Gut Health Gurus Blog

Unlocking the Power of Omega 3 & Branched Fats : A Conversation with Professor Tom Brenna

Power of Omega 3 & Branched Fats
Professor Tom Brenna to talk about fats and the different health benefits

Today we have with us Professor Tom Brenna to talk about fats and the different health benefits surrounding them. He's a professor at the University of Texas in Austin and a professor emeritus at Cornell University in New York. He has been working in the area of nutrition, fats, chemistry, and food chemistry since around 1980. This conversation is going to center around the key types of fats: omega-3s and branched fats. Read on to learn about why they are important for our diets, the difference between them, and how to determine which supplement to use if you need a higher dose. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fats are one of the most studied substances in all of biology with over 40,000 scientific papers written on them. They were first described in the 1950s but it became clear in the 60s and 70s that they were related to neurological health. They are in the brain and the retina. It was shown that the eye doesn’t work well if it’s deprived of omega-3s. Then there was a remarkable event in the 70s when 2 researchers went to Greenland and Northern Canada and found that there were low rates of cardiovascular disease in the natives there. They also realized that their intake of omega-3s through fish and marine mammals was extraordinarily high. 

That caused an explosion of interest in omega-3’s but it wasn’t until the 90’s that people started to think of the neurological properties of them. Then there was another explosion of interest in that area which carries us to the present when we think about omega-3s for brain and cardiovascular health. The omega-3 fats are named for a feature of their chemical structure. And if you’ve heard of omega-6 fatty acids, they are the yin to omega-3 yang. They both have much in common but they do different things. It’s omega-6 for the body and omega-3 for the brain.

The Difference Between EPA and DHA

There has been a lot of supplementation talk and suggestions over the past few years. When you talk to nutritional scientists they will say it's better from a food source. Supplements are a suitable substitute for folks that can't or don’t care to consume seafood, which is the bulk of the foods that have omega 3's. And it doesn’t have to be fresh seafood, you can also use canned seafood for the same benefits. 

Long-chained omega-3’s are abbreviated as EPA and DHA:

- DHA is high in neurological tissue and is in the retina 

-  EPA has more documented effects on cardiovascular. 

EPA is now coming into its own as an agent that reduces depression symptoms. It's an interesting scientific question because the brain is actually low in EPA. We know that it gets into the brain because the brain eats it up and does something with it. It looks like it uses it as an energy source. But the data in human studies show that the EPA is good for reducing those depressive symptoms.

It was in the 90s that the supplementation of omega-3’s in infant formulas came about. And it was by 2001 that the United States approved it. The word “supplementation” implies that it’s optional but breast milk around the world has omega-3s and DHA so it’s not optional. We don't say that infant formula is supplemented with Vitamin C, we just add it because it has to be in there. We use breast milk as a guide to know what infants need.

Putting omega-3’s in our food supply is a good idea as long as they don’t affect the palatability or shelf life. After World War 3, the food system evolved to scrub the omega-3’s out of the food system because they reduce shelf life. So restoring that to different foods is something that many of us have had on our minds for years. 



How Do We Know Which Supplements to Take?

In the US, there is testing that is done both voluntarily but also by independent testing labs on supplements. The US pharmacopeia is an example. They set standards and usually when supplements are tested by them, they do quite well. I suggest buying a supplement that has a testing stamp on the label. But if you break open a capsule of fish oil and they smell rancid, then that would be a sign to bring it back to the store and get your money back. Humans have a very low threshold for the odor of the rancid molecules which is to say that we can tell when even a little rancidity has crept in. I don't recommend that people consume rancid oils. On the other hand, established food manufacturers are aware of this issue. I think the last thing they want to do is add something to their food in an unstable form. So they will think about encapsulating it one way or another to keep oxygen away. Overall, you should trust your taste and nose and that’ll be a great guide! If it’s rancid it would still have health benefits but it’s not worth consuming. 

I'm a huge fan of trusting innate abilities to know when something is off. Our smell receptors are off the charts when it comes to detecting really tiny parts per billion type molecules. Trusting that can be a sign that something is not safe to eat. It's almost like a detector is built into the body. -Kriben Govender

What Are The Dose Levels and Different Health Benefits of Omega-3’s?

