Algae-Derived DHA and EPA Preserve Brain Size and Cognitive Function

Evidence shows that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA keep the brain large and functioning healthy. Though fish is the common alluded to source of these fats, marine algae is the origin. One can obtain DHA and EPA from fish, but taking algae directly is another option. In this article I discuss the myth among vegans that short-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) gets converted adequately into its long-chain derivatives, and why supplementation is necessary for optimal health. Thus I refute the claims of Professor Brian Peskin concerning whether enough DHA is obtained through diet without supplementation or eating fish, and also discuss his retracted journal articles as well as his court proceedings with the State of Texas over misleading business practices. Lastly, I share my personal experience with taking fish oil and algae, and how long-chain omega-3 supplementation has improved and maintained my cognitive ability.

I have struggled with the vegan label. In the real world where a budget is wise I have decided to take pharmaceutical grade cod liver oil from Garden of Life instead of expensive algae supplements. Not that vegan algae capsules are a non-option for future use; I have financial goals and am not willing to spend unnecessary amounts of money on DHA supplements just for a vegan label. Plus, cod liver oil has a hefty amount of natural vitamins A and D. Reputable brands make tested, pharmaceutical-grade fish oils free of toxins and heavy metals.

Why I am Plant-Based and Not Vegan

Today, veganism comes with stigma. Not that I don’t value the ethical treatment of animals. I highly advocate letting animals be without herding or domesticating them for human consumption. Some vegans adamantly oppose eating animal products altogether, and value the ethical aspect more than the health reasons of eating plant-based.

Nevertheless, I never liked the vegan label. Many within the vegan movement militantly boast of their lifestyle and diet to the point of turning other people off. Such arrogance runs counter to the no-harm sentiment to begin with. Hence the term vegan originated in the 1940s in England with the objective of promoting animal welfare ethics.

What are ALA, DHA and EPA Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids exist in two forms in nature, short-chain and long-chain. Short-chain omega-3, alpha-lenolenic acid (ALA), is the principle source because the long-chain are converted from it. One could call the short-chain the “parent” and the long-chain the “child.” Long-chain fatty acids are further divided into two subcategories, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Though the human body does undergo this conversion on its own, the rate is small.

ALA is found abundantly in flaxseeds, chia seeds, as well as smaller amounts in plant such as pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and kale. The human body uses both short-chain omega-3 (ALA) and its long-chain derivatives (DHA and EPA) for several biological functions. Although it needs all 3 forms, omega-6 is of equal importance.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA aka. cervonic acid) molecule. Polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid present in fish oil and algae.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA aka. cervonic acid) molecule. Polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid present in fish oil and algae.

What is Omega-6 Fatty Acid?

Omega-6, known as alpha-linoleic acid (LA), is abundant in almonds, avocados and many other seeds and nuts. The body converts LA into gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) for other important functions such as skin, skeletal, and reproductive health. The cells require omega-6 in larger proportions than omega-3. Many cells in the body carry on average an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 4-to-1, respectively. The human body can neither make omega-6 nor omega-3 from other fats we consume, thus making them “essential.”

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids Compete with Each Other

Further, omega-6 (LA) and omega-3 (ALA) fatty acids compete for the same elongase and desaturase enzyme pathways of metabolism.[efn_note]Essential Fatty Acids[/efn_note] This means that if you consume too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3—as most Americans do—the omega-3 will have less ability to occupy the cells. Think of it as real estate in the body. An overwhelming kind of one property takes away opportunities for the others to establish.

It is widely known that average American diets are unbalanced in proportions of omega-6 to omega-3 at a ratio of 40:1! Because a whole food plant-based diet is plentiful in omega-6, it is wise to consume flaxseed or chia seeds with meals. I like ground flaxseeds because they are cheaper and also nutritious. When eating the whole ground seed rather than the extracted oil, you get additional nutrients such as lignans, which are plant compounds found to have mild estrogenic affects that can protect against cancer as well as balance hormones. Thus flaxseed oil is also highly unstable and must be refrigerated. Even though I eat ground flaxseeds I still keep them in the refrigerator along with other nuts and seeds.

Myth: Vegan’s Don’t Need to Supplement with DHA

This is false. Many vegans and vegetarians believe that nature provides the necessary nutrients and body chemistry to convert enough short-chain ALA into its long-chain DHA and EPA constituents by eating enough ALA-rich plants. Truth is, unless you regularly eat large amounts of algae, which has readily available EPA and DHA, you likely will not get enough long-chain omega-3 for ideal health. Among the few plants on earth discovered to contain original sources of EPA and DHA in actual form, marine algae is one.

