Fish oil: What's the difference?

Ultra-purified, pharmaceutical grade, molecularly distilled. Over-the-counter vs. prescription. Gelcap, liquid, emulsion.

There's a mind-boggling variety of choices in fish oil today. A visit to any health food store, or any "big box" store for that matter, will yield at least several, if not dozens, of choices, all with varying and often extravagant claims of purity and potency.

So what's the real story?

Given the analyses conducted over the years, along with my experience with dozens of different preparations, I believe that several conclusions can be reached about fish oil:

Fish oil is free of contamination with mercury, dioxin, PCBs, or furans. To my knowledge, only one fish oil preparation has been found to have a slight excess of PCBs. (This is different from cod liver oil that has been found by one source to have a slight excess of PCBs.)

Oxidative breakdown products differ among the various brands. Consumer Lab (, for instance, has found that several widely available brands of fish oil contained excessive oxidative breakdown products (TOTOX). You can perform you own simple test of oxidative breakdown products: Sniff it. Your fish oil should pass the "sniff test." High quality fish oil should smell non-fishy to lightly fishy. Rancid fish oil with excessive quantities of oxidative breakdown products will smell nasty fishy.

FDA approval does not necessarily mean greater potency, purity, or effectiveness. It just means that somebody assembled the hundreds of millions of dollars to obtain FDA approval, followed by lots of marketing savvy to squash the competition.

This means that there are a number of excellent fish oil products available. My favorites are the liquid fish oils from Pharmax, Nordic Naturals, and Barleans. Capsules from Carlson, PharmaNutrients, and Fisol have also performed consistently. The "big box" capsules from Sam's Club and Costco have also performed well and are wonderfully affordable.

Wheat-free pie crust

I've been working on wheat-free yet healthy recipes these past two months.

You can buy wheat-free, gluten-free foods at the store, of course. But the majority of these products are unhealthy because cornstarch, rice starch, potato starch, or tapioca starch are commonly used in place of wheat. Recall that these are among the few foods that increase blood glucose higher than even wheat.

Here's a simple recipe for wheat-free pie crust that works best for cheesecake, pumpkin pie, and cream pies, but not for berry or other fruit pies like apple.

You will need:
1½ cups ground pecans
6 tablespoons melted butter?or melted coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract?
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 medium egg
2 tablespoons Truvia™ or ½ teaspoon stevia extract or ½ cup Splenda®

Mix all ingredients thoroughly in bowl. Pour mixture into pie pan and press onto bottom and sides.

Fill pie crust with desired filling. You can fill it with your favorite cheesecake recipe (e.g., Neufchatel or cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, vanilla, and stevia; add pumpkin for pumpkin cheesecake) and bake, usually at 350 degrees F for one hour. 

Yes, the butter provokes insulin and artificial sweeteners can trigger appetite. But, for the holidays, a slice or two of pie made with this crust will not increase blood sugar nor trigger the uncontrolled impulse eating that wheat crust will trigger.

Have a cookie

Here's a great insight dating all the way back to 1966 from one of the early explorations in lipoproteins from the National Institutes of Health lab of Levy, Lees, and Fredrickson:

The nature of pre-beta (very low density) lipoproteins

The subject is a 19 year old female (among the total of 11 in the this small, diet-controlled study) who was first fed a low-carbohydrate (50 grams per day), low-cholesterol diet; followed by a high-carbohydrate (500 grams per day), low-fat (5 grams per day) diet.

To B or not to B

Apoprotein B (apo B) is the principle protein that resides in LDL particles along with other proteins, phospholipids, triglycerides, and, of course, cholesterol.

There's a curious thing about apo B. Just like one child per family in China or one television per household in 1950s America, there is only one apo B for every LDL particle.

So measuring apo B, in effect, provides a virtual count of LDL particles. (Actually, VLDL particles, the first lipoprotein to emerge from the liver, also have one apo B per particle but LDL particles far outnumber VLDL particles.) While apo B structure can show limited structural variation from individual to individual, the effect on measured apo B is negligible.

