The fallacy of using DHA alone for brain trauma

I am constantly amazed by the lack of understanding by neurologists of basic essential fatty acid biochemistry in the treatment of brain trauma and concussions. They often blindly believe that the only omega-3 fatty acid that has any impact in the treatment of concussions is DHA alone. Their blind faith is based on the observation that you find a lot of DHA in the brain and little EPA. This obviously means that EPA must not be important for brain function. This is similar to stating the world is flat because it appears that way to the naked eye.

I have mentioned many times in my books that EPA and DHA have different functions, and that’s why you need both of these essential omega-3 fatty acids (1-4). This is especially true for the brain. EPA produces most of the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids since it’s structurally similar to arachidonic acid (AA) as they both contain 20 carbon atoms with approximately the same spatial configuration. As a result, EPA can inhibit the enzymes that would otherwise produce pro-inflammatory eicosanoids from AA. It is AA that generates the inflammation caused by brain trauma. DHA, on the other hand, is primarily a structural component of neural tissue. They do different jobs, and that’s why you need both in combination.

So why isn’t there as much EPA in the brain compared to DHA? The reason is simple. EPA enters the brain just as quickly as DHA, but it is rapidly oxidized, whereas DHA is sent off to long-term storage in neural tissue (5-7). The lifetime of DHA in the human brain is measured in years, whereas the lifetime of the EPA is measured in days. So obviously when you kill an animal and look at the brain, you are not going to find very much EPA.

What complicates the issue is that if you only treat a concussion with DHA, some of the DHA will be converted to EPA. This gives the appearance that DHA is working to reduce inflammation. Since brain trauma and concussions generate inflammation in the brain, doesn’t it make more sense to provide as much EPA as possible to reduce the inflammation as opposed to supplementing only with DHA and hoping some fraction of it will be converted to EPA?

To answer that question, it is useful to look at two recent studies that used the same protocol to study inflammation induced by a concussion injury (8,9). The same total amount of omega-3 fatty acids was used to treat the animals after the concussion injury. One experiment used a 2:1 ratio of EPA to DHA, and the other experiment used only DHA. If the DHA was so important, then the animals treated with the DHA alone should have demonstrated three times the reduction of neuro-inflammation compared to the group that received omega-3 fatty acids containing only one-third as much DHA.

In fact, just the opposite was the case. The 2:1 EPA/DHA group demonstrated greater benefits compared to the DHA-alone group in reducing neuro-inflammation induced by a concussion. Why? EPA is a far more powerful anti-inflammatory agent than DHA. This is why in both studies the AA/EPA ratio was used as the marker of inflammation induced by the concussion injury. Since the AA/EPA ratio was decreased in both studies, this meant that some of the pure DHA was converted to EPA providing at least some anti-inflammatory actions. Thus giving 100 percent DHA is not exactly the most efficient way to decrease neuro-inflammation induced by a concussion injury. This is further emphasized by a recent study that indicated that 1 gram of DHA per day for an 18-month period had no impact in the cognitive improvement of Alzheimer’s patients (10), even though Alzheimer’s is known to be a neuro-inflammatory disease (11).

Does this mean that DHA is not important for brain repair? Of course not. This is because you need both EPA and DHA for optimal repair of brain damage after a concussion. You need the EPA to reduce the neuro-inflammation, and you need the DHA to help rebuild new neurons. But to give DHA alone without additional EPA to maximally reduce neuro-inflammation caused by concussions simply makes no sense.


  1. Sears B. “The Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (1995)
  2. Sears B. “The OmegaRx Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (2002)
  3. Sears B. “The Anti-inflammation Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (2005)
  4. Sears B. “Toxic Fat.” Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)
  5. Chen CT, Liu Z, and Bazinet RP. “Rapid de-esterification and loss of eicosapentaenoic acid from rat brain phospholipids: an intracerebroventricular study.” J Neurochem 116: 363-373 (2011)
  6. Chen CT, Liu Z, Ouellet M, Calon F, and Bazinet RP. “Rapid beta-oxidation of eicosapentaenoic acid in mouse brain: an in situ study. “Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 80: 157-163 (2009)
  7. Umhau JC, Zhou W, Carson RE, Rapoport SI, Polozova A, Demar J, Hussein N, Bhattacharjee AK, Ma K, Esposito G, Majchrzak S, Herscovitch P, Eckelman WC, Kurdziel KA, and Salem N. “Imaging incorporation of circulating docosahexaenoic acid into the human brain using positron emission tomography.” J Lipid Res 50: 1259-1268 (2009)
  8. Mills JD, Bailes JE, Sedney CL, Hutchins H, and Sears B. “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and reduction of traumatic axonal injury in a rodent head injury model.” J Neurosurg 114: 77-84 (2011)
  9. Bailes JE and Mills JD. “Docosahexaenoic acid reduces traumatic axonal injury in a rodent head injury model.” J Neurotrauma 27: 1617-1624 (2010)
  10. Quinn JF, Raman R, Thomas RG, Yurko-Mauro K, Nelson EB, Van Dyck C, Galvin JE, Emond J, Jack CR, Weiner M, Shinto L, and Aisen PS. “Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and cognitive decline in Alzheimer disease: a randomized trial.” JAMA 304: 1903-1911 (2010)
  11. Akiyama H, Barger S, Barnum S, Bradt B, Bauer J, Cole GM, Cooper NR, Eikelenboom P, Emmerling M, Fiebich BL, Finch CE, Frautschy S, Griffin WS, Hampel H, Hull M, Landreth G, Lue L, Mrak R, Mackenzie IR,McGeer PL, O’Banion MK, Pachter J, Pasinetti G, Plata-Salaman C, Rogers J, Rydel R, Shen Y, Streit W, Strohmeyer R, Tooyoma I, Van Muiswinkel FL,Veerhuis R, Walker D, Webster S, Wegrzyniak B, Wenk G, and Wyss-Coray T. “Inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease.” Neurobiol Aging 21: 383-421 (2000)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