Whether by consuming fresh-caught oily fish, taking a fish oil supplement, or taking algae-derived omega-3 one can get the necessary long-chain DHA and EPA for optimal wellbeing. Otherwise, all the flaxseeds or chia seeds in the world will not help you.

The Body’s Conversion Rate to Long-Chain Fatty Acid is Poor

The conversion rate of short-chain omega-3 to its long-chain constituents is normally between 1 and 5 percent depending on your genetic haplotypes[efn_note]Genetic Adaptation of Fatty-Acid Metabolism: A Human-Specific Haplotype Increasing the Biosynthesis of Long-Chain Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids[/efn_note]. The brain uses the most DHA as it contains almost half of the fat that makes up cognitive tissue. DHA is also used in the maintenance of eye cells. Therefore, unless you are satisfied with borderline cognitive and eye function you should supplement with long-chain DHA and EPA omega-3.

For Optimal Health and Cognitive Function Take Supplemental Fish Oil or Algae

I think it is possible to “get by” on a diet of whole plant-foods without supplementing with DHA and EPA, but unwise. For optimal brain and eye function the body needs long-chain fatty acids in readily obtainable form.

Wellbeing and optimal health through plant-based diet, yoga and meditation in nature.
Wellbeing and optimal health through plant-based diet, yoga and meditation in nature.

The reason fish oil supplements are so popular today is because fish eat algae, which in turn gets into their flesh. As similar to humans, fish do not manufacture long-chain omega-3 on their own. They get it from their diet. Hence, it all comes from the plants.

Leading Experts Advise Taking DHA for Brain Health

While it is true that polyunsaturated omega-3 and 6 are less stable and oxidize faster than monounsaturated lipids, the amount of DHA the human body requires per day is probably more than 7.2 mg as Brian Peskin claims. The body still needs enough DHA and EPA to keep the brain and eyes healthy. Dr. Steven Gundry, MD, advises taking at least 1,000 mg of DHA per day for optimum health.

Likewise, plant-based doctor Michael Greger, MD, uncovered some groundbreaking research on this topic. In this video he cites a study that directly links supplemental DHA with improved cognitive wellbeing. Researchers followed participants over a 5-year span. After observing results using MRI technology their brains were seen to be “noticeably healthier.” The key points and references are shown in this clip.

Moreover, a 2014 study by the journal Neurology demonstrated greater hippocampal volume an 8-year study of 1,111 postmenopausal women who took DHA and EPA.[efn_note]Higher RBC EPA + DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes[/efn_note] In other words, the participants’ brains were larger.

“Conclusion: A higher omega-3 index was correlated with larger total normal brain volume and hippocampal volume in postmenopausal women measured 8 years later. While normal aging results in overall brain atrophy, lower omega-3 index may signal increased risk of hippocampal atrophy. Future studies should examine whether maintaining higher RBC EPA + DHA levels slows the rate of hippocampal or overall brain atrophy.”

EPA and DHA have Separate Functions but Work Together

While DHA is the principle fat that makes almost half of the lipids in brain tissue, EPA is equally important because it works in cooperation. EPA plays a critical role by helping to regulate cellular inflammation, which assists DHA’s role in maintaining nerve cell structure and function.[efn_note]EPA AND DHA ARE ESSENTIAL TO YOUR BRAIN HEALTH[/efn_note] Therefore, both EPA and DHA have greater benefits on brain health than DHA alone.

Brain Peskin’s Claim that We Don’t Need Supplemental DHA is Untrustworthy

Professor Brian Peskin is a researcher in Texas with original credentials in mechanical engineering from MIT. Although he advocates that DHA supplementation is overrated in his book, PEO Solution – Conquering Cancer, Diabetes and Heart Disease with Parent Essential Oils, there are major red flags with his claims.

After listening to Peskin’s public lectures and interviews with Dr. Daniel Pompa, DC, I find his statements that refute the need to take DHA as doubtfully simple. He often referenced a July 2009 study of “imaging incorporation” of circulating DHA in the human brain to substantiate his claim that the brain only takes at on average 7.2 mg of DHA per day. Upon doing a word search on this NIH journal article I found no such claim.[efn_note]Imaging incorporation of circulating docosahexaenoic acid into the human brain using positron emission tomography[/efn_note] Peskin’s preachy rhetoric that DHA is “anti-freeze” for a fish in cold waters, and that DHA gets overdosed in the body due to the high amounts doctors advise (causing excessive oxidation) is just frivolous.

