Food for Thought: Sushi, Omega-3, & Mood

Alex Poplawsky, Editor

Originally published September 2006.

As the American culture drives deeper into the technology age, life continues to quicken its pace through the 21st century. One noticeable side effect is the drift from homemade food toward more time conserving methods, such as fast food, which consists of mostly terrestrial meats and vegetable oils rich in saturated and omega-6 fatty acids. Also, along with this trend of expedited eating habits is an increase in mood disorders like depression. Can there be a relationship? The answer may come from the eastern side of the globe where the Japanese report that they are less likely to experience mood disorders. Maybe it’s something in the sushi.

The origins of sushi are somewhat debated, but it is believed that sushi in its earliest form came from Asia by rice cultivators or Buddhist monks arriving in Japan two thousand years ago. At this time, fish was packed with rice for several months until the fish became pickled. The fermented rice was then thrown away and the fish save for consumption for up to a year later. As time passed, people began eating the rice and eventually acquired the taste. Vinegar was then added to fresh rice to mimic the fermented taste in a preparation time of minutes instead of months and thus sushi was born. However, it was not until the 19th century when a small stand in Tokyo started to place raw fish on the sushi to form the world’s first fast food – nigiri-zushi or finger sushi. Today, this same form of fast food exists in America after almost 200 years in Japan.

It is already known that sushi itself may not be attributed to having the mood correcting properties but instead the raw fish topping. However, it should not be ignored that the vinegared rich, along with the gari (pickled ginger), and wasabi have antiseptic and antimicrobial properties that may enable the body to consume the raw fish. Contrary to popular belief, the fish topped sushi does not have magical powers but instead contains the main ingredient that most American diets lack. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for neurological development and maintenance in humans, but the machinery in mammals to construct these oils de novo is so inefficient that it can be considered nonexistent. Therefore, these unsaturated fats must be consumed from the diet through limited sources, such as fish and flax seed, which western cultures generally choose to ignore. To give a perspective, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet was once 1:1 for Americans, but has recently moved closer to 10:1.

The effects of this type of unbalanced diet are currently being traced to mood disorders. One proposed idea involves the general action of omega-6 and omega-3 as messenger molecules in the immune system. Omega-6 fatty acids are generally proinflammatory agents that mobilize other types of distress signals such as cytokines. On the contrary, omega-3 fatty acids counteract the omega-6 signaling and are anti-inflammatory. With Dr. Andrew Miller in mind, an unbalance immune response that directs the body into distress will also unbalance the mind into a similar direction that may cause mood disorders. A second mechanism arises with the observation that omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the phospholipid membranes of synaptic the omega-6 signaling and are anti-inflammatory. With Dr. Andrew Miller in mind, an unbalance immune response that directs the body into distress will also unbalance the mind in a similar direction that may cause mood disorders. A second mechanism arises with the observation that omega- 3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the phospholipid membranes of synaptic vesicles, terminals, and dendrite branches. By disrupting the amount of omega-3 available for membrane integration, the fluid dynamics of the membrane will be disturbed. In this way, such functions as protein-protein interaction, receptors, ion channels, vesicular fusion, etc. are changed in acute regions of individual cells to populations.

Maguro-nigiri (Tuna)
Maguro-nigiri (Tuna)

Finally, it is reported that countries such as Japan, who consume on the average of 147 pounds of fish per person per year, have a lower risk of seasonal affective disorder. Unfortunately, with every Ying there is a Yang that must also be respected. Due to pollution of the oceans, people who eat copious amounts of some types of fish may run the risk of mercury poisoning. However, this is a topic for a later discussion.

As more related research is done throughout time, it is becoming clear that our fast food western diet may be tilted in the wrong direction. Refocus your eating routine to include more varieties of food that fit a busy lifestyle. Instead, take a bite of an eastern society’s way of fast food and eat more sushi.

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