Fetal programming: Gene transformation gone wild (Part II)

In part 1 of this blog, I discussed how dietary changes can alter gene expression and how those epigenetic changes can be mediated from one generation to the next by fetal programming. This is very clear from animal studies. One of the most frightening studies was published a few years ago (1). In this study, genetically identical mice were split into two colonies. For the next three generations they were fed exactly the same number of calories with exactly the same balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. The only difference was that one group had a diet rich in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids, and the other had a better balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. After three generations the mice fed the high omega-6 fatty acid diet were grossly obese.

In addition, the mice with high omega-6 fatty acids had fatty livers and enlarged hearts and kidneys, all indicative of major metabolic disturbances.

This also happens with the brain. It has been demonstrated that removing omega-3 fatty acids and replacing them with omega-6 fatty acids over three generations makes animals a lot dumber, probably due to significant reductions in neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine (2-5). Not only are they dumber, but their offspring also show a strong preference for junk food. (6)

How could this happen in such a short period of time? The answer is fetal programming induced by increased cellular inflammation. If this cellular inflammation is maintained by an inflammatory diet, there will be a constant driving force to maintain these epigenetic effects from one generation to other.

The next question is how long does this epigenetic programming have to be continued until it becomes a permanent part of the gene structure. One indication might be found in the development of lactose intolerance in those populations who have been exposed to dairy products for thousands of years. Seventy percent of the world’s population can’t digest these dietary products because they have lost the ability to maintain the necessary enzyme production after weaning from mother’s breast milk. Those who have been constantly exposed to dairy products after weaning have developed an epigenetic programming that seems to be permanent.

These epigenetic changes in humans may take place in only one generation. This is the suggestion of a new article to be published in Diabetes that indicates more than 25 percent of the explanation for childhood obesity could be predicted by prenatal epigenetic changes at birth (7).

As long as our epidemic of cellular inflammation continues to be fueled by the Perfect Nutrition Storm, we can expect our children to continue to become fatter, sicker, and dumber (8).


  1. Hanbauer I, Rivero-Covelo I, Maloku E, Baca A, Hu Q, Hibbeln JR, and Davis JM. “The Decrease of n-3 Fatty Acid Energy Percentage in an Equicaloric Diet Fed to B6C3Fe Mice for Three Generations Elicits Obesity.” Cardiovasc Psychiatry Neurol: 2009, Article ID.867041 (2009)
  2. Chalon S, Delion-Vancassel S, Belzung C,,Guilloteau D, Leguisquet AM, Besnard JC, and Durand G. “Dietary fish oil affects monoaminergic neurotransmission and behavior in rats.” J Nutr 128: 2512-2519 (1998)
  3. Zimmer L, Delpal S, Guilloteau D, Aioun J, Durand G, and Chalon S. “Chronic n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid deficiency alters dopamine vesicle density in the rat frontal cortex.” Neurosci Lett 284: 25-28 (2000)
  4. Moriguchi T, Greiner RS, and Salem N. “Behavioral deficits associated with dietary induction of decreased brain docosahexaenoic acid concentration.” J Neurochem 75: 2563-2573 (2000)
  5. Chalon S. “Omega-3 fatty acids and monoamine neurotransmission.” Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 75: 259-269 (2006)
  6. Ong ZY and Muhlhausler BS. “Maternal “junk-food” feeding of rat dams alters food choices and development of the mesolimbic reward pathway in the offspring.” FASEB J 25: S1530-6860 (2011)
  7. Godfrey KM, Sheppard A, Gluckman PD, Lillycrop KA, Burdge GC, McLean C, Rodford J, Slater-Jefferies J, Garratt E, Crozier SR, Emerald BS, Gale CR, Inskip HM, Cooper C, and Hanson MA. “Epigenetic gene promoter methylation at birth is associated with child’s later adiposity.” Diabetes 60: doi: 10.2337/db10-0979 (2011)
  8. Godfrey KM, Lillycrop KA, Burdge GC, Gluckman PD, and Hanson MA. “Epigenetic mechanisms and the mismatch concept of the developmental origins of health and disease.” Pediatr Res 61: 5R-10R (2007)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

Fetal programming: Gene transformation gone wild (Part I)

Normally genes change very slowly through mutation. Most mutations are harmful and hence provide no survival advantage to the organism. This is why there is a less than a 2 percent difference between our genes and those of a chimpanzee, even though we became a separate species more than six million years ago. What distinguishes mankind is not the number of genes (corn has twice as many genes as humans), but the speed at which our genes can be turned on and off. This is because of the presence of gene transcription factors that can be activated or inhibited by nutrients. The effect of nutrients on gene expression is known as nutrigenomics.

