When I first saw those helicopter shots of red oil plumes staining the ocean, my only thought was: How could any animal survive in that? As a person who loves animals, this tragedy is too awful to think about. But as a doctor concerned with the prevention of human illness, I can’t help thinking about it. I can’t help but wonder: If the entire Gulf ecosystem is trashed, how will that affect us?
It’s impossible to measure, let alone predict, the long-term human health effects that emerge from a major environmental catastrophe like the one we are now witnessing in the Gulf. The ripple effects from the near-complete destruction of a vast and unique ecosystem will continue to spread for decades. The ramifications of such a disaster are complicated enough, so here I’ll just focus on the effect of the Gulf spill on brain health.
Here’s what I predict.
The oil spill is creating two separate health threats: The toxification of the food chain with aromatic hydrocarbons, and the loss of nutrients—particularly the long chain omega-3 fatty acids which we derive from seafood.
Exposure to aromatic hydrocarbons like those found in crude oil is known to cause brain damage, and omega-3 is fundamental to normal function of brain cells. I’ll focus this discussion primarily on the impending national shortage of long-chain omega-3.
Life with less omega-3
Because our eating habits have changed over the past 50 years, most people already face a deficiency of dietary omega-3. This is particularly true of the long-chain omega-3 fats that are crucial to neuronal growth in infancy and early childhood, when the metabolic machinery to lengthen shorter-chain omega-3 fatty acids is not yet developed.
Seafood along with organ meats like liver and brain are the best sources of long-chain omega-3. I don’t have to tell you that most people in America can go a lifetime without ever eating the last two, and since most fish for sale in the grocery store are farmed, not wild, even the seafood you typically find in the store is poor source of omega-3. You can buy long-chain omega-3 in supplement form from cultured batches of algae, but I don’t recommend it: Those cultured batches of algae also produce neurotoxins rather unpredictably, and potentially dangerous levels of neurotoxin have been found in some brands of algal-derived omega-3.
So, thanks to BP and Obama’s “slow response to what even casual onlookers saw as an impending disaster,” our nutritional world has been rendered significantly smaller than it was before. I expect the average person will now get roughly 30 percent less omega-3 next year than last year.
Here’s how I arrived at that figure. According to reports from the US commercial fishing industry, in 2001, Gulf of Mexico fisheries represented 30% of the total wild catch. No one can guess exactly what percentage will survive, but of great concern is the fact that, after the much smaller Exxon Valdez spill, omega-3-rich herring quickly disappeared and today, 20 years later, have yet to return. The Gulf equivalent of herring are Menhaden, a small, oily, omega-3 rich fish that many other Gulf inhabitants depend on, including bluefin tuna, red snapper, dolphins, sharks, and pelicans.[i] Menhaden is also one of the most commonly used fish for making fish oil supplements.
What are some of the consequences of long-chain omega-3 fatty acid depletion? The following represents a brief overview.
Increased Risk of Schizophrenia:
Omega-3 levels tend to be lower in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, and omega-3 supplementation helps people demonstrating symptoms suggestive of an impending schizophrenic break. An Australian study on 76 youth at risk for schizophrenia showed that supplementation with omega-3 had enormous positive impact. Of 35 given placebo, 11 developed schizophrenia, but of 41 taking the fish oil, only 2 developed the disease.[ii]
Increasing Delusional Ideation Among Women:
From a Swedish study published in 2010, Women aged 30-50 who did not eat oily fish were twice as likely to experience delusional thoughts (answering yes to questions like “Do you ever feel that you are not in control of your own mind?” or “Do you ever feel that your insides might be rotting?”) than women who ate them 1-2 times per week. Interestingly, those who ate oily fish more than 3-4 times per week were also more likely to experience delusional ideation, suggesting a “Goldilocks” effect, possibly due to harmful PCB contaminants, excessive intake of omega-6 along with omega-3, or other imbalance.[iii]
(Only the Swedish know why this study did not include men.)
Increased Risk of Depression and Bipolar Disorder:
A 2010 study from the University of Cincinnati measured Omega-3 fatty acids in the red blood cells of adult men and women. They found that people with either depression or bipolar disorder were, respectively, 20 and 30 percent more likely to have low levels of omega-3 in their red blood cell membranes.[iv]
Increased Risk of Abnormal Brain Development in Children:
A 2010 report in Neurochemistry International showed that growing rats deprived of omega-3 developed abnormal glutamate pathways in their brain, resulting in increased freezing behaviors (a sign of anxiety) and hyperactivity.[v]
We can’t do these kinds of deprivation studies on human children, but we can do supplementation studies.
A landmark study on women supplemented with long-chain omega-3 in pregnancy and breastfeeding showed that children born to supplemented women had higher mental processing scores, psychomotor development, eye-hand coordination, and stereo acuity at 4 years of age than children who’s mother’s diets weren’t supplemented.[vi] Other studies to date show that this effect so far lacks a ceiling. In other words, the more long chain omega-3 a mother gets, the more her child develops superior intellect, visual acuity, and coordination. I think it is reasonable to predict from this information that a mother who gets less-than-average omega-3 will be putting her child at risk of developing less-than-average intellectual and sensory processing abilities.
So what can you do?
I became a physician because I was interested in health. And when a disaster like this happens, people ask my opinion on how it will affect their health, and their children’s, in the long term. In my book Deep Nutrition I argue that the primary function of food is to act as an information stream conducting information from a living Earth to every cell in your body. Well, thanks to BP, the nutritional globe has just been rendered significantly smaller, which is bad news for mothers and mothers-to-be. However, it can also serve as a good excuse to introduce you to some of the traditional foods, which, in the absence of a steady supply of healthy seafood, have supplied vital long-chain omega-3 to our growing children for centuries.
The brains, livers, and a few other organs from animals raised on pasture in a healthy environment are some of the best sources of long-chain omega-3 in the world. Back in the day, everyone made organ meats a regular part of their diet. And back in the day, they liked ‘em. These days, you can tune into TV shows featuring Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, and other foodies and world travelers, and watch as the celebrity-host gobbles up these wiggly tidbits. If you want to get the best currently available brain food for yourself, or your kids, I recommend finding places to buy these secret stashes of healthy omega-3 (and other nutrients) from ethically raised animals, taking them home, and learning to cook them.
I’m happy to see the growing interest in traditional cooking along with increased consumer willingness to pay fair prices for products raised by farmers interested in animal welfare, land-stewardship, and the health of the planet. Will this source of healthy nutrient, like the gulf, become a part of history in the near future?
As a physician who cares about your health, I certainly hope not. My advice: Support the people who do this for us, and get it while you can.
Valdez spill’s effects on fish raise concerns By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, July 17, 2010, 8:08PM
[ii] Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2010 Feb;67(2):146-54
[iii] BMC Psychiatry. 2010 May 26;10:38.
[iv] J Affect Disord. 2010 Apr 20. [Epub ahead of print]
[v] Neurochem Int. 2010 May-Jun;56(6-7):753-9. Epub 2010 Feb 19.
[vi] Pediatrics. 2003 Jan;111(1):e39-44.