Brian Peskin’s Troubles with Academic Journals and the State of Texas

Furthermore, Brian Peskin has faced adverse reaction from both professional science journals—and the government. The following facts were uncovered through basic research.

In 2015, the journal Food and Nutrition Sciences (FNS) retracted a 2013 study Peskin published entitled, Why Fish Oil Fails to Prevent or Improve CVD: A 21st Century Analysis. The paper was retracted for unreliable findings of biased interpretation. The journal stated “The paper does not meet the standards of ‘Food and Nutrition Sciences.'”[efn_note]RETRACTED: Why Fish Oil Fails to Prevent or Improve CVD: A 21st Century Analysis[/efn_note]

In 2014, the Journal of Lipids retracted a 15-page review article by Peskin, in January of that year entitled Why Fish Oil Fails: A Comprehensive 21st Century Lipids-Based Physiologic Analysis. The reasons cited were undeclared competing interest.[efn_note]Retracted: Why Fish Oil Fails: A Comprehensive 21st Century Lipids-Based Physiologic Analysis[/efn_note]

The article titled “Why Fish Oil Fails: A Comprehensive 21st Century Lipids-Based Physiologic Analysis” [1], published in Journal of Lipids has been retracted as a result of an undeclared competing interest on the part of the manuscript’s author.

— Journal of Lipids

Quackwatch, the boisterous blog that lists doctors and medical professionals who allegedly operate on the fringe, called out Brain Peskin for his legal issues with the State of Texas. Peskin had marketed Radiant Health Products under his company, Maximum Efficiency Products. He espoused claims that included removing food cravings, producing permanent weight loss, boosting the immune system, among others.

In 2002, the Attorney General of the State of Texas charged Peskin, Maximum Efficiency, and his parent company Perkins Management, Inc. with making misleading claims about three products as well as Peskin’s credentials. The government’s complaint alleged false claims that Peskin had a Ph.D. degree, was a research scientist, and a professor at Texas Southern University. The complaint also noted a failure to register with the FDA or obtain a Texas manufacturing license as required by law.[efn_note]Brian S. Peskin Charged with Deception[/efn_note]

Brian Peskin agreed to a temporary injunction by the judge to cease making the claims, thus barring him from making unsubstantiated claims that the products: will (1) protect against heart disease; (2) reduce the risk of breast, prostate and other cancers; (3) eliminate varicose veins; (4) lower blood pressure; (5) lower cholesterol; (6) eliminate cellulite; (7) prevent diabetes; (8) manage ADD; (9) help children or other persons with ADD, ADHD, or hyperactivity; (10) be safe for infants, toddlers and pregnant or nursing mothers; (11) make children smarter; (12) cure constipation; and (13) any other express or implied health or disease claim which has not been substantiated by Defendants and approved by the FDA or which satisfies the requirements of § 403(r)(6) of the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act.

Peskin’s Parent Essential Oil Supplement is Unnecessary

Brian Peskin sells an omega-6 fatty acid product in capsule form. I was amazed that many doctors and health professionals fall for his marketing gimmick, largely due to his book that he touts at public lectures and appearances. Though he’s right that the human body needs a proper supply ratio of omega-6 and omega-3, there is an overabundance of omega-6 in nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, etc. One can get all the omega-6 one needs by eating a wide variety of these whole plant foods. There is no need to supplement.

The scare Peskin often brings to his audience is the fact that most of restaurant foods today are cooked in rancid polyunsaturated oils that are highly refined and exposed to high heat through heavy panning and deep frying. Such refined oils from canola, sunflower, safflower, soybean, etc. are certainly unhealthy because they have gone bad.

Proper Consumption and Cooking Methods of Polyunsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated oils (omega-6 and omega-3) are highly unstable compared to monounsaturated and saturated lipids, which is why Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, has said it is best to refrigerate nuts and oils to protect them from high heat exposure. A general warning when cooking with any oil is to never let it reach “smoke point.” Once the peanut oil, for example, starts smoking in the wok—through it out! The rancid form of these damaged PUFAs wreak havoc on the body by causing a cascade of free-radical damage to the cells, thus aging you faster.