Because of mankind’s rapid gene switching abilities, gene expression can be influenced significantly by the diet. Due to the speed at which new food ingredients are being introduced into the human diet, these types of nutrigenomic interactions can create radical changes in gene expression in a very short period of time. Normally what a person eats should only affect their gene expression during their lifetime. But is it possible that these changes in genetic expression can be transferred to the next generation?

We can see how genetic engineering (i.e. cross-breeding) can rapidly change the size and shape of dogs, flowers, vegetables and fruits. The genes in each of these species don’t change, but changes in gene expression induced by crossbreeding can persist from one generation to the next, especially if they are constantly reinforced. This is known as epigenetics.

Somehow we don’t think this type of epigenetic change can happen to us, but it does as a result of fetal programming. The prenatal period in the womb is the time that a child’s genes are most susceptible to epigenetic programming. Epigenetic programming can be amplified by the ongoing dietary effects on gene transcription factors (i.e. nutrigenomics) taking place in the mother. The result is the imprinting of epigenetic changes on the genes of the developing fetus that can alter the metabolic future of the child (1).

Examples of how this type of epigenetic programming influences future metabolic effects has been demonstrated under the conditions of famine, which generate increased obesity and cardiovascular disease in the next generation (2). This is also true of children who were exposed to excess calories or elevated levels of glucose while they were developing in the womb (3,4). Likewise hypertension (i.e. pre-eclampsia) during pregnancy increases the risk of stroke as adults if the fetus is exposed to the high blood pressure in the womb (5) as well as the increased risk of adult obesity if the fetus is exposed to gestational diabetes in the mother (6).

Bottom line: The dietary and metabolic environment the fetus is exposed to in the womb can echo through the rest of his or her life. In part II of this blog, I will explore how the Perfect Nutritional Storm, described in my book “Toxic Fat” (7) has been making Americans fatter, sicker and dumber for the last three generations.


  1. Kussman M, Krause L, and Siffert W. “Nutrigenomics: where are we with genetic and epigenic markers for disposition and susceptibility?” Nutrition Rev 68: S38-S47 (2010)
  2. Painter RC, Roseboom TJ, and Bleker OP. “Prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine and disease in later life.” Reprod Toxicol 20: 345-352 (2005)
  3. Singhal A. “Early nutrition and long-term cardiovascular health.” Nutrition Rev 64: S44-S49 (2006)
  4. Boney CM, Verma A, Tucker R, and Bovh BR. “Metabolic syndrome in childhood: associated with birth weight, maternal obesity, and gestational diabetes mellitus.” Pediatrics 115: e290-e296 (2005)
  5. Kajantie E, Eriksson JG, Osmond C, Thornburg K, and Barker DJP. “Pre-eclampsia is associated with increased risk of stroke in the adult offspring.” Stroke 40: 1176-1180 (2009)
  6. Lawlor DA, Pichtenstein P, and Langstrom N. “Association of maternal diabetes mellitus in pregnancy with offspring adiposity into early adulthood.” Circulation 123: 258-265 (2011)
  7. Sears B. “Toxic Fat.” Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

Omega-3 fatty acids and blood pressure

Blood Pressure CuffIt was recognized many years ago that fish oil has a dose-dependent effect on lowering blood pressure (1). So how does it do it? There are a lot of different ways.

The first is the ability of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil to alter the levels of a group of hormones known as eicosanoids (2,3). These are the hormones that cause blood vessels to contract, thereby increasing the pressure needed to pump blood through the arteries. The omega-3 fatty acids, especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), inhibit both the synthesis and release of the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA) that is the molecular building block necessary to produce those eicosanoids that cause constriction of blood vessels.

The second way that fish oil helps reduce blood pressure is to accelerate weight loss. When you lose excess weight, blood pressure invariably decreases. A recent trial has indicated that when you add fish oil to a calorie-restricted diet, there is greater weight loss (4). This study was followed by an additional trial that indicated when adding fish oil to a weight-reduction diet, there was a further effect on lowering blood pressure (5). So how does fish oil help you lose excess weight? The answer lies in the ability of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil to reduce cellular inflammation in the fat cells (6). It's that cellular inflammation that makes you fat and keeps you fat. Reducing that cellular inflammation in the fat cells is the key to weight loss.

