Science in Action: Omega-3 (VSE)

VSE = Very Short Experiment. After VSL (Very Short List). I did this experiment yesterday. It took the whole day but the results were clear by noon.

At about 7 am I took 4 tablespoons of flaxseed oil (Spectrum Organic). I measured my mental function with a letter-counting test. Here is what happened.

RT results

My reaction times decreased 2-3 hours after drinking the flaxseed oil. Over the next 6-8 hours they returned to baseline.

For cognoscenti, here are the accuracy data:

accuracy results

Accuracy was fairly constant.

These results resemble earlier time-course measurements (here and here). What pleases me so much is not the confirmation — after the earlier two results I had found the dip a third time and had found that olive oil does not cause a dip — but how fast and clear the main result (the dip) was. I could have done a mere four tests (7, 8, 10, 11 am) and found interesting results — I knew that the 8 am test was too early to see a difference so it would have been two tests “before” and two “after”. Six hours of testing can say something interesting about what we should eat and how to make our brains work best.

If you’ve been reading this blog you won’t be surprised that flaxseed oil helps; what’s new is how easily I can test a big wide world of foods. Salmon, trout, herring, fish oil, olive oil, canola oil, walnut oil, soybean oil, and so on. All sources of fat. Not to mention eggs.

I take 4 tablespoons of flaxseed oil most days; I am not suffering from too little omega-3, as most people are. This improvement is on top of the improvement produced by getting enough omega-3 most days. If I stopped taking flaxseed oil, my mental function would slowly get worse, as an earlier experiment (here and here) showed.

18 Responses to “Science in Action: Omega-3 (VSE)”

  1. Willy Says:

    Hello. Seth, is the software/script you use to display the lettes to count and measure time available?. Thanks.

  2. seth Says:

    yes that software is available. It uses R (which is free).

  3. Willy Says:

    I forgot to ask if it is your creation and if it is free/paid/cost. Sorry.

  4. seth Says:

    yes, it is free.

  5. TC Says:

    There are 4 data non flax seed data points, and 10 flax seed data points, shouldn’t you be doing some kind of re-sample with replacement [either groups of 4 from the flaxseed 10 or groups of 10 from the nonflax 4] and compare a couple of 1000 of the re-sampled groups before assuming the pictures tell the whole story

  6. Brad Says:

    You’re on to something amazing here, Seth. The rapid testing of various foods for short-term brain effects is going to open up whole new areas of science (and probably pharmaceuticals, eventually.)

  7. seth Says:

    Thanks, Brad. As far as I know, the existence of such effects was never suspected — including by me.

  8. Brad Says:

    Not to mention all the cycling coaches who will be beating your doors down.

    Well, maybe chess coaches. :-)

    (I have a vision of hordes of law school grads chugging cod liver oil before their bar exams while muttering, “Curse you, Seth Roberts!”)

  9. Brad Says:

    It’d be a great way for a grad student to make a hell of a name for himself — do your protocol on every spice in the spice aisle, every oil in the oil aisle, every grain in the bread aisle.

    Headlines would be generated like clockwork:
    Dough Makes You Dopey.
    Fish Before Physics.
    Memory Gone? Tarragon!

  10. Brad Says:

    I smell another best-seller, too.

  11. Andrew Gelman Says:

    Seth,
    Not to be a wet blanket or anything, but aren’t you worried that your findings might be due to expectation effects: you knew which oil you were taking when doing the tests, right?

  12. peter Says:

    could you put Purslane on your list of foods to test? It is rich a source of omega-3, although i’ve never been able to find it anywhere. (if you could tell me where to buy it that would be great, although it may be asking a lot)

  13. seth Says:

    Andrew, no, I’m not worried that the results are due to expectations. If the results always conformed to my expectations, I’d be worried, but they haven’t — see my post about eggs. Moreover, this particular result confirms a result that was a surprise. In other words, I’ve gotten the same result when I was expecting it and when I wasn’t expecting it.

    Peter, thanks for the suggestion. I’m going to start by testing common foods, such as salmon, and easy-to-get foods, such as my 8 remaining grass-fed eggs.

  14. Timothy Beneke Says:

    My non-rigourous observation after doing 3-4 tablespoons a day of flax seed oil is that yes, it does enhance mental functioning. I’ve been reading and writing poetry furiously all summer, and have reached degrees of comprehension in reading and interesting associations in writing that I never got to before.

    One caveat: I also have done a lot of reading poetry out loud; reading aloud according to a Japanese neuroscientist oxygenates the brain more than any other activity tested. That is a confound. But I’m staying with the flax seed oil until I am given a reason not to…

  15. Michael Parente Says:

    Seth, when you are clearly an advocate of the benefits of flaxseed oil, what makes you trust the results of your experiment?

  16. seth Says:

    Michael, what makes me trust my results is repetition. This is my fifth observation of the dip. The first observation was a surprise. Before this series of observations, I believed that flaxseed oil had long-lasting benefits. Long-lasting, meaning weeks or months. This is a short-lasting benefit — not an effect that I thought flaxseed oil had.

  17. Janet R Says:

    What do the plots look like when you don’t take anything? Mental accuity may vary substantially through the day.

  18. seth Says:

    During an uneventful day they are flat within the limits of measurement, except at the beginning and end of the day I am slower.