Most nuts, seeds, and fruits such as avocados contain a combination of omega-3, 6 and 9 depending on the specific plant. I always refrigerate my nuts and seeds, and keep my olive oil at room temperature. Concerning olive oil, which has a slew of additional benefits that profoundly impact health due to its polyphenols, there is mixed opinion on best ways of storage. I used to keep olive oil cold in the refrigerator and would have to thaw it each time before use either by running the bottle under warm water or letting it sit near a hot stove. However, recent research by Dr. Steven Gundry, MD, shows it is safe to store olive oil at room temperature and even cook with it. Still, I wouldn’t let it get to smoke point.

My Personal Experience with Taking DHA and EPA Supplements

Since the time I was a teenager, the nerdy part of me was aware of the benefits of DHA and EPA for brain and body health. I heard the old-fashioned trends from the days of my parents and grandparents, when their parents would make them take a spoonful of cod liver oil each morning, or the tails of the fishermen at sea who would dip their coffee mug into the newly filled drums of fish oil that were stacked on the boat. Sounds rather crude, but old wisdom never gets stupid. People knew since time millennia that fish is “brain food.”

Recently with the advancements in medical research, we have learned the importance of DHA and EPA for many tissues in the human body, with emphasis on cognitive function. I started taking supplemental cod liver oil at about age 17 out of my own volition. As a grew older and entered college as well as the US Marine Corps, that bottle of fish oil was somewhere to be found in my personal space.

After I finished my first year of law school in Boston in spring of 2016 I decided to become vegan. This meant I had to start taking the algae-derived supplement which was more expensive. As time went on I learned of Brian Peskin on the Internet in 2017, and his claims against the need to take supplemental DHA. Considering the overly priced algae capsules I was buying at Whole Foods Market at the time, I stopped intermittently over the span of the following year.

During this experimentation process I paid close attention to my own sense of mental acuity, focus and general thinking ability. I wanted to see if I could subjectively measure any change in my mental state due to not taking the DHA and EPA supplements. According to Peskin I should have only improvements in my health, without any cognitive impairments. However, the opposite happened.

After being off of both fish oil and algae DHA supplements for a couple periods of a few months I started feeling dull. My honest take of this experience is hard to articulately describe, but real enough to put words to. I am not making this up—I felt less sharp, more foggy overall, and my ability to think and put sentences together when speaking was less smooth.

I often dug through the research on the Internet about DHA, EPA and brain function, only to see the overwhelming argument in favor of the need to supplement. The only sources saying the opposite were a limited number of fringe, hippy-sounding vegans, and of course Brain Peskin. Knowing myself enough to trust my gut intuition, my inner compass told me these few naysayers were all preaching pseudoscience. That is, Peskin and the awkward voices claiming the fish oil industry was leading a false campaign, were espousing falsities themselves.

So, at this point I did what I always do when my internal self gives me insight and conviction: I listened and took action. I bought a bottle of Garden of Life cod liver oil from Sprouts Farmer’s Market here in Poway, CA. Boldly violating the “vegan” label I proudly swallowed a couple teaspoons of the product, and repeated this each subsequent day. Interestingly, after just a couple weeks I started to feel like my old self again. I am being completely sincere.

After starting back on the DHA and EPA supplement since being deprived for about 6 months (the second time), I began feeling sharp and acute in my cognition once again. I found myself putting words together with ease, speaking drawn-out complete sentences with sophisticated words and good diction. I don’t know what else to say other than I was thinking and feeling much better overall. My cognitive awareness was more centered both mentally and emotionally.

Scientific Research Overwhelming Supports Taking DHA and EPA Supplements

In conclusion, it is wise to take supplemental DHA and EPA omega-3 from either algae or a clean fish oil brand. Many marine fish oil supplements such as krill, salmon, cod liver, or a mixed variety are obtainable in both capsule and bottle form. Companies such as Garden of Life, Carlson, and Nordic Naturals are highly reputable brands that test their products with rigorous methods to ensure freshness and absence of heavy metals.

Though our oceans are unfortunately polluted, there are ethical and effective ways to harvest fish oil that is free of toxins at an affordable price. I usually just buy a bottle of one of these brands and take a spoon-full or two every morning. It’s cheaper this way instead of paying for the added manufacturing of capsules. Though the more expensive capsuled form is easier and perhaps less fishy tasting, these premium brands make naturally flavored varieties such as orange, strawberry, and lemon.

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