One apo B per LDL particle . . . no more, no less. What about the other components of LDL particles?

The other components of LDL particles are a different story. Cholesterol and triglycerides in LDL particles vary substantially. Diet has profound effects on cholesterol and triglyceride content of LDL particles. A diet rich in carbohydrates, for instance, increases triglycerides in LDL particles while reducing cholesterol. This means that measuring cholesterol in the LDL fraction will be misleading, since cholesterol will be falsely low. LDL cholesterol is therefore a flawed means to assess the behavior and composition of LDL particles. In particular, when LDL particles become enriched in triglycerides, they go through a process that transforms them into small LDL particles, the variety most likely to cause atherosclerosis.

In other words, when the worst situation of all--an abnormal abundance of small LDL particles develops--it is usually not signalled by high LDL cholesterol.

Because apo B is not sensitive to the composition of LDL particles--high cholesterol, low cholesterol, high triglycerides, etc.--it is a superior method to characterize LDL particles. While apo B doesn't tell you whether LDL particles are big, small, or in between, it provides a count of particles that is far more helpful than measuring this deeply flawed thing called "LDL cholesterol."

(Even better: Count LDL particles and measure LDL size, since size gives us insight into sensitivity to oxidation, glycation, adhesiveness, ability to trigger inflammatory pathways via monocyte chemoattractant protein, various interleukins, tunor necrosis factor and others. This is why cholesterol panels should go the way of tie dye shirts and 8-track tapes: They are hopelessly, miserably, and irretrievably inaccurate. Cholesterol panels should be replaced by either apoprotein B or lipoprotein measures.)

Put lipstick on a dwarf

Today, virtually all wheat products are produced from the Triticum aestivum dwarf mutant.

You might call it "multi-grain bread,""oat bread," or "flaxseed bread." You could call it "organic," "pesticide-free," "non-GMO," or "no preservatives." It might be shaped into a ciabatta, bruschetta, focaccia, or panini. It might be sourdough, unleavened, or sprouted. It could be brown, black, Pumpernickel, or white. It could be shaped into a roll, bun, bagel, pizza, loaf, pretzel, cracker, pancake, brioche, baguette, or pita. It could be matzah, challah, naan, or Communion wafers.

No matter what you call it, it's all the same. It's all from the dwarf mutant Triticum aestivum plant, the 18-inch tall product of hybridizations, backcrossings, and introgressions that emerged from genetics research during the 1960s and 70s.

According to Dr. Allan Fritz, Professor of Wheat Breeding at Kansas State University, and Dr. Gary Vocke at the USDA, over 99% of all wheat grown today is the dwarf variant of Triticum aestivum. (For you genetics types, Triticum aestivum is the hexaploid, i.e., 3 combined genomes, product of extensive hybridizations, while ancestral einkorn is a diploid, i.e., a single genome, grass. Hexaploid Triticum aestivum contains the especially hazardous "D" genome, the set of genes most commonly the recipient of genetic manipulations to modify the characteristics of flour, such as gluten content. Einkorn contains only the original "A" genome.)

No matter what you call it, add to it, how you shape it, etc., it's all the same. It's all the dwarf mutant product of tens of thousands of hybridizations.

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. By the way, lipstick may contain wheat.

What the Institute of Medicine SHOULD have said

The news is full of comments, along with many attention-grabbing headlines, about the announcement from the Institute of Medicine that the new Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D should be 600 units per day for adults.

What surprised me was the certainty with which some of the more outspoken committee members expressed with their view that 1) the desirable serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D level was only 20 ng/ml, and 2) that most Americans already obtain a sufficient quantity of vitamin D.

Here's what I believe the Institute of Medicine SHOULD have said:

Multiple lines of evidence suggest that there is a plausible biological basis for vitamin D's effects on cancer, inflammatory responses, bone health, and metabolic responses including insulin responsiveness and blood glucose. However, the full extent and magnitude of these responses has not yet been fully characterized.