Finally another cause of increased blood pressure is increased stress. It was shown in 2003 that high levels of fish oil reduce the rise of blood pressure induced by mental stress (7).

Of course, the best way to reduce blood pressure is to follow an anti-inflammatory diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids. That means a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with adequate levels of low-fat protein and low levels of omega-6 and saturated fats. It's also commonly known as the Zone diet.


  1. Morris MC, Sacks F, and Rosner B. “Does fish oil lower blood pressure? A meta-analysis of controlled trials.” Circulation 88: 523-533 (1993)
  2. Sears B. “The Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (1995)
  3. Sears B. “The OmegaRx Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (2002)
  4. Thorsdottir I, Tomasson H, Gunnarsdottir I, Gisladottir E, Kiely M, Parra MD, Bandarra NM, Schaafsma G, and Martinez JA. “Randomized trial of weight-loss diets for young adults varying in fish and fish oil content.” Int J Obes 31: 1560-1566 (2007)
  5. Ramel A, Martinez JA, Kiely M, Bandarra NM, and Thorsdottir I. “Moderate consumption of fatty fish reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight and obese European young adults during energy restriction.” Nutrition 26: 168-174 (2010)
  6. Sears B. “Toxic Fat.” Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)
  7. Delarue J, Matzinger O, Binnert C, Schneiter P, Chiolero R, and Tappy L. “Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men.” Diabetes Metab 29: 289-295 (2003)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

Mythologies in treatment of childhood obesity

childhood obesityWe all know that obese children tend to be inactive. This leads to the “obvious” conclusion that the solution to childhood obesity is simply more exercise. But what if that conclusion is totally wrong?

There is no mistaking that obesity and lack of physical activity are linked. But which comes first? The answer appears to be obesity (1). A study published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood followed young children over a four-year period carefully measuring their physical activity with accelerometers to measure physical activity for seven consecutive days as well as their percentage of body fat using DEXA scans. What they found was that physical inactivity was not related to the increased accumulation of body fat, rather they found that increased body fat was the cause of decreasing physical activity. This is also the situation with adults (2-5).

So why do so many researchers believe that inactivity leads to fatness? Because it just has to be the answer. This belief persists in spite of numerous studies that demonstrate that increased physical activity has little impact on reducing childhood obesity (6). This is a classic case of don't confuse me with the facts, since in my heart I know I am right.

This is not to say that exercise has no benefits in obese children. In fact, the same authors had published an earlier study indicating that while intense exercise had little impact on fat loss, there is a significant benefit in reducing insulin resistance (7).

The implications of this study in children are immense. In essence, increasing public expenditures to increase physical activity will not address the childhood obesity epidemic no matter how much money you throw at the problem. Instead you have to focus on reducing calorie intake. However, this decrease in calorie consumption is not going to be accomplished by increased willpower, but by increasing satiety (lack of hunger) in obese children.

As I pointed out in my most recent book, “Toxic Fat,” if you want to increase satiety, you must reduce cellular inflammation in the brain (8). That is best accomplished by a combination of an anti-inflammatory diet coupled with high-dose fish oil.

Of course, as an alternative, you could always consider gastric bypass surgery.


  1. Metcalf BS, Hosking J, Jeffery AN, Voss LD, Henley W, and Wilkin TJ. “Fatness leads to inactivity, but inactivity does not lead to fatness.” Arch Dis Chil doi:10.1136/adc.2009.175927
  2. Bak H, Petersen L, and Sorensen TI. “Physical activity in relation to development and maintenance of obesity in men with and without juvenile onset obesity.” Int J Obes Relate Metabl Disord 28: 99-104 (2004)
  3. Petersen L, Schnorhr, and Sorensen TI. “Longitudinal study of the long-term relation between physical activity and obesity in adults.” Int J Obes Relate Metabl Disord 28: 105-112 (2004)
  4. Mortensen LH, Siegler Ic, Barefoot JC, Gronbaek M, and Sorensen TI. “Prospective associations between sedentary lifestyle and BMI in midlife.” Obesity 14: 1462-1471 (2006)
  5. Ekelund U, Brage S, Besson H, Sharp S, and Wareham NJ. “Time spent being sedentary and weight gain in healthy adults.” Am J Clin Nutr 88: 612-617 (2008)
  6. Wareham NJ, van Sluijs EM, and Ekelund U. “Physical activity and obesity prevention: a review of the current evidence.” Proc Nutr Soc 64: 229-247 (2005)
  7. Metcalf BS, Voss LD, Hosking J, Jeffery AN, and Wilkin TJ. “Physical activity at the government-recommended level and obesity-related outcomes.” Arch Dis Child93: 772-777 (2008)
  8. Sears B. “Toxic Fat”. Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

New food trends may be dysfunctional

dysfunctional food trendsAs our obesity epidemic gets worse and the general health of Americans continues to decline, people are always searching for new food trends to make us thinner, happier and smarter.

