Ask Dr. Sears
OmegaMatters: Episode 10
Hosts: Drs. Bill Harris & Kristina Harris Jackson
Guest:Dr. Bill Sears
Background and key takeaways:
William Sears, M.D., has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years, and now focuses much of his attention to the specialty of lifestyle medicine. He has served as a voluntary professor at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. A father of 8 children, he and his wife Martha have written more than 45 books on parenting, nutrition, and healthy aging. He serves as a consultant for TV, magazines, radio and other media, and is the co-founder of AskDrSears.com and the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute, which has certified over 11,000 Health Coaches around the world. Dr. Sears and his contribution to family health were featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Welcome to OmegaMatters. I’m Kristina. This is Bill and today we’re talking with Dr. Bill Sears an M.D. who values and uses omega-3s in his medical practice. And you have probably heard of Dr. Sears. Him and his wife have written dozens of books about healthy pregnancy, breastfeeding, childhood, and life. He has a real passion for helping people practically, using lifestyle medicine. And also, he’s really an expert in the world of omega-3s.
Dr. Sears is also a spokesperson for GOED, the global organization for EPA and DHA. And he’s written a book — written dozens of books — but the one that we’re really excited about here is The Omega-3 Effect where he really goes through in all life stages, how omega-3s can help with healthy living. So, Dr. Sears, thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Bill Sears: Thank you, Kristina. This is my favorite nutrient on the whole planet to talk about. Thank you.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Yes. And so, you guys know each other. How did you guys meet?
Dr. Bill Harris: Correct me, Bill, if I’m wrong, but you were preparing to write the book that Kristina had just held up, The Omega-3 Effect.
Dr. Bill Sears: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bill Harris: And you convened a kind of a brain trust at your lovely home there in Southern California on the ocean. Salmon at Sunset, I believe, was the theme. You must have had six, or seven, or eight of us there.
Dr. Bill Sears: Uh-huh.
Dr. Bill Harris: And you wanted us to come in and around a table and just talk about omega-3 top to bottom. And that was wonderful experience. I’ve been back two or three times since for Salmon at Sunset.
Dr. Bill Sears: Well, you’re welcome anytime, Bill.
Dr. Bill Harris: You got some other books. I just recently read The Healthy Brain, which is one of his most recent books. I also picked up this great hands-on guide for parents and children on how to heal your child. You just write so much. And you’re so honest. I mean, you get down and dirty.
Dr. Bill Harris: Dr. Poo. You know, let’s talk about the real stuff.
Dr. Bill Sears: Yeah.
Dr. Bill Harris: I love it. It’s great, it’s great.
Dr. Bill Sears: Yeah.
Dr. Bill Harris: So, I’m, I’m thrilled to not only know you, but to count you as a friend and to be able to have this little repartee on omega-3 from your perspective.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: You have such a wide range of things that you talk about. But you’re mostly in the pediatrics and pregnancy world where I kind of first heard about you. Our first question is how did omega-3s pop up as your kind of favorite nutrient?
Dr. Bill Sears: Well, Kristina, and Bill, like many doctors, it took a health crisis to get me to change. I had colon cancer in 1997.
Dr. Bill Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bill Sears: Cancer caused me to change. And I realized one thing, one simple sentence, make health my hobby.
Dr. Bill Sears: I had a lot to live for. Lots of kids, lots of grandkids, many on the way. And so I made health my hobby and that started with nutrition. And when I got into nutrition the term omega-3s kept popping up. And I started with a very basic principle in medicine, that every organ of your body is only as healthy as each cell in it. So, I studied cell health. The term cell membrane kept coming up. Every cell is only as healthy as the cell membrane. And the cell membrane is both selective and protective.
It lets the nutrients through that should come in. It protects it from nutrients that shouldn’t come in. And the biggest nutrient in the cell membrane was omega-3s. The flexible fat. So, I thought, a-ha, I’ve got to learn more about omega-3s. So, I went from the cell to the blood flow. The next principle of medicine, I thought, every organ of the body is only as healthy as the blood flow to it. Better blood flow, better organ health. So I studied the blood flow. And that’s when it led me to a professor named Dr. Jorn Dyerberg, who discovered back in the 1970s, the relationship between people who eat more omega-3s, in seafood, have better total body health, but mainly blood flow health.
That they suffer less heart disease. So, I hopped on a plane, went over, and spent a week fishing, fishing for knowledge, and literally fishing with Dr. Jorn. Here we are on the Norwegian fjords fishing and he is telling me his 30 years of fish stories. And after a week fishing with him and learning from him, I came home, and I thought, wow, omega-3s. That’s gotta be my hobby. And if you want to learn more about something, you write a book about it.
