Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Feeling Good About Fish Oil

I am a huge fan of fish oil, consuming around 20 grams a day, every day, just for general well-being. The benefits include low cholesterol, high sensitivity to insulin, more functional joints (I have arthritis in my wrists and knees), better brain function, better skin nails and hair, and on and on. The list is mind-boggling.

The optimal ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats in the diet is about 3:1 (some say 2:1), but the US diet is around 10:1 at best, and 30:1 in many people. Not good. We need more omega-3 fats, and fish oil is the best source -- other than eating a ton of salmon.

Seems the New York Times is jumping on the bandwagon.

Feeling Good About Fish Oil

Published: September 14, 2008

A FEW months ago, while sharing a hotel room with him during a family trip, Melissa Jump noticed that her 4-year-old son was grinding his teeth at night. He had recently developed some other unnerving routines, too — organizing and reorganizing the pillows on his bed, covering his ears to block out noise (even the flushing of a toilet) and refusing to get in the car or go anywhere without his blanket.

Her pediatrician’s recommendation? A nutritional supplement (inositol, sometimes referred to as B-8) and large doses of fish oil.

“I saw a difference within a week,” Mrs. Jump said of her son, who now takes a teaspoon of fish oil, containing omega-3 fatty acids, daily. “He’s more chill; he can roll with things more. He asks about his blanket every once in a while, but it’s no big deal.”

Like many other doctors, the Jumps’ pediatrician, Dr. Sandy Newmark, who practices integrative medicine in Tucson, Ariz., acknowledges that research on fish oil therapies is limited. There isn’t even a consensus about what the optimal doses and appropriate combinations are for polyunsaturated fatty acids like the omega-3s. But many parents concerned about the side effects of conventional medications are turning to fish oil first, to treat not just mood disorders but also a variety of learning and developmental problems, including autism, dyslexia and, most notably, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or A.D.H.D.

Fish oil contains long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids; most important are the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, believed to play a central role in the development of the infant brain and nervous system, and eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA. Studies have consistently found that children with A.D.H.D. have low blood levels of DHA, which is in short supply in the Western diet generally, and a small number of recent clinical trials have reported improvements in children’s learning and behavioral problems after fish oil therapy.

Some health care practitioners say fish oil therapy can improve children’s attention and focus, and studies of adults have found it may alleviate depression. But many doctors who prescribe it use it as just one component of a comprehensive treatment program, and many prescribe fish oil in addition to medication, not instead of it.

“Grandma was right: cod liver oil is good for you,” said Dr. Edward Hallowell, founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass., and an author of several books on A.D.H.D. as well as the director of a small pilot study on fish oil. But though he routinely recommends it, he said, “It takes more than fish oil to cure A.D.H.D.”

Dr. Lawrence D. Rosen, a pediatrician who practices integrative medicine in Oradell, N.J., said that some families were using fish oil along with nutritional supplements, vitamins and various educational and behavioral interventions, and that their children were able to function well without medication. But, he acknowledged, “These are generally not the kids who have severe behavioral difficulties or incredible hyperactivity.”

Treatment with fish oil alone is controversial. Dr. Betsy Busch, an A.D.H.D. specialist who wrote a commentary on the topic last year, said that while she has been intrigued by the potential of fatty acid supplementation, it’s premature to substitute fish oil for known, effective medications.

“There’s too much going on for us not to want to pursue this idea, but right now we’ve got a sort of hodgepodge of information,” said Dr. Busch, whose commentary on fatty acid supplementation, “Fishy, Fascinating and Far From Clear,” was published last year in The Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

“If fish oil is being prescribed in a way that delays a child’s access to treatments we know are effective, I think that’s not a good moral decision. If you’ve got the ability to improve a child’s quality of life, I think that’s a responsibility you can’t turn your back on just because fish oil seems so exciting.”

STUDIES on fish oil therapy have had mixed results. A clinical trial in Australia, published last year in The Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, found improvements in parents’ ratings of their children’s hyperactivity and inattention, but no difference in teachers’ assessments. Meanwhile, the Oxford-Durham study in Britain, published in the journal Pediatrics in 2005, reported remarkable improvements in reading and spelling among children treated with omega-3 fatty acids.

“The therapy improved their inattention, in particular, and seemed to allow them to concentrate and stay on task better,” said Paul Montgomery, an author of the Oxford-Durham study.

But neither of these studies involved children with a clear A.D.H.D. diagnosis, and an earlier 2001 clinical trial carried out at the Mayo Clinic, involving children formally diagnosed with A.D.H.D., found no decrease in symptoms after four months of therapy.

Other unresolved questions have to do with the appropriate doses of fish oil as well as the optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Most health care providers suggest 1,000 milligrams of combined DHA and EPA daily for a child, and up to 2,000 milligrams for an adult, but they say they adjust the amounts depending on weight. Some experts recommend higher doses to get the full therapeutic effect, but there are risks. Fish oil is a blood thinner and can interfere with clotting and cause excessive bleeding, which can be dangerous. Doctors say anyone with a family history of a bleeding disorder should avoid it.

Mercury contamination is also a concern, doctors say, and parents should make sure to purchase only purified pharmaceutical-grade fish oil. They emphasize that patients should take fish oil only under the supervision of a health care provider, and that they should remember to inform all their health care providers that they are taking it. Treatment should be stopped several weeks before elective surgery or even a minor procedure like a tooth extraction.

“Talk with your pediatrician,” Dr. Hallowell said. “This is all uncharted territory.”

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