by Scott Jameson
I’ve been thinking about Omega 3 fatty acids (N3s) recently. We’re clearly adapted to getting more of them than we’re actually getting.
Children whose mothers took fish oil (chock full of N3s EPA and DHA) during pregnancy have higher coordination, and they are smarter, although that difference may not persist later in development. RaceRealist has written about N3s and PISA math scores before.
Here’s a paper summarizing many of the known benefits of fish oil supplementation. Goes over some of the aforementioned results regarding kids, and also shows random improvements such as helping people with Alzheimer’s maintain weight.
A lack of N3s is associated with depression, coronary artery disease, maybe even autism. N3s are known to lessen autism symptoms. This is probably an immune thing. Sulforaphane, an anti-inflammatory agent, is known to reduce autism symptoms, and other research has elucidated the relationship between N3s and the immune system.
This is delicious fodder for a post of its own. There’s a mass of papers about the relationship between autism and the immune system; N3s being neuroprotective and correlating negatively with likelihood of autism/severity of autism symptoms vindicates the idea that autism happens when your immune system cooks your brain (neuroinflammation). You would expect males to be whacked harder by this because they’re not good at producing the important N3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Thus, males ought to have higher autism rates- and they do.
Anyway, here’s what I’m getting at. Either N3s are a counter-intuitive miracle drug, or they’re just an important nutrient of which many of us do not get enough. The latter, I should think! The lemonade that can and will be made from these lemons is that widespread N3 deficiency gives us an opportunity to understand one of the ways that a human brain can get messed up. But we still want to fix the problem- more on that in my next post.
Our ancestors probably got more N3s than we do. They’ve been estimated to, anyway. (Second study mentioning our ancestors’ higher N3 intake.) If they didn’t, they might’ve been selected for better processing of alpha linoleic acid into eicosapentaenoic acid and subsequently docosahexaenoic acid, which real-life humans aren’t great at. As it stands, humans need either a whole bunch of excess ALA to convert to EPA and DHA, or we could have EPA and DHA straight. The excess ALA idea probably isn’t something you can rely on for your N3 needs, but certainly ALAs are better than nothing.
Seeds would’ve been a part of the diet back in the Paleolithic. Flax, an example of a seed rich in ALA, was known to humans quite a darned while ago, so seeds might have been a source of these critical nutrients. It’s worth noting that the first paleolithic diet estimation study linked in the previous paragraph pegs hunter gatherers as getting way more ALA than modern folks do.
Of course, many populations would’ve lived near oceans or at least rivers and lakes, where they could’ve gotten N3s from fish and seafood.
Some of it must have come from insects, themselves actually having a decent amount of N3s.
I’ve got an even weirder guess, though: bioaccumulation in land animal tissue. This possibility must have been important for peoples like the Botai culture with extremely narrow (Tarpan-based) diets, which likely didn’t include enough seeds, insects, and/or seafood. Animals can’t produce N3s of their own, but they eat ALA, convert it into EPA and DHA, and send a lot of it up to the brain, where it’s needed, with the result being that the brain has a lot more and higher quality N3s than any of the plants from which the N3s were derived.
Grog the caveman could’ve gotten a bunch of N3s from his favorite treat: scrambled auroch brains. Many of his progeny carry the practice into the present day, to the disgust of other living humans. Being that humans and our relatives are disgusting in general, Neanderthals occasionally even ate each other’s brains, and according to CNN, they’re still at it!
Nonhuman brains had to be the more popular option, then as now; mentioning the whole cannibalism thing is a bit of a non sequitur I shoved in for sheer entertainment value. But I suspect that there are several reasons we Westerners don’t get enough N3s: we don’t eat brains anymore, we don’t eat bugs anymore, and we don’t get as many ALA-rich plant oils as we used to. Perhaps we’re not getting enough fish, or perhaps the fish we’re getting are less likely to be fatty (e.g. salmonids, tuna, schooling fish) and more likely to be lean (cod, pollock).
Somehow or other we ought to get N3s back in our diet. Could save some kids from autism or, failing that, improve their prognosis. Again, it could increase our math scores, too, particularly in women. Closing part of the gap with other nations and between our sexes- two birds with one stone for our educators- and a boon for our engineering departments as well. Which is a boon for everyone.
The stakes are high. Who can save us from our collective state of starved brains? I’ll post my ideas soon.