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To supplement, or not to supplement with Omega-3s

Published December 22. 2012 09:03AM

Please forgive the headline's lack of originality, but my last round of research left me as conflicted as Hamlet. In the middle of it, I found a cleverly conceived study that in my mind definitively proved that Omega-3 supplementation improved brain function for people of all ages.

I read the article a number of times, took some notes, and did some additional research on n-back tests. Since I wanted to ride the bike soon, it didn't make sense to start the rough draft, so I decided to keep reading the mound of research I had pushed aside once I found the Omega-3 research.

Based on this column's headline, you've probably guessed what I found: an article that contradicted the one I planned to write about.

It came from the highly respected Cochrane Review and found Omega-3 supplementation didn't help brain function. Even worse, the three studies cited in the Cochrane Review article were randomized and controlled.

Most in the field consider randomized controlled studies to be the best of all research designs because the act of randomizing patients to receive or not receive the treatment usually means any significant differences between the groups can be attributed to the treatment and not to some other unidentified factor.

In essence, randomized controlled studies show cause and effect.

After reading this, I initially thought that I had just wasted most of my morning. But then I recognized that presenting the highlights of both studies to you and commenting upon them would help you decide whether or not to use Omega-3 supplements.

The three studies cited in the Cochrane Review article showed little difference in the mental decline of subjects whether they supplemented with Omega-3 oil or took a placebo. The dosages used in the studies ranged from 400 to 700 milligrams and the time frames from six to 40 months.

The studies tested memory, executive function, and mental processing speed.

The lead author, Emma Sydenham of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said this about the findings: "Consumers should not be fooled into thinking the Omega-3s improve cognitive health. It's not a magic bullet."

But the research done at the University of Pittsburgh and published online at PLOS One suggests it just may be so.

Pitt researchers recruited healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 25 and took blood samples. They then administered an n-back test, a memory test where subjects are shown streaming pictures on a computer and are told to click on images shown two or three pictures before.

To get a better idea of this test, I took a two-back test online at A pencil, car, baseball, fish, heart, hunk of cheese, and book appeared one after the other. When the hunk of cheese appeared again after the book, I needed to click on it to be correct.

Even though all the Pitt subjects were healthy and close in age, the ones who scored the highest on the n-back test, surprisingly, had the highest amounts of Omega-3 in their blood samples. The lowest scores were recorded by those with the lowest amounts of Omega-3.

Next, the researchers gave all the subjects Lovaza, an Omega-3 supplement approved by the FDA, for six months. They then administered the n-back test again and found that the working memory of the subjects had improved.

These results were so significant that Matthew Muldoon, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh and project coinvestigator, said, "We can help the brain achieve its full potential in young adult life [by eating in such a way that increases Omega-3 levels]."

That may be so, but do older adults benefit? After all, the article in the Cochrane Review found otherwise.

And what about a report published in the September issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that cast doubt upon other reputed Omega-3 benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart attack, stroke and premature death?

Is taking an Omega-3 supplement really going to do anything other than lighten your wallet?

I wish I could answer one way or the other for sure. But what I do know is that eating so that you get the optimal amount of Omega-3 has to help your overall health, and that if your present situation keeps you from receiving the Omega-3s in your diet, supplementation makes far more sense than going without.

Even if supplementing your diet with Omega-3 does not improve mental function or reduce the incidence of heart attack, stroke, and premature death, studies suggest there are a number of other benefits from ingesting Omega-3.

It's been found to be an effective anti-inflammatory, often working to improve the efficacy of prescription medication and specifically lessening the pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It's also been shown to reduce triglyceride levels, improve ADHD, and aid with depression.

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