Military Study: Repairing Faulty Brains with…Fat?!
If you have a brick wall that gets damaged, what would you use to repair it? Bricks, right? It’s a pretty logical question, but it’s one that sparked an amazing inquiry into how the human brain responds to being repaired with the same stuff it’s made of – omega-3 fatty acids.
Michael Lewis, MD, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army and Founder of the Brain Health Education and Research Institute recently gave a lecture in which he laid out the motivation behind his inquiry.
As a veteran who still works out at a military gym near Washington, D.C., Lewis is constantly surrounded by veterans who have undergone intense brain trauma and/or suffer from depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders.
Lewis explained that the current aftercare for mental health issues and brain traumas alike is sadly minimal, especially when it comes to nutrition. He had a hunch that we haven’t been tapping the right building blocks for recovery. Dr. Lewis wanted to see what he could glean from studying the omega-3 blood levels of military personnel.
Fast Facts: For optimal brain health, at least 50% of the fatty acid content in the blood should be composed of omega-3s, but 70% is the real number to shoot for.
Military Personnel Fall Extremely Short of Healthy Omega-3 Levels
22 veterans commit suicide every day. 1 active duty member commits suicide each day. Research has linked high omega-3 fatty acid consumption to healthy moods and brain function (among a list of other benefits).
U.S. military active duty personnel, on average, fall around 17%. That’s because our modern American diet is much too high in omega-6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils and animal feed) and much too low in omega-3 fatty acids (found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fish).
Military Suicides Highly Correlated with Low Omega-3 Levels
Lewis and his team looked at blood samples taken from 1,600 military individuals and measured their blood levels for omega-3 fatty acids. The samples were drawn 3-6 months before half of those individuals committed suicide.
What they discovered was shocking: 95% of the 800 samples from soldiers who later committed suicide had DHA levels below 2%! That represents a 62% increased risk of suicide in those with dramatically low blood levels of omega-3s.
Your Neurons Can’t Communicate Without Omega-3s
Though his fellow veterans’ struggled with mental health sparked Dr. Lewis’ research, he says omega-3s have proven beneficial across the board in anecdotal cases for restoring brain function after traumas like concussions or car crashes, and all forms of age-related neurodegeneration.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for neurons to form synapses. Just look at the photo below – when the body is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, synapse formation is weak and nearly detached.
Intravenous Omega-3s Reduce Damage After Spinal Cord Injury in Rats
Several animal model studies have shown that administering high-dose omega-3s immediately following a traumatic brain injury may provide neuroprotection and prevent further damage to the brain.
In one study, researchers surgically cut the spines of rats to stimulate a traumatic spinal cord injury. One hour after the injury, they administered high-dose omega-3 fatty acids through an IV. The photo below says it all: the DHA group not only exhibited less of an anatomic defect, but also scored higher in locomotive outcome measures.
Note: The group on the right was given inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. As you can see, the outcome was profoundly worse, with more secondary damage than even the control group.
Optimal Omega-3 Levels Before Strokes Equate to Minimal Damage
We’ve been talking a lot about neuroprotection after a brain injury, but what if our blood levels of omega-3s are already at that optimal level when the trauma occurs?
One animal model study discovered that when subjects were given omega-3 fatty acids before an induced stroke, the damage was minimal compared to subjects who got no prior omega-3s. The image to the right shows the difference between the two groups. Dramatic, and impressive for a low-cost, low-risk option, don’t you think?!
Dr. Lewis’ Omega-3s Protocol for Head Injury & Prevention – Timing is Everything!
When it comes to treating traumatic brain injuries, the key is timing: the sooner intravenous omega-3 fatty acids are administered, the better.
Dr. Lewis also suggests that the dosing needs to be quite high in the event of a major brain trauma – about 15 ml twice a day. That’s the equivalent of about 20,000mg EPA/DHA per day.
As for minimizing the effects of a minor trauma like a concussion or simply boosting blood levels to a healthy state, Dr. Lewis recommends 3,000mg of EPA/DHA fish oil three times daily for the first week, twice daily for the second week, and then once daily indefinitely to maintain healthy levels.
Supplementing the diet with omega-3s makes this type of nutritional intervention very attractive as a low-cost and highly-sustainanle maintenance plan for recovering from and also preventing brain-related injuries and mental health issues.
Note: Supplementation is likely to be safer than trying to get all of your omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish, since heavy metals get concentrated in fish flesh rather than fish oil.