Why Everyone Needs Omega-3 - Including You!
WHAT IS OMEGA-3?
The human body is a fascinating manufacturing plant. It has the capability to convert the nutrients it receives from food into life sustaining chemical compounds for energy production and maintenance of over 30 trillion cells!
Your body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or nutrients. But not so for omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered essential fats. Foods high in omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts, flax seeds, and leafy vegetables.
Why are omega-3 fats important? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
There are three main omega-3s:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is found mainly from fish;
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) also comes from fish; and
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the most common omega-3 fatty acid is found in vegetable oils and nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, and some animal fat, especially in grass-fed animals. The human body generally uses ALA for energy, and conversion into EPA and DHA is very limited.
The strongest evidence for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease. These fats appear to help the heart beat at a steady clip and not veer into a dangerous or potentially fatal erratic rhythm. Such arrhythmias cause most of the 500,000+ cardiac deaths that occur each year in the United States. Omega-3 fats also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. Several studies suggest omega-3 fatty acids may help protect adult eyes from macular degeneration and dry eye syndrome. Essential fatty acids also may help proper drainage of intraocular fluid from the eye, decreasing the risk of high eye pressure and glaucoma.
Americans take in far more of another essential fat — omega-6 fats — than they do omega-3 fats. An article published by The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health (NCBI, PMID: 12442909) stated that, “Western diets are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, and have excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared with the diet [of ancient cultures]. Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, as is found in today's Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects. In the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4 to 1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality. A ratio of 2.5 to 1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer. The lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in women with breast cancer was associated with decreased risk. A ratio of 2-3 to 1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and a ratio of 5 to 1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.
These studies indicate that the optimal ratio may vary with the disease under consideration. Therefore, it is quite possible that the therapeutic dose of omega-3 fatty acids will depend on the degree of severity of disease resulting from the genetic predisposition. A lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is more desirable in reducing the risk of many of the chronic diseases of high prevalence in Western societies…”
To reduce your intake of omega-6s, avoid fried and highly processed foods. Many cooking oils, including sunflower oil and corn oil, are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. High cooking temperatures also create harmful trans-fatty acids, or "trans-fats."
Trans-fats interfere with the body's absorption of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and may contribute to a number of serious diseases, including cancer, heart disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, arthritis and immune system disorders.
The human body can’t produce the essential fats needed to create these important omega-3 fatty acids on its own, which is why we must rely on outside sources like cold-water fish and flaxseed to get the EPA and DHA we need for optimal cellular health and functioning.
OMEGA-3 SOURCE MATTERS
Omega-3 fatty acids come from two main sources: marine sources like cold-water fish and algae, and plant-based sources like flax and green vegetables. People mistakenly think these two sources are equally beneficial, but marine sources are actually far superior. Here’s why.
Flax contains essential fatty acid ALA, which can be converted to the two primary fats shown to benefit health, EPA and DHA. However, even under optimal lifestyle and health conditions, only about 5% of ALA converts to EPA, and just 1% converts to DHA. Put in simpler terms, consuming a 10-ounce bag of flax-meal would provide the equivalent amount of EPA+DHA found in a single serving of high-quality fish oil. Due to the body’s limited ability to convert EPA and DHA from ALA, it is generally recommended that omega-3s be obtained directly from cold-water fish or fish oil.
When considering the proper fish oil as your source of omega-3 fatty acids, you should take into account the following factors:
Freshness – which ensures product integrity and biological efficacy (is the manufacturing process oxygen-free)
Purity level – is each batch 3rd party tested for environmental toxins, including heavy metals
Taste – does it have a fishy smell, taste, or after taste (that is your senses telling you that the oil is rancid)
Sustainability – are the fish wild-caught from clean waters
Manufacturing – are chemicals or excessive heat used to process the oil
True triglyceride form – which provides up to 70% greater absorption than ethyl esters.
So, unless your diet routinely consists of salmon, cod, mackerel, sardines, caviar, etc., then you, along with the vast majority of Americans, are likely deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. I urge you to consider supplementing with a high-quality omega-3 fish oil. Oh, and by the way, your pets should be on omega-3 as well.
Craig Tyndall is father of 9 and grandfather to 5. He holds a BS degree in Environmental Science and minor in Chemistry. He is also co-founder and owner of Old Paths Natural Market in Central, LA.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.