Given the substantial observations reported in several large epidemiologic studies that show an inverse correlation between 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels and mortality, there is without question an association between vitamin D and mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all cause mortality. However, it has not been established that there are cause-effect relationships, as this cannot be established by epidemiologic study.

While the adverse health effects of 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels of less than 30 ng/ml have been established, the evidence supporting achieving higher 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels remains insufficient, limited to epidemiologic observations on cancer incidence. However, should 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels of greater than 30 ng/ml be shown to be desirable for ideal health, then vitamin D deficiency has potential to be the most widespread deficiency of the modern age.

Given the potential for vitamin D's impact on multiple facets of health, as suggested by preliminary epidemiologic and basic science data, we suggest that future research efforts be focused on establishing 1) the ideal level of 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels to achieve cancer-preventing, bone health-preserving or reversing, and cardiovascular health preventive benefits, 2) the racial and genetic (vitamin D receptor, VDR) variants that may account for varying effects in different populations, 3) whether vitamin D restoration has potential to exert not just health-preserving effects, but also treatment effects, specifically as adjunct to conventional cancer and osteoporosis therapies, and 4) how such vitamin D restoration is best achieved.

Until the above crucial issues are clarified, we advise Americans that vitamin D is a necessary and important nutrient for multiple facets of health but, given current evidence, are unable to specify a level of vitamin D intake that is likely to be safe, effective, and fully beneficial for all Americans.

Instead of a careful, science-minded conclusion that meets the painfully conservative demands of crafting broad public policy, the committee instead chose to dogmatically pull the discussion back to the 1990s, ignoring the flood of compelling evidence that suggests that vitamin D is among the most important public health issues of the age.

Believe it or not, this new, though anemic, RDA represents progress: It's a (small) step farther down the road towards broader recognition and acceptance that higher intakes (or skin exposures) to achieve higher vitamin D levels are good for health.

My view: Vitamin D remains among the most substantial, life-changing health issues of our age. Having restored 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels in over 1000 people, I have no doubt whatsoever that vitamin D achieves substantial benefits in health with virtually no downside, provided 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels are monitored.

Coronary calcium: Cause or effect?

Here's an interesting observation made by a British research group.

We all know that coronary calcium, as measured by CT heart scans, are a surrogate measure of atherosclerotic plaque "burden," i.e., an indirect yardstick for coronary plaque. The greater the quantity of coronary calcium, the higher the heart scan "score," the greater the risk for heart attack and other unstable coronary syndromes that lead to stents, bypass, etc.

But can calcium also cause plaque to form or trigger processes that lead to plaque formation and/or instability?

Nadra et al show, in an in vitro preparation, that calcium phosphate crystals are actively incorporated into inflammatory macrophages, which then trigger a constellation of inflammatory cytokine release (tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukins), fundamental processes underlying atherosclerotic plaque formation and inflammation.

Here's the abstract of the study:
Proinflammatory Activation of Macrophages by Basic Calcium Phosphate Crystals via Protein Kinase C and MAP Kinase Pathways:

A Vicious Cycle of Inflammation and Arterial Calcification?

Basic calcium phosphate (BCP) crystal deposition underlies the development of arterial calcification. Inflammatory macrophagescolocalize with BCP deposits in developing atherosclerotic lesionsand in vitro can promote calcification through the release of TNF alpha. Here we have investigated whether BCP crystals can elicit a proinflammatory response from monocyte-macrophages.BCP microcrystals were internalized into vacuoles of human monocyte-derived macrophages in vitro. This was associated with secretion of proinflammatory cytokines (TNF{alpha}, IL-1ß and IL-8) capable of activating cultured endothelial cells and promoting capture of flowing leukocytes under shear flow. Critical roles for PKC, ERK1/2, JNK, but not p38 intracellular signaling pathways were identified in the secretion of TNF alpha, with activation of ERK1/2 but not JNK being dependent on upstream activation of PKC. Using confocal microscopy and adenoviral transfection approaches, we determined a specific role for the PKC-alpha isozyme.

The response of macrophages to BCP crystals suggests that pathological calcification is not merely a passive consequence of chronic inflammatory disease but may lead to a positive feed-back loop of calcification and inflammation driving disease progression.