This might vary with who you are talking with but these are some ranges: 

At the lower end, you want to be looking at 500 milligrams per day. That’s a reasonable dose if you’re going to supplement. A piece of decent salmon has a lot more than that so these are not pharmacological amounts. For cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends around 1 gram per day for primary prevention, for people that haven’t had any heart-related symptoms. But for those that have had a heart attack or other cardiovascular symptoms, the dose recommended is around 2-3 grams per day. And on the high end, the prescription omega-3s, which are highly purified pharmaceutical grade, are 4 grams a day. In terms of highly purified omega-3s, a level of toxicity hasn’t been found. If you see some high levels that have been oxidized then you might have a problem. But overall, omega-3s are very safe.

For things like depression, you would need to look at an EPA-dominant supplement. For postpartum, you would want 1 gram or more of an EPA-rich supplement. You could consume one of those or 300 grams of salmon and get about the same. There will be other fish that are comparable in different countries as well like sardines and mackerel, basically any type of oily fish. If you get it out of fish, you’re also getting a broad nutrient package. You are getting minerals and choline, which might help in the utilization of omega 3’s. You can also eat foods like omega-3 eggs. When my colleagues ask me about what they should give their grandchildren, I also say omega-3 eggs are a great idea. 

Omega 3’s are also connected to lower levels of inflammation. So any type of inflammatory issue is improved through omega-3s. There is also a feeling out there that there is some prevention of colon cancer through these omega-3s. The studies are complicated in one respect because omega-3s are absorbed before they get into the lower gut. This early research indicated that they might be exerting their effects not through the actual gut but through the bloodstream and then having an effect on the cells from the other side. The nice thing about nutrients is that they aren’t just targeting one thing.

Branched Fat and Vernix Caseosa


Branched Fat and Vernix Caseosa

Going back to chemistry, fats have a certain chemical structure. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are a straight line of carbon atoms. They just go from one to the next in a linear chain. Branched fats have what chemists call a methyl branch. In certain positions, these fats tend to be made by microorganisms. They are made in a number of different places and the most relevant one is made by the organisms in the rumen of the cow. So cow's milk turns out to be rich in branched-chain fatty acids. 

These branched fats have a unique structure that distinguishes them from other fats, which is why we call them branched. We’ve been researching these molecules for more than 15 years. Chemists noticed when they were analyzing samples they would find strange fats that they didn’t expect. Those are branched fats. So they would analyze it, write a paper, and then move on to something else. We got interested and then eventually discovered them for ourselves the same way you go to a market and discover a peach. In this analysis, we found a unique human substance known as vernix caseosa. 

Vernix is a white waxy substance that is observed on the skin of human infants, particularly those that are born a couple of weeks premature. This material begins to accumulate at the beginning of the 3rd trimester (roughly around week 27). What happens is the skin surface develops this white coating and it will slough off as particles of vernix into the amniotic fluid. Towards the end of gestation, it makes the amniotic fluid cloudy. And it’s been known that a human fetus gulps amniotic fluid. It does almost everything as practiced as utero before it’s born such as:

- Breathing

- Kicking

- Moving

- Swallowing 

It processes through the kidneys and right back into the amniotic fluid and cycles it. But it's also gulping these solid particles that are in the amniotic fluid. And for this reason, vernix particles have been called the first solid meal of humans. We went and analyzed some vernix that was gently removed from the newborn's skin. We were looking for omega-3 fatty acids and we didn’t find them but we found loads of branched fat. 

The amount of branched fat that we found was richer than any place that is in human biology. 30% of the fat in the vernix is branched fat and the vernix itself is about half fat. We got the bright idea to collect vernix from newborns at our local hospital. We thought if they are swallowing this material the last few weeks then we might see these branched fats in the first poop of the baby called meconium. This material collects in the rectum of the fetus and under normal circumstances it collects for all of the gestation and after birth, the baby passes this black material. When we analyzed it, we found some of the same fats that were in the vernix on the surface of the baby.

So you put these two things together, the baby is gulping it and some of it makes it all the way to the end. This makes you think that it’s a nutritional thing and much of it is disappearing, probably through absorption. That's what gave us the first clue that there was a nutritional connection. Vernix is always discussed in terms of being important for the skin but babies born at full-time gestation have very little on their skin. The peak is a few weeks earlier. I think it’s more of a nutritional thing than a skin thing. 

