Omega 3 Fish Oils, Diet and Stress

For years, the medical establishment laughed at the notion that our emotions could influence the way our bodies work. In their opinion, the mind-body connection was simply New Age gobbly gook unsubstantiated by hard evidence. Part of the reason for their skepticism was due to the complex biochemistry underlying our emotional states, which no one fully understands. Today, biochemists are on the verge of understanding how emotions, mediated by hormones, impact the physiological function of our body. If hormones, indeed, play a central role in our psychological well being, then the nutritional dietary recommendations should, in theory, lead us to a healthier emotional state as well as to a healthier physiological one.

Here's a quick review of the emotional map of your brain, just in case you've never taken a college-level neurology course. Your brain stores and generates emotions in its limbic system, which is the most primitive portion of the brain. The limbic system also contains two other structures called the hypothalamus and the hippocampus. The hippocampus stores dry, unemotional facts for recall, such as where you live and your spouse's work number. The hypothalamus acts as the commander-in-chief of your hormonal communication system deciding which gland should release what amounts of hormones at what particular time.

The central processing facility for your emotional memories is called the amygdala. If you're, say, having a heated argument with a driver who just rear-ended your car, the incoming words are filtered through your hippocampus, amygdala and frontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) to decide whether or not an appropriate hormonal response needs to be generated by the hypothalamus. Ultimately, your limbic system forms the basis behind the mind-body connection. As you argue with the driver, your heart rate speeds up and you begin to sweat. All of these physiological reactions result from the hormone flow that was initiated by your hypothalamus as a result of emotional distress perceived by your limbic system. This is an extremely simplified explanation of what's really happening in your brain. So, you can imagine how much more complex your emotional system really is.

Although the range of emotions that your brain processes and stores is complex, the chemicals that mediate these emotions are not. The two primary mediators of emotions are cytokines (hormones that are involved in inflammation) and eicosanoids. High-dose fish oil gives you the ability to control both cytokines and eicosanoids and thus helps you deal with the wide variety of emotional issues that take place in your life.

How Stress Affects the Immune System

Hans Seyle put the concept of adaptation to stress forward in the 1930s. Stress can be viewed as anything that causes a dis-equilbrium in the body. It could be an injury, emotional trauma, over-training in a sport, or even taking a test. At the molecular level, any type of stress induces changes in the eicosanoid output at the cellular level, and the higher the concentrations of arachidonic acid in the cell, the greater the number of pro-inflammatory "bad" eicosanoids produced in response to that stressor. The body's response to stress is to increase the secretion of cortisol to dampen down the over-production of "bad" eicosanoids, but if too much cortisol is secreted, then the immune system is turned down too much, making your body more susceptible to infection and illness. The way the body responds to illness is to increase inflammation through the production of more "bad" eicosanoids, and the cycle continues. Furthermore, these "bad" eicosanoids also stimulate the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are a class of immune system chemicals that cause you to feel woozy, have a fever, feel tired and down in the dumps when you're sick. They also cause the loss of appetite, the loss of desire, and can even provoke sadness. Your body releases cytokines when you have an infection in an effort to get you to conserve energy and remain you in bed as it tries to fight off the illness. If you have a depressed immune system due to too much stress, this will happen with increasing frequency to generate a continuing downward spiral of physical illness characterized by increased inflammation. This explains how emotions, especially stressful ones, can make us more prone to illness, but how can illness effect emotions?

How the Immune System Affects Emotions

It is clear that when you are ill, more pro-inflammatory cytokines will be released by your immune cells to fight infections. The cytokines produced by your immune cells are too big to cross the blood-brain barrier, but they can interact with receptors on the surface of this barrier to make pro-inflammatory "bad" eicosanoids that can easily cross into the brain. Once inside the brain, these pro-inflammatory eicosanoids can now stimulate the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines inside the brain. The brain responds this new round of inflammation inside its boundaries by sending out for more cortisol to be secreted by the adrenal glands. Now the emotion-inflammatory cycle is complete from initial stress response perceived by the brain to immune response and back to an increased stress response within the brain.

To control your emotions and your immune system, you have to have some means to break this inflammatory cycle. High-dose fish oil gives you that tool.