This observation adds support to the notion that increasing coronary calcium scores, i.e., increasing accumulation of calcium within plaque, suggests active plaque. As I say in Track Your Plaque, "growing plaque is active plaque." Active plaque means plaque that is actively growing, inflamed and infiltrated by inflammatory cells like macrophages, eroding its structural components, and prone to "rupture," i.e., cause heart attack. Someone whose first heart scan score is, say, 100, followed by another heart scan score two years later of 200 is exposed to sharply increasing risk for cardiovascular events which may, in part, be due to the plaque-stimulating effects of calcium.

Conversely, reducing coronary calcium scores removes a component of plaque that would otherwise fuel its growth. So, people like our Freddie, who reduced his heart scan score by 75%, can be expected to enjoy a dramatic reduction of risk for cardiovascular events.

Less calcium, less plaque to rupture, less risk.

Wheat one-liners

If you're having difficulty convincing a loved one or someone else that wheat should be eliminated from the human diet, here are some useful one-liners to use:

Wheat makes your boobs big.
(This is true. Priceless for women to use on their husbands.)

Wheat causes dementia.
(And confirmed on examination of brain tissue at autopsy. Yes, autopsy.)

Wheat makes you look pregnant.
(The visceral fat of a wheat belly does a darn good imitation of a near-term infant.)

The first sign of wheat intolerance can be wetting your pants.
(Cerebellar ataxia, i.e., destruction and atrophy of the cerebellum, caused by wheat leads to loss of coordination and bladder control. Average age of onset: 53 years old.)

White flour bad, whole grain better; just as Marlboros are bad, Salems are better.
(The flawed syllogism that led to the "eat more healthy whole grain" colossal blunder.)

Wheat is the only food with its very own mortality rate.
(Celiac disease, osteoporotic hip fractures, and the neurologic diseases triggered by wheat can be fatal.)

"Wheat" is no longer wheat; it's the dwarf mutant that came from genetics research in the 1960s.
(Over 99% of all wheat today comes from the 18-inch tall dwarf mutant.)

Wheat increases blood sugar higher than nearly all other foods.
(Higher than Milky Way bars, higher than Snickers bars, higher than table sugar.)

There you have it: A full arsenal of one-liners to shoot at your husband, wife, or friend when they roll their eyes at your refusal to consume this thing called "wheat."

The happy homeotherm

If you were a "cold blooded" poikilotherm unable to regulate internal body temperature, you would have to sun yourself on rocks to raise your body temperature, just like turtles and snakes. When it got cold, your metabolic rate would slow and you might burrow into the mud to hide.

You and I, however, are homeotherms, terrestrial animals able to regulate our own internal body temperature. Principal responsibility for keeping your body temperature regulated falls with the thyroid gland, your very own thermoregulatory "thermostat."

But internal body temperature, even in a homeotherm, varies with circadian rhythm: Highest temperature occurs in the early evening around 8 p.m.; the low temperature nadir occurs at around 4 a.m.

The notion that normal human temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit is a widely-held fiction, a legacy of the extraordinary experience of 19th century German physician, Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich, who claims to have measured temperatures of one million people using his crude, uncalibrated thermometer to obtain axillary (armpit) body temperatures.

Dr. Broda Barnes was a 20th century American proponent of using the nadir body temperature to gauge thyroid function. Like Wunderlich, Barnes also used axillary temperatures.

Modern temperature assessments have employed radiotransmitting thermistors that are swallowed, with temperatures tracked as the thermistor travels through the stomach, duodenum, small intestine, large intestine, rectum, then peek-a-boos back out. Such internal "core temperature" assessments have shown that:

--Axillary temperatures do not track with internal core temperatures very well, often veering off course due to external factors.
--Axillary temperatures are subject to ambient temperatures, such as room temperature, and are affected by clothing.
--Axillary temperatures are more susceptible to physical activity, e.g., increased with exercise or physical work.

