea of how much they vary “naturally” — what the background variation is.

Brain Food (part 3)

In Brain Food (part 2) I found that when I reduced my flaxseed-oil intake my sleep got worse that very night. (Presumably because I reduced the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in my diet and therefore my blood.) Several people, including me, have found that their sleep improved the night after taking more omega-3 — that is, hours later. For example, if the omega-3 was begun Monday afternoon, they slept better Monday night.

How could the effect turn on and off so quickly? An article in the current issue of Journal of Nutrition supplies an answer:

Of the lipids found in the brain, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) play an important role, serving as a major component of the phospholipids that form cell membranes, being precursors of signaling molecules such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes, modulating gene expression through the activation of transcription factors, and forming the microenvironment around membrane-bound proteins.

In other words, omega-3 has several effects in the brain, with vastly different sensitivities to changes in omega-3 blood levels. Changes in cell membranes probably happen very slowly; changes in “the microenvironment around membrane-bound proteins” could happen very quickly.

That a necessary nutrient (omega-3) could have fast-acting changes (within hours) is counter-intuitive. It doesn’t agree with previous experience. Other necessary nutrients take much longer for a deficiency to become apparent. And it doesn’t agree with common-sense design notions. Evolution builds our bodies out of what is in our blood. Human design is quite different — cars are not built out of what flows around them (oil and gas). Nor is anything else. There isn’t a everyday analogy that shows that a deficiency of a construction element can have fast-acting effects. If all the raw metal in the world disappeared, your car would run fine for a long time. Nor does it fit with general trends in nutrition research. Nutrition researchers study the whole body, most of which changes slowly by comparison to the brain. Sure, food can change the brain — make you sleepy, make you alert (caffeine), but these are not changes that interest most nutrition researchers, who usually emphasize optimal functioning. During the Stone Age, our diets did not contain much caffeine so it is obviously not a necessary nutrient, even if it can improve memory. No dietician tells clients to consume more caffeine. There are hundreds of substances like caffeine that change mental functioning, of course, and with the right definition of improvement all of them can be considered to improve mental functioning. But none of them interest nutrition researchers, with the exception of Adelle Davis (fascinated by LSD). An experimental psychologist, on the other hand, . . .

Brain Food (part 2)

Do omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function? I blogged earlier that switching from olive oil (low omega-3) to walnut oil (high omega-3) and flaxseed-oil capsules (very high omega-3) caused my sleep, my balance, and maybe my mood to improve. If you are interested in duplicating what I did, here are details:

Supplies. I take (a) 2 tablespoons/day walnut oil (Spectrum Organic refined). Store locator at www.spectrumorganics.com will help you locate this. Total 240 calories. (b) 10 1000-mg capsules/day of flaxseed oil (Longs cold-pressed softgels). Longs drugstore house brand, which is only available at Longs drugstores. Total 100 calories. I store both in the refrigerator but they are in stores at room temperature (reasonably enough, since walnut trees and flax plants live at room temperature). Procedure. I take both between meals. I divide the walnut oil into 2 doses of 1 T each that I take at least several hours apart. I take 80% of this stuff after noon. I spread the flaxseed capsules out throughout the day, take about 3 at a time. But read on for more helpful info — you may not want to start with exact duplication.

With the new oils, my sleep was consistently and unusually good for about two weeks, making it was clear that the improvement was caused by the new oils (or more precisely, the difference between the new oils and the oil they replaced). Less clear was what aspect of the dietary change made the difference. I switched to walnut oil and flaxseed oil because they were high in omega-3; but they differ from olive oil in other ways as well.

It would be great to know more — both to maximize the effect on myself and to help others get the effect. The wonderful thing about finding a food component that improves sleep — if that isn’t wonderful enough — is that it is likely to improve the brain in all sorts of other ways, too. (In contrast to my previous sleep research on the effects of non-food-components, such as standing and breakfast, where the improvements were probably specific to sleep.) The data about omega-3 support this view: A wide range of improvements in mental function have been observed. Assuming omega-3 causes a single change in the brain, that change causes (a) a reduced rate of Alzheimer’s, (b) less depression, and (c) better sleep — so it is likely to be widespread in the brain.

Since my earlier post, I’ve gathered some new and helpful data.

First, a Shangri-La-Diet forum poll found that most people who used olive oil for the diet had better sleep (10 out of 12), even though olive oil is relatively low in omega-3. Can even a small amount of omega-3 improve sleep? (Small compared to my current dose. SLD dieters consume large amounts of olive oil compared to everyone else.) Or is some other component of olive oil causing the change?

Second, after reading my earlier post, Catherine Johnson remembered that “I realize that I started sleeping miserably when I stopped taking Omega 3s.”
I trust that sort of thing. I had had a similar now-I-understand experience. After figuring out that lots of standing improves sleep, I remembered that several years earlier I had sleep very well the night after visiting lots of art studios during an Open Studios day. At the time I had guessed that it was all the art-inspired thinking that had caused my much-better-than-average sleep. But it was also a day with much more standing than usual.

Third, I reduced my flaxseed-oil intake by half: I took 5 capsules instead of 10. To my great surprise, I woke feeling as I felt with the olive oil. I hadn’t felt that way in weeks. The next day I went back to 10 capsules and again woke up feeling great. Obviously this strengthens the plausibility of omega-3 –> better sleep because the crucial ingredient is apparently in high quantities in the flaxseed oil capsules.

The stunning thing, the reason I was so surprised, is this: I didn’t expect the flaxseed change to make a difference so quickly. When someone ate a zero-folate diet to learn about the effects of folate, it took months for the effects to become clear. Although I had noticed the sleep improvement caused by the new oils the very next morning, I had assumed that was because I was quite deficient — like someone with scurvy noticing fast improvement with Vitamin C. Someone who is not Vitamin-C-deficient will have to go without Vitamin C for months before scurvy occurs. I had expected to wait weeks before seeing sleep degradation.

If you read about why omega-3 is important, you will read endlessly that our brains are made of it — the fraction of our brain that is omega-3 fatty acids is 10% (Wikipedia?), 60% (a Whole Foods employee), whatever. That is what I had assumed: that omega-3 is a structural element of our brains. Which is no doubt true. I have never heard that it is a metabolic element of our brains. Cars are “made of” carburetors, fan belts, computers, tires, and the like (structual elements); they “run on” gasoline and electricity (metabolic elements). Structural elements are parts. Metabolic elements are fuel. Failure to replace a perfectly good carburetor or other structual element will eventually cause trouble, but it may be several years. Failure to replace gasoline or electricity will cause trouble much sooner. Thus my little experiment suggested that omega-3 was a metabolic element.

If an effect can be turned on and off quickly it is much easier to study than if it takes weeks or months to turn on or off. Upcoming attractions: How I am studying it.

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? . . .