The leading contenders for the next new thing are functional foods. Frankly, these are simply processed foods with added dietary supplements to make you more likely to purchase them compared to the competition on the same shelf. Of course, this means the functional food can’t be too much more expensive than its competitor (and ideally the same price) without affecting the taste of the product. As an afterthought, it might even have some health benefit for you.

Frankly, there are only two functional foods that have been truly successful over the years. The first is Gatorade. Originally developed to reduce minerals lost during exercise, the original Gatorade tasted terrible. So they simply added some sugar to make it taste better and called it a sports drink. Gatorade is basically a Coke or a Pepsi with minerals, but you feel better about yourself when you guzzle down those carbohydrates. The other commercial success was Tropicana Orange Juice with Calcium. The makers of Tropicana didn’t ask you to pay a premium for this functional food since it was exactly the same price as Tropicana Orange Juice without calcium. That’s why the sales of this functional food dramatically increased. Who doesn’t want something extra (and it might even be healthy) for free?

It’s been a long time since any new functional foods tried to break into the market. The two most recent have been POM and Activia yogurt. POM contains polyphenols from the pomegranate seed. That’s good because polyphenols are excellent anti-oxidants and potentially good anti-inflammatory chemicals. But like the minerals in Gatorade, they taste terrible. So when you purchase a bottle of POM, what you are getting is a mass of added sugar. I guarantee you that the intake of these polyphenols in POM is not worth the extra sugar.

Another “new” source of polyphenols we hear about comes from chocolate, which is now being promoted as the new super-fruit (1). Like all polyphenols, the polyphenols found in chocolate are intensely bitter. That’s why no one likes to eat unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate even though it is polyphenol-rich. But if you add a lot of sugar to it, then it tastes great. In fact, it’s a candy bar. Again like most functional foods, these polyphenol functional foods represent one step forward in that you are consuming more polyphenols, but two steps backwards for consuming too much sugar.

Tasting bad is something that has really prevented yogurt sales from taking off in America. The solution was simple. Add more sweetness, usually in the form of fruit plus extra sugar. Finally, natural yogurt became acceptable. But to turn it into a functional food, Dannon decided to add more probiotics to its already sugar-sweetened yogurt and call it Activia, promoting it to help soothe an angry digestive system. In December 2010 the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and hit Dannon with a $21-million fine for false advertising (2). Not only were the levels of probiotics in Activia too low to be of any health benefit, but Dannon was also making drug-claims on a food to boot. Not surprisingly, the FTC is also after POM for similar misleading claims (3). Darned those regulators. They take all the fun out of marketing functional foods.

The list goes on and on. Whether it is vitamin waters, or micro-encapsulated fish oil, vitamin D, etc., trying to put bad-tasting nutritional supplements that have some proven benefits into foods and charge the consumer a higher price is never going to work. To prevent the poor taste, you have to microencapsulate the supplement to make it sound high-tech, (they call it nanotechnology) and this costs a lot of money. Adding the bad-tasting nutritional supplement without the microencapsulation to a food makes it taste worse (unless you are adding a lot of sugar at the same time, of course eroding all the potential health benefits of the supplement). Finally, the consumer will only buy this new functional food if it is the same price as what they usually purchase.

So what’s the next new thing in functional foods? In my opinion, it is returning to the concept of cooking for yourself in your own kitchen using food ingredients you buy on the periphery of the supermarket, and then taking the nutritional supplements that have proven efficacy (like fish oil and polyphenols) at the therapeutic level to produce real health benefits. Now you have real functional foods that finally work at a lower cost than you would pay for in the supermarket.

Now, that’s a radical new food trend that just might work.


1. Crozier SJ, Preston AG, Hurst JW, Payne MJ, Mann J, Hainly L, and Miller DL. “Cacao seeds are a ‘super fruit’: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products.” Chem Central J 5:5 (2011)

2. Horovitz B. “Dannon’s Activia, DanActive health claims draw $21M fine.” USA Today. December 15, 2010

3. Wyatt E. “Regulators Call Health Claims in Pom Juice Ads Deceptive.” New York Times. September 27, 2010

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

What’s the story on chocolate?

chocolate and polyphenolsChocolate is big business, generating about $50 billion in annual worldwide sales. But is it good medicine? Before I get to that answer, let me give you some background on the manufacturing of chocolate.

The first use of chocolate appears to be about 3,000 years ago in Central Mexico to produce an intensely bitter drink called xocolatl. Today, we still get the raw material for chocolate from the seeds of the cocoa tree. However, now they are fermented and roasted prior to extracting the raw cocoa beans from their pods. The raw cocoa mass is then ground and heated to produce what is called chocolate liquor.

This chocolate liquid is exceptionally bitter because it is rich in polyphenols. This is what you get when you buy unsweetened baker’s chocolate. Keep in mind that even with the extreme bitterness of unsweetened baker’s chocolate, the total polyphenol content is only about 5 percent of the total mass (the rest is cocoa butter). This means that purified chocolate polyphenols are about 20 times bitterer than the taste of unsweetened baker’s chocolate.