Long story short, humans are the only terrestrial animals known to have vernix. And because of something we learned from Sir David Attenborough in one of his nature programs, we chased down a lead and found that California sea lions also have vernix. There was a story about a connection between human evolution and having a shore-based phase. Not to say that we were seals at any point but that there were maybe some components in common.

What Are The Health Benefits of Vernix for a Baby?

We think that the connection is probably related to microbiota. We have also been looking at various biological aspects of this and we think that branched fasts probably have a role to play in the health of enterocytes as well. These are the cells that are lining the small intestine. We have published data showing that the cells are more robust to an inflammatory insult when the cells have access to branched fat as opposed to exclusively straight chain fat. We think there are two sides to it:

  1. The cells seem to be more robust when they have a source of branched fats.
  2. With the microbiota, we did a study and found that when we include branched fats in the feeds of mice with intestinal disease, it substantially reduced the probability that the disease would hit. It also altered the distribution of microorganisms in the microbiota. It turns out that many microorganisms use these branched fats in their cell membranes, which is the barrier between the cell and the outside world. They make them and we found that there are organisms that would have 95% of their fats in their membranes as branched fats. You can imagine that organisms that rely on these branched fats would grow faster if they could get them from the environment rather than make them from sugar. And then there is other evidence that found with at least one pathogen when provided with branched fat, becomes non-pathogenic. We also think that branched fats not only change the distribution of organisms in the microbiota but they change the biology of them. And perhaps there is a deficiency when we don't have branched fats in children's diets.

Which Bacteria Does it Support?

There is a bit of evidence showing that the bacillus genus in general is boosted in the presence of branched fats. It relies upon them. Many of the individual species increase in their abundance when we feed them branched fats (at least in the model system we have used so far). Some of the bacillus species have been used in premature babies as probiotics. They are safe enough to be given to the sickest of kids. These are what we call commensal bacteria (friendly bacteria). 

A lot of spore-based probiotics are bacillus. With fermented foods, a lot of people add something like bacillus granules into them as a probiotic. And if the microbiota are potentially in a dysbiotic state, boosting certain types of these commensal beneficial type organisms could be overcrowding the pathogenic organisms. And emerging science says that the pathogenicity of some of these well-known pathogens might be interrupted and stop them from causing damage. -Kriben Govender


Is a Peribiotic Similar to a Prebiotic?

When we created this term we wanted to communicate that it has both prebiotic and probiotic properties. The name is Vernx and it’s made in Australia. It contains a proprietary strain of Bacillus subtilis, which is one of the organisms that was shown to be increased in the lower gut of animals fed branched fats. It colonises the gut, it’s great for anyone over the age of 5, and there isn’t any genetic modification. A sachet of powder can be mixed into a drink or yoghurt. It doesn’t have much taste and it really serves to populate the gut with strains of microorganisms that make branched fats

It's a spore that will activate when it gets to the lower gut. It stays in a dormant state, almost like a seed, and as this organism transits through all of the acids, it makes its way into the colon and starts to convert from a seed state to a vegetative live organism. And then these organisms start to grow in the gut. The benefits of this organism don’t lie with the live organism but when they start to die then you have the branched fats that are released into the colon. Those branched fats will be available to the rest of the microbiota to improve matters in the whole ecosystem. We think it works better for people who are looking to improve their gut health to use it daily. 

The Effects on IBS, IBD, SIBO, and Crohn's Disease

Depending on the individual, this may or may not help them. There are reports of people taking Vernx and having these life-changing reactions where they said they couldn't function and now they can. We have to continue to see how that plays out. There’s been enough feedback to indicate that there will be conditions to which this product really helps. This is our first product, and we hope to expand because gut dysfunctions can be debilitating. 

That is a summary of the different types of fats and their impact on our bodies. Remember to eat oily fish, buy quality supplements, and use Vernx if you need extra support. Diet is the most important piece of the puzzle but if you don’t enjoy seafood there are other ways to improve your health. Be sure to keep track of the updates in the research and go to the Vernx website to learn more about this incredible topic! Make sure to subscribe to the Gut Health Gurus YouTube video for this conversation and more!

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