So, that’s when I had a grant and I invited what I called the top six experts in omega-3s, cardiovascular disease into our home for a two-day roundtable that Bill mentioned at the beginning of this episode. That’s why my wife used to say, “oh, you’re, you’re meeting with the fat boys again.” Well, they weren’t all boys, there were girls too. So, basically… what I did is I just listened to them talk about omega-3s for two days. I recorded 90 pages of notes and that went into our book.
And then, I said, okay, this is fantastic, omega-3s. Then I became a spokesperson for GOED, a global organization for EPA and DHA. And my favorite trip was over to China when I’m just a simple small town doc — but a science-made-simple doctor. So, what they would do is they would partner me with all the experts. And we call it the scientists and the simplifier. I was the simplifier. And the Chinese Nutrition Society said, “Bring the American over because we’ll put him on last, and he’ll make things simple, and people will stay for the meeting.”
So, it was so funny because I came on at the very end of the meeting, after all the experts. I followed Dr. Michael Crawford, who was one of the top brain experts in omegs-3s, the Director of the Brain Health Institute in London, England. And after his presentation, I came out on the stage with this huge PowerPoint and I said, “I want to introduce you to my partner in medical practice.” And there was a big blue fish in a white coat with a sign on it that said, “Dr. Omega the third.” And Dr. Omega the third is bragging. So I came out. Hey, I want you to meet my partner, Dr. Omega the third. He’s a neurologist, an ophthalmologist, a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, a perinatologist, an immunologist…
Dr. Bill Sears: And so, immediately, the audience got it. A head to toe nutrient. Every organ of your body is healthier and happier because of one happy nutrient. That flexible fat molecule, the membrane molecule, the less sticky fat, I call it. And, and I use this term, sticky stuff, when talking to kids. Picture these little blue fish floating down a slippery slide in your artery. And then I would have a big sign in my office with Dr. Omega the third, in a white coat and a big blue fish that says, “Hi, I’m here to help you heal.”
See? So, that’s just an, an overview of my life with omega-3s. And I’m still learning and growing.
Dr. Bill Harris: Great.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: That’s so great. The simplifier is so needed to break things down and make things clear for people. So, I was actually wondering what some of your favorite metaphors are, or stories are? Particularly in pregnancy, or lactation, and how you speak to pregnant women about omega-3s and pregnancy. I’m kind of curious if there’s some, like, fear of fish when you talk to pregnant women?
Dr. Bill Sears: Well Kristina, let’s imagine now. Let’s take a trip into my office and imagine you’re expecting your first baby. And you and your husband are sitting there. You’ve come to me for consultation, and you’re in bloom, and all that. And I say to you, “Kristina, congratulations. You’re growing a little fat head inside.” Fat head? What on earth does this doctor mean by that? I say, “Do you realize, Kristina, that your baby’s brain is growing the fastest in that third trimester of pregnancy, than any time in your baby’s whole life? You’re growing that little fat head. And the reason I say fat head is 60% of your baby’s brain is fat. So, Kristina, I want you to eat the healthiest fat for the healthiest brain. Because the number one smartest fat in that little fat head you’re growing is omega-3 EPA, DHA.
The mom and dad look at me. “We’ve never heard that.” And then I listen to three magic words to see if they’re paying attention… “That makes sense.” As soon as they look at me and say, “Huh, that makes sense. I’m growing a little fat head therefore I need to eat more fats, healthy fats, for the fat head.” And so that kind of rivets them to start eating. And then the husband often says, “Wow, that’s interesting. Now, tell us more about that.”
Well, I say, “I want you to be prepared because your little baby, your little fat head inside, is literally sucking in the omega-3 fats out of mom. And the way Dr. Mother Nature designed it, baby gets first dibs on any nutrient. So, if there’s not enough to go around, not enough omega-3s to go around, baby gets a sufficiency of them, but then the mother has an insufficiency of them. So, that little sucker, especially during lactation, that little sucker is literally sucking the omega-3s out of mom. Mom feels drained.” And what they’ve found is that too low levels of omega-3s for mommy’s brain, accounts for postpartum depression, feeling drained, lack of energy. So what’s good for baby is also good for mommy.
So, that’s the type of talk I’ve had hundreds of times in my office. And, and they just leave the office saying, “Whoa. Tell me how much I need to take.” And there’s a big sign in my office as they leave, there’s Dr. Omega-3 the big fish in a white coat, with a sign saying, “A gram a day I say. A gram a day I say.” So that’s kind of a little trip in Dr. Bill’s office.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: That is great. I love that. We’re learning so much more about omega-3s and pregnancy, but really targeting both mom and baby and how they are connected with DHA.