The chocolate liquor can also be further refined. The most common way is to remove the fat portion (i.e., cocoa butter) from the chocolate liquor by simple pressing. What remains is the cocoa powder that retains all of the polyphenols but in a dry form that can be ground to a powder. The isolated cocoa butter is the base for making white chocolate. Although it is free of any of the beneficial polyphenols, it still retains the excellent mouth feel of the cocoa butter. Add some extra sugar, and it is a great-tasting snack that has absolutely no health benefits.

You can always add more sugar to the cocoa liquor to sweeten the chocolate taste. That’s the ”dark chocolate” that dominates the market today. Of course in the process, you dilute out the polyphenols, which give chocolate all of its health benefits, not to mention increasing calories and increasing insulin levels because of the added sugar. That’s why eating dark chocolate will not help you lose weight. When you add more sugar and milk to the dark chocolate, the bitter taste (and the health benefits) is even reduced further. Now you have a milk chocolate candy bar.

Now what about the health benefits of the chocolate polyphenols before you start diluting them out with added sugar? Here the research data are clear. If you consume enough chocolate polyphenols, you will reduce blood pressure (1). This is probably due to the increase of nitric oxide production and its beneficial effects on relaxing the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels (2). How much is enough? Over a two-week period about 500 mg of polyphenols per day (this is the amount found in a typical 100-gram bar of unsweetened baker’s chocolate) can significantly reduce blood pressure by about 4 mm Hg (3). If you are willing to consume smaller amounts of very dark chocolate (providing 30 mg of polyphenols per day) for a much longer period of time, there is an improvement in endothelial cell relaxation, but without a reduction of blood pressure (4). Therefore, the blood pressure benefits of chocolate consumption appear to be dose-related. There is also evidence of chocolate polyphenols having some anti-inflammatory properties (5).

Considering these benefits, should chocolate be considered a “super fruit”? To answer that question, a recent publication compared the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity) values of unsweetened cocoa to similar-size servings of other fruit powders from “super fruits,” such as blueberries, pomegranate and acai berries (6). The ORAC value is a measure of the ability of the dried fruit to quench free radicals. The cocoa powder had a significantly higher ORAC value per serving than the other fruit powders. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the typical cocoa powder in the supermarket has been treated with alkali (i.e. Dutch-treated) to remove much of the bitterness of the polyphenols and in the process remove most of their health benefits (6).

So if you want the health benefits of chocolate, just make it bitter (i.e. unsweetened baker’s chocolate) and eat a lot of it (about 100 grams per day). You won’t lose any weight, but your blood pressure will come down a bit. Now if you want some real anti-inflammatory benefits, eat the chocolate, take 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA and follow an anti-inflammatory diet. Now you have a far more powerful dietary approach for reducing cellular inflammation and its clinical consequences, such as elevated blood pressure.


1. Ried K, Sullivan T, Fakler P, Frank OR, and Stocks NP. “Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis.” BMC Med 8:39 (2010)

2. Taubert D, Roesen R, Lehmann C, Jung N, and Schomig E. “Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial.” JAMA 298: 49-60 (2007)

3. Grassi D, Lippi C, Necozione S, Desideri G, and Ferri C. “Short-term administration of dark chocolate is followed by a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and a decrease in blood pressure in healthy persons.” Am J Clin Nutr 81: 611-614 (2005)

4. Engler MB, Engler MM, Chen CY, Malloy MJ, Browne A, Chiu EY, Kwak HK, Milbury P, Paul SM,Blumberg J, and Mietus-Snyder ML. “Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate improves endothelial function and increases plasma epicatechin concentrations in healthy adults.” J Am Coll Nutr 23: 197-204 (2004)

5. Selmi C, Cocchi CA, Lanfredini M, Keen CL, and Gershwin ME. “Chocolate at heart: The anti-inflammatory impact of cocoa flavanols.” Mol Nutr Food Res 52:1340-8 (2008)

6. Crozier SJ, Preston MG, Hurst JW, Payne JM, Mann J, Hainly L, and Miller DL. “Caco seeds are a super fruit,” Chemistry Central Journal 5:5 (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

How polyphenols make probiotics work better

Probiotics in dietToday we hear a lot about probiotics, especially when popular yogurts are fortified with them. So what are they? The term probiotics is simply a synthesized word for live microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) that may have some health benefits. In the lower part of your gut, you have a virtual zoo of microorganisms. Some are beneficial; others are very harmful. In fact, it is estimated that you have 10 times as many microorganisms in the gut than the entire number of cells that constitute your body. Of the hundreds of different microorganisms in the gut, two usually stand out as probiotic stars: Lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.

It appears that selected strains of these particular microorganisms have anti-inflammatory properties, which inhibit the activity of nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB), the genetic “master switch” that turns on inflammation (1,2). Certain yeasts secrete a soluble factor that also inhibits NF-κB (3), and this may be the same mechanism that those “friendly” bacteria use to reduce inflammation.

