Updated: Mar 3, 2019
If you could take one supplement that would make a difference in your life what would it be? It’s a difficult question because there are several that come to mind, especially for me. So in this week’s blog I ask, what makes omega-3 fats so special? And do you need them?
Researchers tell us that omega-3’s are an integral part of our cell membranes throughout the body. They affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They also provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation, so they obviously limit disease. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. 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.
Omega-3 fats are found in a key family of polyunsaturated fats (sometimes called PUFA’s or polyunsaturated fatty acids).There are three main omega-3s DHA’s, EPA’s and ALA’s:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which come mainly from fish, so they are sometimes called marine omega-3s.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the most common omega-3 fatty acid in most Western diets, 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.
So, omega-3 fats are acquired from both animal and plant sources, not just fish oil. Even so, there’s a lot of confusion when it comes to what type you should take to get the best omega-3 benefits, and what you should avoid to limit your exposure to omega 6 PUFA’s.
In short, marine animals such as fish and krill provide eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are mostly promoted for their protective effects on your heart. Flaxseed, chia, hemp, and a few other foods, on the other hand, offer alpha-linoleic acid (ALA).
To be healthy you would want to choose an animal-based variety – most of the health benefits linked to omega-3 fats are linked to the animal-based EPA and DHA, not the plant-based ALA.
Furthermore, ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in your body at a very low ratio. What this means is that even if you consume large amounts of ALA, your body can only convert a relatively small amount into EPA and DHA, and only when there are sufficient enzymes, so it’s not an efficient method for upping your EPA or DHA levels.
Remember, though, that plant-based omega-3 fats are NOT inherently harmful nor should they be avoided. Ideally, what you want to do is include an animal-based form in your diet. For instance, you can combine flax and hemp in your diet with animal-based omega-3s so that you also benefit from the fiber too.
Omega-3 ranks among the most important essential nutrients out there today. In 2008, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published three studies investigating the role of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids in elderly populations. They found that low concentrations of EPA and DHA resulted in an increased risk of death from all causes, as well as accelerated cognitive decline, increased risk of dementia, and early death. The studies also suggested that a higher intake of omega-3s may bring certain health benefits that short-term supplementation cannot give.
An Italian study of 11,324 heart attack survivors found that patients supplementing with fish oils markedly reduced their risk of another heart attack, stroke, or death. In another study American medical researchers reported that men who consumed fish once or more every week had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from a sudden cardiac event than do men who eat fish less than once a month.
Other studies have found that compared to a statin drugs, both fish oil and krill oil are more efficient at normalizing and regulating your cholesterol triglyceride levels, especially if you limit your fructose and processed carbohydrate intake at the same time. According to one study comparing the efficiency of krill and fish oils in reducing triglyceride levels, both oils notably reduced the enzyme activity that causes the liver to metabolize fat, but krill had a more pronounced effect, reducing liver triglycerides. Additionally, fasting triglyceride levels are a powerful indication of your ability to have healthy lipid profiles, which can be indicative of your heart health.
Studies have also shown that omega-3 fats (along with Co-Enzyme Q10) are anti-arrhythmic (preventing or counteracting cardiac arrhythmia), anti-thrombotic (prevents thrombosis or a blood clot within a blood vessel), anti-atherosclerotic (preventing fatty deposits and fibrosis of the inner layer of your arteries), and anti-inflammatory (counteracting inflammation – heat, pain, swelling, etc).
DHA in fish oil can affect your child's learning and behavior too. A study published in Plos One in June 2013 linked low levels of DHA with poorer reading, and memory and behavioral problems in healthy school-age children. In another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August 2013, children who consumed an omega-3 fat supplement as infants scored higher on rule learning, vocabulary, and intelligent testing at ages 3 to 5.
Previous research also found that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related behavior or learning disabilities are more likely to have low omega-3 fat levels too. Why? Well it seems that omega-3’s have a huge impact on your brain and how healthy it is – EPA and DHA keep the dopamine levels in your brain high, increase neuronal growth in the frontal cortex of your brain, and increase cerebral circulation. Hence less ADHD. The higher dopamine levels may help those with Parkinson’s too.
Indeed, omega 3 benefits cover many areas of health, from mental and behavioral health to preventing premature death from disease, including the following:
Coronary heart disease and stroke
Essential fatty acid deficiency in infancy (retinal and brain development)
Autoimmune disorders, e.g. lupus and nephropathy
Cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate
General brain function, including memory and Parkinson's disease
Most people fail to consume sufficient amounts of omega-3 fats, instead opting for more farm fed or grain fed meats and consuming more vegetable oils. This raises the omega 6 PUFA’s which creates an omega 3 deficiency. This offset ratio has also been associated with the sixth largest killer of Americans each year. The deficiency can cause or contribute to serious mental and physical health problems, and may be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year.
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. The studies outline how omega-3 blocks a pro-inflammatory enzyme called cyclooxygenase 2 (COX 2), which promotes breast cancer. The studies also show how omega 3 activates a type of receptor in cell membranes called peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR)-. PPAR- is not only a key regulator of lipid (fat) metabolism, but is also capable of shutting down proliferative activity in a variety of cells including breast cells.
The biggest evidence was that omega-3 fats increase the expression of two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair damage to DNA, thus helping to prevent cancer development.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fats have been found to influence these two genes – omega-3 tends to reduce cancer cell growth, while highly processed and toxic omega-6 has been found to cause INCREASED cancer growth. We find omega 6’s in two forms:
Shorter-chain: The shorter-chain form of omega-6 is linoleic acid (LA), which is the most prevalent PUFA in the Western diet. It is abundant in corn oils, sunflower oil, soybean oil and canola oil (all of the oils that we were told were healthy alternatives to saturated fat).