Dr. Bill Harris: So, how did that little pretend time at Dr. Bill’s office compare when you were having your babies and you were talking to your doctor?
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Well, they asked me what supplements I was taking, and I told them I was taking a DHA supplement. So they didn’t talk about it at all. I doubt that it would have been spoken about if I wouldn’t have said that, because it’s really not common practice.
Dr. Bill Harris: Right.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: But I certainly didn’t get that full description that Dr. Sears shared, all these ways that it could be really beneficial for me and the baby.
Dr. Bill Sears: Uh, thank you, Bill, for asking that because what I’ve learned in my medical practice… This is my 50th year as a medical practice, I hope to have 20 more. But when you give patients the why behind the what, they’re more likely to do it. So, instead of just saying, “You need to take more omega-3s,” tell them why. You know?
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bill Sears: Tell them why.
Dr. Bill Harris: That makes sense.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Yeah. And good to have a story. Do you have any case studies, or really interesting patients that you’ve had that have really benefited from omega-3s?
Dr. Bill Sears: Sure. And, Kristina, I’m a show-me-the-science type of doctor. I think I learned that from Dr. Bill. What’s fascinating is there’s a lot of science behind what we’re talking about. You mentioned pregnancy, for example, there’s what’s called the Middleton Study. M-I-D-D-L-E-T-O-N, Middleton Study viewers can just Google Middleton Study, Omega-3s in pregnancy. Anyway, they studied lots of, of pregnant moms, and they found that the babies of the pregnant moms who took more omega-3s, that ate more omega-3s, they turned out to have higher IQ’s. That study also showed that they had a much lower incidence of premature deliveries. The babies were more likely to go to term.
And that’s why I called omega-3s my favorite grow food. But, do you know, sometimes it takes motivation. Ok, so you asked about a couple case studies. Well, our son, number seven… We have so many we have to number them. So our 7th son has Down syndrome. Steven was born with a different brain. So, we had to nurture that brain. And, so Steven’s now 32 and he’s been doing great in a group home. And I thought, you know, I need to be sure he’s eating enough omega-3s.
And I gave him a list of how much salmon I wanted him to eat, how many fish oil tablets I wanted him to take every day, but I wanted to be sure they’re doing it. So, I went to Bill’s OmegaQuant, and I got an omega-3 Index Test and when his results came back his level was low. And I did the vitamin D level from OmegaQuant, it was low. So, I called him up, I said, “Listen. That little drop of blood tells me you’re not following doctor’s orders, following father’s orders.”
Dr. Bill Harris: Right. Father’s orders.
Dr. Bill Sears: But a number like that motivated them. They were like “uh oh, Dr. Bill can tell if we’re following directions by a simple, little drop of blood.” It’s fun being a pediatrician, but parents are bringing their parents in now.
Dr. Bill Harris: Oh, golly.
Dr. Bill Sears: Their older parents are coming in for a consultation. So a patient, lovely mom and dad are bringing in the mom brought in her dad. And it’s funny, said, “Now, dad, I want you to listen what Dr. Bill has to say.” And, and because she was a little bit of afraid of early Alzheimer’s maybe in the family. So, let’s say his name is John, I say, “Hey, John, what do you do for a living?” He said, “Oh, I’m an investment banker.”
Ah, teachable moment. I said, “Okay John, do you have an IRA?” “Oh, of course.” Like, a dumb question, I’m an investment manager, I have an IRA. “Well, John, do you have an IRA-H? An Individual Retirement Account for your health?”
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Hm.
Dr. Bill Sears: Or an IRA-B? Individual Retirement Account for your brain? He said, “Whoa. Never thought of that.” So I taught, talking about the term pre-loading. And I said, “Okay, you’re, you’re, you’re 50 right now, John. You’re at the prime of your life. I want you to learn the term pre-load. Pre-load your brain right now with the nutrients that grow at the best and protect it the best. Omega-3, DHA, EPA, they’re called neuroprotectants for a reason.” And I started going into the how eating more seafood and getting his omega-3 tested and keeping that level above eight is the best individual retirement account for his health and brain and he said, “Wow. That makes sense.”
And mom and dad said, “Oh, thank you Dr. Bill. He needed that motivation.”
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bill Harris: Yeah.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: That’s such a good example. You know, a lot of the research we like to do is on blood levels and looking at people over decades. And a lot of other research, which is still important, is really short. It’s like, three months long, and you give them a really high dose and see what it does. [00:20:30] And so, it’s just two really different ideas. The pre-loading idea, I think, is where we really, really want people to understand getting your levels up, getting, having a high amount in your body helps you get through a healthier pregnancy and other, like, life events that are stressors. And cause inflammation and the, the omega-3s are healers.
