Flaxseeds, fish oils and neural development

Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.

Published: May 24th, 2002

Updated: Sept 15th, 2017

I have had almost a year of Carl Jung's "synchronicities" around flaxseeds and omega 3 fatty acids, and I'd like to try and summarize what I am learning.

I recently read a book called SMART FATS by Michael Schmidt. He states that the majority of children in America are deficient in omega 3 fatty acids like DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). This is because we have stopped eating foods that contain these "good" fats (like fish, nuts, egg yolks, leafy greens, and flax seeds) and because our children are eating too many foods containing omega 6 fatty acids (beef products, pork, dairy products) and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils ("The Bad Fats") otherwise known as trans-fatty acids.

Trans-fatty acids occur when oils are heated at too high a temperature. This is why it is best to cook with olive oil, butter, or Ghee if using low to moderate heat and coconut oil for high temperature cooking or baking. Corn oil, canola oil, and many other oils including flax seed oil denature when heated and alter the position of their hydrogen atoms around their double bonds (from a "cis" to a "trans" configuration). These trans-fatty acids are found in most of our processed foods (e.g. margarine, canned soups and other canned foods, french fries, potato chips, pizza, processed cheese, most snack foods, most cookies, candy bars, doughnuts, deep fried foods of any kind, and most salad dressings). These structurally floppy, trans-fatty acids cause damage to our cell walls and may trigger our body to produce more cholesterol in an attempt to heal or firm up the floppy walls of our cells.

Major sources of the omega 3 fatty acid known as DHA and EPA are in cold water fish (like salmon, sardines, herring, albacore (tuna), mackerel, and anchovies). Breast milk also contains lots of DHA. Other sources of omega 3 fatty acids come from organic eggs (if chickens are fed omega 3 fats), dark green leafy vegetables, as well as some forms of algae. ALA (alpha-Linolenic), another omega 3 fatty acids, can be found in pumpkin seeds, canola oil, chia, walnuts, wheat germ and abundantly in flax. Omega 3 fatty acids are critical for brain development and growth. DHA is an essential fatty acid that makes up myelin, the fatty covering around our nerve fibers and is responsible for the conduction of nerve impulses. The more myelin we have around our nerve fibers, the faster information can travel from one nerve cell to another nerve cell or gland.

We also need omega 3 fatty acid for a healthy immune system, healthy cardiovascular system, for visual processing and acuity (vision), and to stabilize our moods (DHA helps hold the receptors for neurohormones, like serotonin, in their proper position). Omega 3 fatty acids are essential fats. We can only get them by eating the foods that contain them. We can make DHA if we eat enough ALA (Flaxseed oil or ground meal) though children who consume too much sugar or too many simple starches (like breads and pasta) will not readily convert ALA to DHA.

A child who consumes a lot of sugary foods well tend to release a lot of insulin from the pancreas to manage the sugar in the bloodstream. The process of metabolizing sugars requires several B vitamins, zinc and other co-factors which are also needed to convert ALA to DHA. The body will preferentially use the vitamins and cofactors for the sugar metabolism, and therefore the child may not get the full benefit from eating flaxseed oil. In addition, being stressed, drinking alcohol, taking steroids (prednisone for asthma), aspirin, or ibuprofen all block our ability to convert ALA to DHA. Our brain and our visual system (specifically the retina) rely exclusively on DHA. If we don't have enough of it, our body will sacrifice the integrity of the skin (making it dry and prone to rashes) and the quality of hair (making it coarse, dull, and dry).

Some signs and symptoms typical of essential fatty acid deficiencies in adults and children include aching joints, angina chest pain, arthritis, constipation, brittle or easily frayed nails, dry-unmanageable hair, dandruff, dry mucous membranes in the mouth, dry skin, patches of pale skin on the cheeks, "chicken skin" or fine bumps like sand paper (on the back, abdomen, and backs of arms), alligator skin, cracked skin on the heels or fingertips, fatique, depression, malaise, poor energy, frequent urination, poor wound healing, excessive thirst, forgetfulness, frequent colds and sickness, high blood pressure, immune weakness (allergies), lack of endurance, lack of motivation, indigestion with gas and bloating and possibly easy bruising. In children one can see attention problems, irritability, hyperactivity, and learning difficulties. Needless to say, I now have my whole family including my parents on omega 3 fatty acids. Several children in my practice have shown bursts in their development a few weeks after adding omega 3 fatty acids to their diet1.

Additional tips:

  • grade Try to consume 2 tablespoons of ground (preferably organic) flaxseeds every day or 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil every day. Flaxseed oil can be mixed with softened butter and spread on toast in the morning
  • grade Try to consume salmon twice a week (try to avoid farm raised fish and eating too much tuna fish because of the high mercury content)
  • grade Don't cook or bake with flax seed oil (heat denatures the oil). Avoid Flax seed oil capsules (the oil is often heated and highly processed before it is added to the capsule). Find organic, cold pressed, flax seed oil that comes in a dark colored bottle (to block sunlight), and is high in lignans. Oil should be in the refrigerator section at the grocery store and have an expiration date
  • grade Be careful of fish oil supplements made from larger fish that feed on small fish because of impurities and heavy metals like mercury that can accumulate in fish (supplements from sardines and mackerels are a better source). Call up the manufacturing company and ensure that they screen for mercury in their products
  • grade Babies and infants, especially premature infants should not consume large amounts of fish oil supplements because they contain high concentrations of EPA (Eicosapentaenoic), and EPA can prolong bleeding time. For the same reasons, adults taking anticoagulants like coumadin should only consume DHA supplements and flax seed oil or flax meal
  • grade There are DHA supplements derived from algae for vegetarians but flax seed oil and ground flax seeds are also good alternatives.
  • grade Avoid margarine. The way it is processed results in a high percentage of trans-fatty acids. It is one of the worst fats of all!
  • grade Organic free-range chicken and turkey meat provide healthier meat choices because of the use of natural feeds and absence of antibiotics and hormones. This is also true for beef and lamb
  • grade Increase consumption of foods containing Vitamin E (olive oil, nuts, wheat germ, kale, sunflower seeds) and other foods that are high in antioxidants like Vitamin C (e.g. papaya, orange, lemon, kiwi, broccoli) and beta carotene (e.g. chlorella, carrots, sweet potato, spinach, cantaloupe, kale). Other foods known to be good to consume are garlic and beets. Increase Vitamin E intake if taking fish or cod oil supplements

1 In my practice I recommend 1 tsp/day of Nordic Natural Artic D Cod Liver Oil for adults, teens, and children 6 years and older. I recommend 1/2 tsp/day for children ages 3 to 5 years. Make sure if using cod liver oil that it is pharmaceutical grade and has equal amounts of vitamins A and D3. The ratio of vitamin A to D3 should be close to 1:1. Some cod liver oils have a ratio of vitamin A to D that is 1000:1. There is a concern that too much vitamin A relative to D3 is unhealthy since many people are already vitamin D3 deficient. Nordic Naturals now sells DHA supplements derived from algae for vegetarians. Taking flax seed oil and eating ground fax seeds does provide ALA omega 3 fatty acid, but as I mentioned earlier, it has to be converted into DHA and requires vitamins, like B12, and other cofactors that vegetarians may be deficient in.