But here’s the problem with probiotics — you have to get enough of the live organisms into the gut to provide any benefits. It’s easy to fortify them into some yogurt product that is kept at low temperature, but getting those bacteria to pass through the digestive system and reach the lower part of the large intestine is another story. It is estimated that 99.999 percent of the live probiotics are digested in the process.

So how can you enhance the biological action of those extremely few probiotics that actually make it alive to the lower intestine? The answer is polyphenols. Like probiotics, polyphenols also inhibit NF-κB (4,5). In fact, polyphenols are the primary agents that protect plants from microbial attack.

Unlike probiotics, polyphenols are more robust in their ability to reach the lower intestine. But like probiotics you have to take enough polyphenols to have a therapeutic effect in the gut. You will probably need at least 8,000 ORAC units per day to maintain adequate levels of polyphenols in the gut. That is approximately 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. But if you want to significantly reduce the existing inflammatory burden in the gut and the rest of body, you have to consume a lot more polyphenols. Supplementation with highly purified polyphenols becomes your only realistic alternative.

And here is where I think the real benefits of dietary polyphenols may reside. By reducing the inflammatory load in the gut, you can automatically reduce the anti-inflammatory load in the rest of the entire body. So before you take that next serving of probiotic-fortified yogurt, make sure you are taking adequate levels of polyphenols to make sure those probiotics actually deliver their marketing promises.


  1. Hegazy SK and El-Bedewy MM. “Effect of probiotics on pro-inflammatory cytokines and NF-kappaB activation in ulcerative colitis.” World J Gastroenterol 16: 4145-4151 (2010)
  2. Bai AP, Ouyang Q, Xiao XR, and Li SF. “Probiotics modulate inflammatory cytokine secretion from inflamed mucosa in active ulcerative colitis.” Int J Clin Pract 60: 284-288 (2006)
  3. Sougioultzis S, Simeonidis S, Bhaskar KR, Chen X, Anton PM, Keates S, Pothoulakis C, and Kelly CP. “Saccharomyces boulardii produces a soluble anti-inflammatory factor that inhibits NF-kappaB-mediated IL-8 gene expression. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 343: 69-76 (2006)
  4. Romier B, Van De Walle J, During A, Larondelle Y, and Schneider YJ. “Modulation of signaling nuclear factor-kappaB activation pathway by polyphenols in human intestinal Caco-2 cells.” Br J Nutr 100: 542-551 (2008)
  5. Jung M, Triebel S, Anke T,Richling E, and Erkel G. “Influence of apple polyphenols on inflammatory gene expression.” Mol Nutr Food Res 53: 1263-1280 (2009)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

How to get depressed quickly

Your grandmother always said that high purity omega-3 oil was “brain food”. Now we are discovering more of the molecular mechanisms that are making grandma’s wisdom from yesteryear into today’s molecular biology breakthroughs.

The newest study that validates grandma’s wisdom will be reported in an upcoming issue of Nature Neuroscience and demonstrates the devastating impact that a lifetime diet that is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids can have on mood and impaired emotional behavior (1).

What enables the brain to make new connections is the endocannabinoid pathway that controls remodeling (i.e. plasticity) of neurons. In particular, the endocannabinoids must interact with their receptors to initiate neuronal remodeling. Without the adequate dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids, the animals became far more depressed than their genetically identical cousins. The effect of the omega-3 fatty acid deficiency was not a general effect, but localized in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain that is implicated in emotional rewards. Both EPA and DHA were depressed in the pre-frontal cortex. In addition, the levels of arachidonic acid (AA) were significantly increased in the same brain region thereby increasing the extent of neuro-inflammation. An earlier study indicated that it only takes one generation of deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids to increase depression and aggression in rats (2).

This study also helps to explain why high doses of omega-3 fatty acids improve depression in various clinical studies (3-6).

I suspect the mechanism may be the following. The depressed levels of DHA would decrease the fluidity of the neural membrane. This would make it more difficult for the activated endocannabinoid receptor to transmit its signal to the interior of the neuron necessary for the initiation of new neural synthesis. The depression of EPA as well as the increase in AA in the pre-frontal cortex would increase the levels of neuro-inflammation in the brain that would further inhibit the signaling mechanisms necessary to initiate the remodeling of neural tissue.

But to be effective, you must take a therapeutic dose of omega-3 fatty acids. That can be best determined by the AA/EPA ratio in the blood (7). This is because the brain doesn’t make these long-chain fatty acids, but it can readily take them up from the blood.

As usual your grandmother was correct when she called high purity omega-3 oil “brain food”. Her wisdom was in line with epidemiological studies that indicate lowered fish consumption is strongly associated with increased depression (8).