Dr. Bill Sears: Well, it’s funny, you just mentioned two magic words, Kristina— stressors and science. And this is why omega-3s are the number one researched nutrient on the planet. Over 22,000 medical journal articles. Wow. And stressors. All right, we are in a society of overload. Especially the young people. We call omega-3s, Dr. Omega 3, the happy molecule. The happy hormone. The happy nutrient. Because if you go into the science of stress, and what it does to the brain, and I’m just gonna do it, take you on a one-minute little tour.
The brain is the greatest garden ever grown. And in that garden, you have a hundred billion plants, those plants are called nerve fibers. And those nerve fibers have three little sections. One is the cell, the big cell, like a big ball, okay? And the membrane of that cell is full of omega-3s. So, the better the nerve cell membrane, the smarter you are. And from that cell out comes a nerve fiber called an axon, and that’s you how think. These are electrical fibers. And just like the insulation on an electrical wire, the better the insulation on that nerve fiber, the faster you think.
What do you think contributes to the insulation? Omega-3s. And they’re fascinating because omega-3s are the favorite food of a cell in the brain called oligodendrocytes O-cells, we call them. And they’re the repellent repair cells. They smart wrap, like, myelin around the nerve fiber. Their favorite food’s omega-3s. And then at the end of the nerve fiber, the brain is only as smart as the connections we make. So, that one little nerve fiber could make connections to five or ten thousand others. And those connections are called synapses. High-energy places. The greatest nutrient for the synapses is omega-3s. So no matter where you go in the brain, to make a happier, healthier brain, omega-3s popped up as the smartest nutrient you can eat or take, right?
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: The brain, the eye, and the sperm are the three richest areas where DHA concentrates. And those are so important for survival. It’s a pretty important nutrient, I think. We really just wanted to have you on here to get these great stories, these great metaphors. Hopefully people who watch this and are clinicians can use some of these. And buy your books because they have all these really practical questions and really practical answers in them. So, really, thank you for putting that out there. is there anything else that you guys want to talk about?
Dr. Bill Harris: Well, Bill, I just wondered. Do you have a YouTube channel?
Dr. Bill Sears: You know, I don’t, Bill. I just talk. But, you know, I love to talk because one little thing I wanted to mention too is we’ve used, we’ve used OmegaQuant omega-3 testing on more than a hundred patients now.
Dr. Bill Harris: Okay.
Dr. Bill Sears: We began that back in 2013, I think it was. And what’s interesting, is I have a lot of vegan patients. You know, California, we kind of call if Veganville, right?
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: (Laughs)
Dr. Bill Sears: Now anyway. So, the only way I can convince them to take more omega-3s, even a vegan source of omega-3 the oil if they want, is I do the blood test. It comes back. I show them it’s low, like 4 or 5%.
Dr. Bill Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Bill Sears: I tell them you need to be 8% for the brain health you want, and I bet you’re gonna come back 4 or 5. Sure enough, comes back 4 or 5. They say, “Okay, Dr. Bill. You win your case.” And I give them how much they need to eat in, in seafood, if they’re not a vegan. I show them a picture of a wild salmon, and I show them the nutrient content of the brain, and I say, “This is a perfect match. Eat more fish. Go fish.” If they’re vegan, I say, “You need to take a minimum of a gram a day.” Now, if it’s 4%, I tell them to take at least 1,500 milligrams a day.
Dr. Bill Harris: Yeah.
Dr. Bill Sears: Sometimes 3,000, and I say, “And then we’re gonna re-check it in a month or two to see if you get up to 8.” And it’s like, “Oh, that makes sense. Thank you, Dr. Bill. I’m glad there’s a blood test that can monitor my progress.” Because Kristina, it’s not what we eat, it’s what we absorb.
Dr. Bill Harris: Right.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Exactly.
Dr. Bill Sears: We have high absorbers and low absorbers. My wife… I eat more fish than my wife does, and she has a higher omega-3 level. See? So, that’s why the measuring your Omega-3 Index is cutting-edge right now.
Dr. Bill Harris: Great.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: Well thank you.
Dr. Bill Harris: That’s great.
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: We do health consulting with some people through our website and every story is so interesting. And I can almost always find the reason why their number is where it is, there’s always a research answer to that. And there is a huge amount of individual variability, and absorption is a huge part of that.
Dr. Bill Sears: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson: But there’s such a wide range in what people, how people respond to it, to a regular dose. So it’s just great to be able to test people. And, and not all nutrients can respond like this. And you can measure it that simply. So, it’s really lucky that with omega-3s, we found a way to really track it. So, we’re excited about that. Yes. Well, this was wonderful. Thank you again, Dr. Sears, for coming on. We really appreciate it.