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Essential Fatty Acids Offer Hope Against Huntington's Disease

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in cold-water fish such as salmon, flaxseed, and walnuts may help slow the progression of Huntington's disease, according to a study report in the July 2002 NeuroReport. The implications of this study are truly groundbreaking, as conventional medicine has no known effective treatment for this condition.

Huntington's disease (HD) is a serious inherited disorder in which the part of the brain that controls motor function deteriorates. As the degeneration progresses, movements become uncontrollable, affecting all parts of the body. Symptoms often also include mood or behavior changes and progressive dementia. To date, conventional medications have failed to even slow the progression of HD, much less cure this disease, the onset of which occurs between the ages of 20 and 50. HD is always fatal, with an average life span of about 15 years after diagnosis. This new study offers hope to those suffering from or at risk for this devastating disease.

Researchers in Victoria, Australia, conducted this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (the gold standard in medical studies) in which 17 people with HD were given either a placebo or 8 capsules a day of a supplement that contained (per capsule) 70 mg of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), 35 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 20 mg of docosohexaenoic acid (DHA), 50 mg of lipoic acid, and 30 mg of vitamin E.

The essential fatty acids GLA, EPA and DHA are found in relatively high amounts in the brain, which is composed largely of unsaturated fats. These EFAs play a critical role in brain function, including controlling movement, as they are used to build the cellular membranes that surround each brain cell. Cell membranes are the gateways through which the messenger molecules that enable communication among brain cells travel in or out, and through which fuel enters the cell and wastes are removed.

Lipoic acid and vitamin E are antioxidants that, by reducing the damage caused by reactive oxygen species (a type of free radical formed during normal cellular metabolic processes), also help reduce further degeneration in the brain.

After an average of 19 months, most of the participants taking the EFA mix were better able to control their movements and demonstrated improvements in behavior and memory compared with those taking the placebo.

The results of this study corroborate findings from other animal and human studies in which similar amounts of EFAs were used. Two of the people from earlier studies have now been treated for more than 6 years and 3.5 years, respectively; these individuals have shown consistent improvement in their symptoms and have managed to live independently. Whether this treatment regimen will keep their disease from progressing in the future remains to be seen.

Despite the fact that not every person taking EFAs improved, the results are promising, considering that the typical person with Huntington's disease experiences relentless downhill progression. In contrast to the improvement seen in most of the participants taking EFAs, nearly all of those taking the placebo either deteriorated or had no change in their symptoms. Given the typical prognosis for HD, minor improvements or even keeping symptoms from worsening may have a significant impact on the course of the disease and ultimately on improving quality of life.

EFAs are found in many members of the World's Healthiest Foods. Flaxseeds and walnuts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, since they are so concentrated in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a fatty acid that the body converts into EPA and DHA. Salmon are an excellent source, scallops a very good source and halibut, shrimp, tuna and snapper a good source of already formed EPA and DHA. And soybeans, kale, collard greens, and Brussels sprouts also provide ALA in amounts that meet the World's Healthiest Foods' stringent criteria for a good supply of ALA.

To learn more about these essential fats, click omega-3 fatty acids. For suggestions as to how to enjoy the EFA-rich members of the World's Healthiest Foods more often, click on the Recipe Assistant, select any of these foods on the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing the food chosen will appear immediately below.

To date, the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has not issued any Dietary Reference Intakes for GLA, EPA and DHA. Recently, however, the National Institutes of Health recommended that people consume at least 2% of their total daily calories as omega 3 fats, a classification which includes EPA and DHA.

To meet this recommendation, a person consuming 2000 calories per day should eat at least 2 grams of omega 3 fats. Many nutrition experts believe that this recommendation is not high enough, and suggest, instead, that people consume at least 4% of their total calories (approximately 4 grams) as omega 3 fats. This goal can be easily met by adding just two foods to your diet: flaxseeds and wild-caught salmon. Two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds contain 3.5 grams of omega 3 fats, while a 4 ounce piece of salmon contains 1.5 grams of omega 3 fats.

Reference: K. S. Vaddadi; E. Soosai; E. Chiu1; P. Dingjan. A randomised, placebo-controlled, double blind study of treatment of Huntington's disease with unsaturated fatty acids. Neuroreport 2002;13:29-33. Essential Fatty Acids May Slow or Reverse the Progression of Huntington's Disease, Healthnotes Newswire 7/3/02.