High-dose fish oil can be successfully used in the treatment of depression and help you more readily adapt to stress through the increase in serotonin levels. Also we know that depression is highly associated with increased levels of "bad" eicosanoids in the brain, and an increased AA/EPA ratio in the blood of depressed people. Both of these observations strongly suggest the underlying role of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids in depression. Furthermore, the increase in the AA/EPA ratio of depressed patients may help explain why depression seems to accelerate the development of both cancer and heart disease, two diseases that have strong inflammatory components. The ancient Roman physician Galen recognized this fact when he commented that depressed women were more prone to breast cancer than their more cheerful counterparts. This also explains why depressed individuals have depressed immune systems with abnormally low levels of natural killer cells, lymphocytes, and T-helper cells. This same immune system depression has been observed in individuals who report being chronically stressed or those who have been given a single injection of corticosteroids.

On the opposite extreme of the emotional spectrum is laughter, which is associated with decreased cortisol production and increased production of two types of immune cells, natural killer cells and activated T-cells. This is why Norman Cousin wrote his famous book on laughter as the best medicine against cancer. His theories make perfect sense if you understand the role of eicosanoids and cytokines in cancer.

Improving Your Emotional State

If your emotions affect your physiological health, can your diet affect your emotions? Some research scientists believe that it can and that you can enhance your emotional well being with the foods you choose to eat, provided you make the correct choices. Your diet has the potential to improve your emotional state in three ways. First, supplementation with high-dose fish oil reduces your levels of both pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids. Second, stabilizing insulin levels will reduce the output of cortisol (which is often released in response to decreased blood sugar levels. Third, high- dose fish oil also increases the production of serotonin, the "feel-good" hormone in your brain, which allows you to adapt to stress more effectively.

Now that you understand how your diet can manipulate your emotions, you also need to consider how your emotions can manipulate your diet. If you are depressed (which means you probably have a high AA/EPA ratio and low serotonin levels) or are physically or mentally stressed (which increases cortisol levels), you are likely have cravings for carbohydrate-rich comfort foods like mashed potatoes, candy bars and pizza. These foods do provide temporary emotional comfort by increasing blood sugar levels and serotonin levels in your brain. Two or three hours after eating these foods, however, your insulin levels will soar causing your blood sugar levels plunge. This forces your body to increase cortisol production to maintain adequate blood sugar levels to the brain. Thus, you'll wind up increasing your production of cortisol, which will, in turn, generate more depression, and requiring another cycle of self-medication with carbohydrates.

You might try to solve these mood swings with more comfort food, but all you're doing is setting off a continuing cascade of hormonal events that will continue to thwart your efforts to lift your spirits. In fact, you're also giving yourself a sure-fire prescription for accelerated aging and continued emotional lows. On the other hand, improved control of insulin and the corresponding improvement of your eicosanoid balance using high-dose fish oil will lead to far better emotional health. It is not to being said that dietary recommendations alone can totally control your emotions, but they will you give significantly more control than you probably currently have.

In the final analysis, your emotions and your immune system are intertwined in a complex orchestration. As you begin to understand how emotions stem from hormonal communication, you will have a starting point to develop dietary strategies to improve emotional control. The "mind-body" connection really becomes the "mind-body-diet" connection, and nutritional dietary recommendations should become your primary tool to improve emotional control. Conversely, the wrong diet (especially one deficient in high-fish oil and rich in carbohydrates) is your passport to emotional chaos. The choice is yours.

Your Personalized Plan for Better Emotional Control

1. Maintain your insulin control by balancing protein, carbohydrate and fat.

2. To determine how much fish oil to take, check the results of your last cholesterol screening if you had it within the past six months. If you haven't had a recent test, get a fasting cholesterol blood test to find out your TG/HDL ratio. If the TG/HDL ratio is less than 2, supplement your diet with a preventative dose of 2.5 grams of long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids per day (equivalent to a teaspoon or 4 capsules of ultra - refined fish oil). If your TG/HDL ratio is more than 2, supplement your diet with 5 grams of long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids per day for 30 days, and then reduce the dosage to 2.5 grams per day.

3. Continually check your TG/HDL ratio every six months. Your goal is to try to keep it between 1 and 2.

Note: Only follow this recommendation for long-chain Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation if you are using ultra - refined fish oil.


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