The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (hereafter, n-6 and n-3) in the diet determines the ratio in tissues. Since these molecules have many cellular roles, it doesn't stretch the imagination that they could have an effect on health. Hunter-gatherer and healthy non-industrial cultures typically have a favorable ratio of n-6 to n-3, 2:1 or less. In the US, the ratio is currently about 17:1 due to modern vegetable oils.
DHA, a long-chain n-3 fatty acid, is concentrated in neuronal synapses (the connections between neurons) and is required for the normal functioning of neurons. n-6 fats compete with n-3 fats for space in cellular membranes (which have a fixed amount of total polyunsaturated fat), so a high intake of n-6 fats, particularly linoleic acid, displaces n-3 fatty acids. Lower tissue levels of DHA and total n-3 correlate with measures of hostility in cocaine addicts. Feeding mice a diet high in linoleic acid increases aggressive behavior, and increses the likelihood of rats to kill mice.
If the ratio of n-6 to n-3 in the diet predicts psychiatric problems, we'd expect to see an association with n-3 intake as well. Let's take a look:
This is homicide mortality vs. n-3 intake for 24 countries, published here. The association is significant (p> 0.001) even without correcting for n-6 intake. Of course, one could see this as a cloud of points with a few well-placed outliers. Here are some closer associations from the same paper:
It's clear that both a high n-6 intake and a low n-3 intake correlate with negative psychiatric outcomes. Together, the data are consistent with the hypothesis that the ratio of n-6 to n-3 impacts brain function. Dr. Hibbeln and Dr. Lands do not claim that this ratio is the sole determinant of psychiatric problems, only that it is a factor.
Now to address the big criticism that was brought up by very astute readers of the last post, namely, that the data were purely correlative. Believe me, I wouldn't even have posted on this topic if I didn't have intervention data to back it up. In addition to the animal data I mentioned above, here are more studies that support a causal role of fatty acid balance in psychiatric problems:
- EPA supplementation (a long-chain n-3 fatty acid) reduced aggression and depression in a group of women with borderline personality disorder.
- DHA supplementation improved aggression in young Thai students.
- n-3 supplementation improved symptoms of bipolar disorder.
- EPA supplementation improved symptoms of unipolar depression.
- n-3 supplementation improved perinatal depression.
- n-3 supplementation improved symptoms of major depression.
- DHA and EPA supplementation reduced suicidal behaviors and improved markers of well-being in patients with recurrent self-harm.
- n-3 supplementation decreased anger and anxiety in substance abusers.