Omega-3 fatty acids, or fish oils as they are usually referred to have become increasingly popular over the last ten years. They have been demonstrated to help in schizophrenia, depression, bipolar, ADHD and most disorders under the sun. Infact, they are now touted for so many conditions, that a consumers can be excused have developed “fish oil fatigue”. My love of fish oils however dates to before they were the fashionable magic tonic for every ailment from herpes to internet addiction.
The year was 2003, late 2003, and my dissertation was due. I had had over eighteen months to get it done. It was mid July and I done very little.. very very little,..infact I hadn’t started it. As the year was slipping away , I realized I needed a quick research project to pull me out of the procrastination shit storm that I had gotten myself into.
At that stage fish oils were just starting to be trialed in depression and schizophrenia, with early positive results. I had a number of grandiose trial in mind. Such studies however require money, and I had none. With a whole heap of grovelling and networking, I had obtained $2000 Grant. Not much money for a study of any type, and not anywhere near enough to run off to Tahiti, and forget the whole work thing.
In the previous months I had stumbled on some studies showing fish oils lowered lipid levels in diabetes patients. About the same time research starting to show that the new atypical anti-psychotics were affecting lipid levels. At the time we did not know how we should manage these patients.
Me and my buddy, Miguel were kite surfing at the local beach. During a lull in the wind we came up with the research idea. We could trial fish oils in a group of patients taking clozapine, a very good but risky medication, and see if it lowered their blood triglyceride levels.
Simple enough research. By the time I got the study through the ethics committee it was September, and the dissertation was due before Christmas. The study design was basic. Get thirty people patients to take ten fish oil tablets for a month and measure their lipid levels at the beginning and at the end. What could go wrong.
Over two days I consented over thirty people into the study. I had to explain to each of them why they should eat ten fish oil tablets every day for a month. At this time fish oils were not popular or in the media and people were suspicious. The oils we had were the cheapest I could get, and they smelt of fish,.. bad fish. To show patients that the oils were safe to take, for each patient I chewed a fish oil tablet in front of them. By the end of the two days my mouth felt like a sperm whale had shat in it. It took a week for the taste to go away.
Usually in a study you need a placebo group. I didn’t have enough patients and could not afford to buy a placebo- so no placebo group. If you have a placebo group in a study, even if you get a negative result, it is still a worthwhile study. Without a placebo group, if the study did not work, it was pretty much rubbish. It was a huge gamble, since there was no research at that time on the subject. Also getting people to take ten tablets was not going to be an easy ask. I had no way to make sure people were taking their oils. I personally called people throughout the study to remind them to take their tablets.
If the study failed, I had no plan B, and it was pretty much my only plausible chance of making the due date. From when I consented the participants, it would be a full month before I would get any results. It was drifting into October, and unless I got some good results soon, I didn’t have a dissertion.
The results started coming in by late October. Within the week I knew the study result was positive. People were getting over 20% drop in triglyceride levels, comparable to any medications available at the time, with almost no side effects. It took another month or so to write up, and I submitted it with four days to spare. Later I would publish the results– it was my first every publication.
This is why I love fish oils. Not just because they are good for you, but in some ways I feel eternally indebted to them and because we were using them before they were the in thing..