  1. Lafourcade M, Larrieu T, Mato S, Duffaud A, Sepers M, Matias I, De Smedt-Peyrusse V, Labrousse VF, Bretillon L, Matute C, Rodriquez-Puertas R, Laye S, and Manzoni OJ. “Nutritional omega-3 deficiency abolishes endocannabinoid-mediated neuronal functions.” Nature Neuroscience doi: 10:1038/nn.2736 (2011)
  2. De Mar JC, Ma K, Bell JM, Igarashi M, Greenstein D, and Rapoport SI. “One generation of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid deprivation increases depression and aggression test scores in rats.” J Lipid Res 47: 172-180 (2006)
  3. Rondanelli M, Giacosa A, Opizzi A, Pelucchi C, La Vecchia C, Montorfano G, Negroni M, Berra B, Politi P, and Rizzo AM. “Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on depressive symptoms and on health-related quality of life in the treatment of elderly women with depression: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial.” J Am Coll Nutr 29: 55-64 (2010)
  4. da Silva TM, Munhoz RP, Alvarez C, Naliwaiko K, Kiss A, Andreatini R, and Ferraz AC. “Depression in Parkinson’s disease: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study of omega-3 fatty-acid supplementation.” J Affect Disord 111: 351-359 (2008)
  5. Stahl LA, Begg DP, Weisinger RS, and Sinclair AJ. “The role of omega-3 fatty acids in mood disorders. Curr Opin Investig Drugs 9: 57-64 (2008)
  6. Stoll AL, Severus WE, Freeman MP, Rueter S, Zboyan HA, Diamond E, Cress KK, and Marangell LB. “Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 56: 407-412 (1999)
  7. Adams PB, Lawson S, Sanigorski A, and Sinclair AJ. “Arachidonic acid to eicosapentaenoic acid ratio in blood correlates positively with clinical symptoms of depression.” Lipids 31: S157-161 (1996)
  8. Hibbeln JR. “Fish consumption and major depression.” Lancet 351: 1213 (1998)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

Pass the polyphenols

Considering that virtually nothing was written about the health benefits of polyphenols before 1995, it continues to amaze me the amount of health benefits this group of nutrients generates. This is primarily due to our growing understanding of how these phytochemicals interact with the most primitive parts of our immune system that have been conserved through millions of years of evolution.

Three new studies add to this growing knowledge. In the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was reported that eating one serving a week of blueberries could reduce the risk of developing hypertension by 10 percent (1). Since a serving size of fruit is defined as ½ cup, that serving size contains about 65 grams of blueberries. Put that into more precise molecular terms, this serving size would provide about 4,000 ORAC units or about the same amount of ORAC units as a glass of wine. The researchers speculated that there was a subclass of polyphenols (which includes delphinidins) that appear to be responsible for most of the effects. So if eating one serving of blueberries (½ cup) once a week is good for reducing the risk of hypertension, guess what the benefits of eating 1 cup of blueberries every day might be? The answer is probably a lot.

Speaking of red wine, in the second study in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications researchers found that giving high levels of isolated polyphenols from red wine demonstrated that exercise endurance in older rats could be significantly enhanced. Very good news for old folks like me. They hypothesized the effects may be directly related to “turning on” genes that increase the production of anti-oxidant enzymes (2). The only catch is that the amount of red wine polyphenols required to reach these benefits would equate to drinking about 20-30 glasses of red wine per day.

The final study in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrates that cherry juice rich in polyphenols reduces muscle damage induced by intensive exercise in trained athletes. This reduction in muscle damage was correlated with decreased levels of inflammatory cytokines (3). The reduction of cytokine expression is one of the known anti-inflammatory benefits of increased polyphenol intake.

Three pretty diverse studies, yet it makes perfect sense if you understand how polyphenols work. Polyphenols inhibit the overproduction of inflammatory compounds made by the most ancient part of the immune system that we share with plants. The only trick is taking enough of these polyphenols. To get about 8,000 ORAC units every day requires eating about a cup of blueberries (lots of carbohydrates) or two glasses of red wine (lots of alcohol), or half a bar of very dark chocolate (lots of fat) or 0.3 g of highly purified polyphenol powder in a small capsule (with no carbohydrates, no alcohol, and no saturated fat). And if you are taking extra high purity omega-3 oil, exercising harder, or have an inflammatory disease, you will probably need even more polyphenols. It doesn’t matter where the polyphenols come from as long as you get enough. That’s why you eat lots of colorful carbohydrates on an anti inflammatory diet.


  1. Cassidy A, O’Reilly EJ, Kay C, Sampson L, Franz M, Forman J, Curhan G, and Rimm EB. “Habitual intake of flavonoid subclasses and incident hypertension in adults.” Am J Clin Nutr 93: 338-347 (2011)
  2. Dal-Ros S, Zoll J, Lang AL, Auger C, Keller N, Bronner C, Geny B, Schini-Kerth VB. “Chronic intake of red wine polyphenols by young rats prevents aging-induced endothelial dysfunction and decline in physical performance: Role of NADPH oxidase.” Biochem Biophys Res Commun 404: 743-749 (2011)
  3. Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, Fox P, and Mileva KN. “Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise”. Med Sci Sports Exerc 43: online ahead of print doi: 10.1249/MSS.obo13e31820e5adc (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.