Longer-chain: The longer-chain forms of omega-6 is arachidonic acid (AA), which is an important constituent of cell membranes and a material your body uses to make substances that combat infection, regulate inflammation, promote blood clotting, and allow your cells to communicate. AA is found in liver, egg yolks, animal meats and seafood.
Considering that omega-3 deficiency is a common underlying factor for cancer and heart disease, it is no longer surprising for statistics to show that this deficiency may be responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths every year, although to be fair it’s far more than just that. A combination of poor lifestyle choices, lack of exercise and other factors such as smoking, pollution and stress likely have their say in the matter too.
Even though premature death and disease is attributed to so many factors, special attention should also be given to the fact that most women have major deficiencies of omega-3. A 1991 study at the Mayo Clinic focused on 19 "normal" pregnant women consuming "normal diets," and it showed that all were deficient in omega-3 fats.
Omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA’s are two types of fat that are essential for human health. However, the typical American consumes far too many omega-6 fats in their diet while consuming very low levels of omega-3.
The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 1:1. Today, however, our ratio averages from 20:1 to 50:1 – this spells serous dangers to your well-being! Omega-6 is primarily sourced from corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils. These are overabundant in the typical diet, which accounts for the excess omega-6 levels. However, we also find the ratio of grain fed beef to significantly affect our 3 to 6 levels too.
Fact is, omega-6 fats predominate the diet in the US, and this encourages the production of inflammation in your body. Many scientists believe that one reason there is a high incidence of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, and some cancer forms today is this profound omega-3-omega-6 imbalance, alsong with the high intakes of sugar and processed carbohydrates.
Signs that you have a ratio that is out of balance (too many omega-6’s) include:
Dry, flaky skin, alligator skin, or "chicken skin" on backs of arms
Dandruff or dry hair
Lowered immunity, frequent infections
Slower wound healing
Brittle or soft nails
Poor attention span
Hyperactivity, or irritability
Cracked skin on heels or fingertips
Frequent urination or excessive thirst
Certain clusters of symptoms may indicate other fatty acid deficiencies. For example, if you have a deficiency in arachidonic acid, the following symptoms are typical:
Dry, itchy, scaly skin
Dandruff and/or hair loss
Deficiencies in either arachidonic acid or DHA can result in poor growth, poor immune function, and inflammation. DHA deficiency has been linked to ADHD, depression and Alzheimer's disease, which is understandable as DHA is so critical to your neurological function. If your deficiency is in DHA, you are more likely to experience these symptoms:
Numbness or tingling
Weakness or pain
Poor visual acuity
So what options should you pursue in your diet?
In a perfect world, fish can provide you all the omega-3s you need. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the fish supply isnow heavily tainted with industrial toxins and pollutants, such as heavy metals, PCBs, and radioactive poisons thanks to Fukushima, and irresponsible toxic wastes disposals in our oceans which was (amazingly) legal until recently.
These toxins make eating fish no longer recommended. About the only exception are wild-caught Alaskan salmon and very small fish like sardines. The highest concentrations of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish like tuna, sea bass, and marlin. You may need to be especially cautious with canned tuna as well, as independent testing by the Mercury Policy Project found that the average mercury concentration in canned tuna is far over the "safe limits" of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It is also important that you avoid farmed salmon, which contains only about half of the omega-3 levels of wild salmon and may also harbor a range of contaminants, including environmental toxins, synthetic astaxanthin, and harmful metabolic byproducts and agrichemical residues of GMO corn- and soy-based feed that they are given.
For that reason a supplement may be the best opportunity of getting your omega 3’s. Of this there are three basic choices; Fish oil, cod liver oil and krill oil.
Fish oil is among the primary ways that people enhance their intake of omega-3 fats. High-quality fish oils can provide many health benefits. However, this oil is weak in antioxidants. This means that as you increase your omega-3 intake through fish oil consumption, you actually increase your need for added antioxidant protection too.
This happens because fish oil is perishable, and oxidation leads to the formation of harmful free radicals. Antioxidants are therefore necessary to ensure that the fish oil doesn't oxidize and become rancid in your body.
Cod Liver Oil
Is no longer recommended because of the potential for problematic ratios of excessive vitamin A and lower levels of vitamin D.
This is the preferred choice for animal-based omega-3 fats. Its antioxidant potency is 48 times higher than fish oil. It also contains astaxanthin, a marine-source flavonoid that creates a special bond with the EPA and DHA to allow direct metabolism of the antioxidants, making them more bioavailable and less perishable.
Krill are small, shrimp-like creatures that have been a cherished food source in Asia since the 19th century or earlier.
The harvesting of krill is a completely sustainable entity, as well as one of the most eco-friendly on the planet. Krill are the largest biomass in the world and can be found in all oceans. Antarctic krill, by far the most abundant, is under the management of an international organization of 25 countries known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Antarctic krill biomass is using strict international precautionary catch limit regulations, reviewed regularly to assure sustainability. No shortage of krill has ever been forecasted by CCAMLR.
A January 2011 study in Lipids found that the metabolic effects of fish oil and krill oil are "essential similar," but krill oil is as effective as fish oil despite containing less EPA and DHA. Another study suggests that krill oil is absorbed up to 10 to 15 times as well as fish oil. Its molecular composition is said to account for this better absorbability.
So krill oil has many benefits and at present is unaffected by toxins such as mercury and other substances known to harm man. It is also understood that some salmon oil is from farmed entities which do not possess the same nutritional influence that wild caught salmon has. In all the guidelines are still the same. Eat wild caught fish one to two times a week, avoid sugar, fake sugar and fructose, and avoid processed carbohydrates and exercise. Supplementation should be with wild caught marine fish tested for contaminants or krill.