Even right vs. left axillary temperatures have been shown to vary up to 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Studies such as this demonstrate that normal oral temperature upon arising is around 97.2-97.3 degrees Fahrenheit. While we lack data correlating thyroid function with circadian temperature variation, the a.m. nadir does indeed, as Dr. Barnes originally suggested, seem to track thyroid status quite well: lower with hypothyroidism, higher with normal or hyperthyroidism.

I have been using 97.3 degrees F orally as the cutoff for confirming or uncovering thyroid dysfunction, particularly when symptoms or blood tests (TSH, free T3, free T4) are equivocal, a value that has held up well in the majority of cases. I find it helpful when, for instance, someone complains of cold hands and feet and has normal TSH (1.5 mIU/L or less in my view) but low free T3. An a.m. oral temperature of, say, 95.7 degrees F, suggests that there will be a favorable response to T3 supplementation. And it nearly always plays out that way.

Wouldn't it be interesting to know if there was insight into thyroid status provided by also examining the circadian behavior of temperature (e.g., height or timing of the peak)?

Statin buster?

Merck recently reported preliminary results with its drug-in-development, anacetrapib.

After six months of treatment, participants showed:

LDL cholesterol was reduced from 81 mg/dl to 45 mg/dl in those taking anacetrapib, and from 82 mg/dl to 77 mg/dl in the placebo group.

HDL increased from 41 mg/dl to 101 mg/dl in the drug group, from 40 mg/dl to 46 mg/dl in those on placebo.

As you'd expect, the usual line-up of my colleagues gushed over the prospects of the drug, salivating over new speaking opportunities, handsomely-paid clinical "research" trials, and plenty of nice trips to exotic locales.

Anacetrapib is a cholesteryl-ester transfer protein inhibitor, or CETP inhibitor, much like its scrapped predecessor, torcetrapib . . . you know, the one that went down in flames in 2006 after 60% excess mortality occurred in people taking the drug compared to placebo. The hopes of many investors and Pfizer executives were dashed with torcetrapib's demise. The data on torcetrapib's lipid effects were as impressive as Merck's anacetrapib.

These drugs block the effects of the CETP enzyme, an enzyme with complex effects. Among CETP's effects: mediating the "heteroexchange" of triglycerides from triglyceride-rich VLDL particles that first emerge from the liver for cholesterol from LDL particles. This CETP-mediated process enriches LDL particles with triglycerides, which then make LDL a target for action by another enzyme, hepatic lipase, that removes triglycerides. This yields a several nanometer smaller LDL particle, now the number one most common cause of heart disease in the U.S., thanks to conventional advice to cut fat intake and increase consumption of "healthy whole grains."

With effects like this, anacetrapib, should it hold up under the scrutiny of FDA-required trials and not show the same mortality-increasing effects of torcetrapib, will be a huge blockbuster for Merck if release goes as scheduled in 2015. It will likely match or exceed sales of any statin drug. Statin drugs have achieved $27 billion annual sales, some of it deserved. Anacetrapib will likely handily match or exceed Lipitor's $12 billion annual revenue.

More than increasing HDL, CETP inhibition is really a strategy to reduce small LDL particles.

As with many drugs, there are natural means to achieve similar effects with none of the side-effects. In this case, similar effects to CETP inhibition, though with no risk of heightened mortality, is . . . elimination of wheat, in addition to an overall limitation of carbohydrate consumption. Not just low-carb, mind you, but wheat elimination on the background of low-carb. For instance, eliminate wheat products and limit daily carbohydrate intake to 50-100 grams per day, depending on your individual carbohydrate sensitivity, and small LDL drops 50-75%. HDL, too, will increase over time, not as vigorously as with a CETP inhibitor, but a healthy 20-30% increase, more with restoration of vitamin D.

Eliminating wheat and adjusting diet to ratchet down carbs is, of course, cheap, non-prescription, and can be self-administerd, criteria that leave the medical world indifferent. But it's a form of "CETP inhibition" that you can employ today with none of the worries of a new drug, especially one that might share effects with an agent with a dangerous track record.