For those holistic souls who see good nutrition as an essential requirement for both physical and emotional/mental health, it is self-evident that a dearth of the Omega 3 essential fatty acids, DHA and EPA, could affect mental capacity and well being. DHA is, after all, universally recognised as the most important building block of the brain and the nervous system.
Yet for many in the medical establishment, not to mention their political masters, the proposition remains far from proven. Which is why the new DOLAB studies, on which we report in Foodsmatter here, are so important.
For the first time, in a double blind placebo controlled trial, the researchers have shown a clear association between blood levels of the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA and the reading ability, working memory and behaviour of ‘normal’ school children in ‘normal’ schools. Even more importantly they have shown that increasing those children’s level of DHA can significantly improve poor reading skills, working memory and behaviour.
This has effects which reach far beyond the school population as troubled children all too often grow into troubled adults, bringing with them a catalogue of personal and societal problems. The figures are there to be seen but the enormity of our looming mental health problem rarely hits the headlines:
- 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, mixed anxiety and depression being the most common
- About 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time
Not my figures but those of the Mental Health Foundation.
In financial terms, mental health care already costs the NHS more than coronary heart disease and cancer combined. The NHS Choices website estimates the ‘wider economic cost of mental illness in England at £105.2 billion each year… including direct costs of services, lost productivity at work, and reduced quality of life.’ More specifically, ‘the cost of poor mental health to businesses is just over £1,000 per employee per year, or almost £26 billion across the UK economy.’
Given these figures you would think that financially strapped health services and governments would eventually have to look to nutrition (cheap and totally free from side effects) as an alternative approach, no matter how strong the influence of drug-promoting pharmaceutical companies.
If the ingestion of Omega 3 fatty acids can genuinely be shown to improve mental health outcomes, why would you not at least try it? Well….
It is generally accepted that by far the best source of the essential fats, DHA and EPA, is seafood; ideally oily fish. But, even with our minimal consumption of less than two fish meals a week, we have all but destroyed most of our fish populations by over-fishing. If we were, like the Japanese, to eat an optimum of eight fish meals a week – where would we get the extra fish?
On the surface, fish farming seems the obvious answer but brings problems of its own – like – on what do you feed the fish? Ideally, other fish – but given that all fish stocks are now under pressure that scarcely seems the way to go.
Alternative fish feeds are usually based on soya. But since soya has no Omega 3s but plenty of Omega 6s (of which we already consume far too many), you are no better off.
So, could there be other sources of DHA/EPA apart from fish?
Experiments are afoot by pharmceutical companies (who recognise the importance of essential fatty acids even if health authorities do not) to genetically engineer crops such as rape seed to include DHA.
These might initially be used as fish food but could become a consumer product. Although how much consumer resistance there might be to genetically modified DHA remains to be seen.
The other farmed product which shows great potential is algae. As of now, algae farming has been held back because algae require photosynthesis/sun to grow, so cannot be grown in more northern climates.
However, excitingly, the DOLAB trials used DHA from a Polish algae which had been bred on fermented sugar which is totally sustainable and doesn’t need sun. However, this technology is as yet in its infancy – far indeed from supplying population wide amounts of DHA.
Implementation of a nutritional policy
However, even assuming that sufficient Omega 3 DHA/EPA is available, how do you get people to take it?
Why would anyone pay any attention? They never have in the past. Endless government health campaigns have failed to improve the overall intake of fruit and veg so why would anyone expect them to be more successful with fish? Fish is even less appealing to a non-fish, non-vegetable eating population.
Fortification of staple foods?
Fortification is not an ideal way of delivering nutrition but it is used worldwide to combat specific micronutrient deficiencies when the latter are perceived to have a significantly deleterious effect on certain sections of a population – folic acid and pregnant mothers, for example. Fortification would be open to accusations of ‘nanny state-ry’ but…if the case was good enough?
If, however, supply could be increased, could there be an argument for supplements being supplied free? As one speaker at the DOLAB launch pointed out, vaccination is supplied free on the NHS, so why not DHA supplements?
Of course, being given the supplements is no guarantee that the recipients will actually take them, but while there is no law to say that you have to vaccinate your child, very considerable pressure is exerted on families to ensure that they do. Could the same pressure not be exerted on families to ensure that they take their supplements?
All of this smacks heavily of the nanny state once again but if the population-wide health risks/benefits are great enough, a certain amount of nannying becomes not only acceptable but desirable – always leaving space, of course, for those who genuinely disagree with the policy to stand aside.
Insurance – or even recruiting Big Pharma
More radical suggestions for implementation from the floor at the DOLAB launch – that insurance companies should include blood levels of DHA in the range of tests that they require before setting up life or even travel or car insurance. Certainly a good way of ensuring supplementation compliance.
Even more radical – sharp intakes of breath all round – was that we should just hand the whole problem to the pharmaceutical companies and let them develop DHA supplementation into a money making proposition, after which they would use their massive marketing muscle to ensure that we all took their supplements…
Sadly, be they radical or otherwise, for now all of such initiatives remain in the domain of medical conference discussion rather than government implentation. But, let us take heart – the DOLAB studies are a significant step forward. We can only hope that the pace picks up.
For a report on the DOLAB studies see FoodsMatter here.
For the research itself, see here.
For more on FABResearch and Dr Alex Richardson, the ‘powers’ behind the research see the FABResearch website here.