Omega 3 is one of the two essential fatty acids (EFAs) required by the body from dietary sources. We can’t manufacture EFAs ourselves, so they are an essential part of our dietary intake. Omega 3 is also known as linolenic acid. It is found in fish oils (mostly long chain fatty acids) and plant sources (short chain fatty acids). Organic eggs, poultry and pasture-fed beef contain smaller amounts.
The second essential fatty acid we need is Omega 6, or linoleic acid. We need Omega 6 and Omega 3 in a ratio of no more than 4-to-1, with 1-to-1 being the optimal ratio for our bodies to function well, as provided in natural balance by our ancestors’ diet. Inuit people traditionally eating a high proportion of seafood maintained good health with a ratio of 1-to-4.
Omega 3 fish oils contain the active fatty acid nutrients docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Plants provide Omega 3 in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is converted in our bodies to EPA and DHA.
What are the health benefits of Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids?
Clinical research published by University of California, Berkeley shows the Omega 3 nutrients EPA and DHA enhance quality of life and lower the risk of premature death.
Omega 3 is required at every stage of life from conception onwards, to enable us to achieve our learning potential and optimise behavioural development. Pre- and post-natal brain development requires DHA, whereas behaviour and mood are moderated by EPA.
Healthy eyesight function relies on the DHAs in Omega 3 for retinal development, and insufficient Omega 3 intake during pregnancy risks visual and nerve problems developing in the infant.
Both EPA and DHA have an important role in protection of nerve cell function and conduction of electrical signals. Conditions improved with Omega 3 supplementation in clinical trials include:
- poor coordination
- a range of affective disorders including depression and bipolar disorder
- Alzheimer’s disease – may protect against onset of the condition and in early stage the rate of decline slows
Cognitive function improves with supplementation. Sharper memory, clearer thinking and mental agility are all functions of optimal Omega 3 intake.
Optimal skin health is only possible when these important fish oil nutrients are adequately maintained. Hair condition, dandruff, nail health and wound healing are all improved by EFAs.
For healthy blood circulation and heart function research shows that Omega 3 fish oils help regulate heartbeat and cholesterol levels, relax blood vessels, and moderate blood pressure.
Omega 3 EPAs are necessary for the formation of prostaglandins, essential for immune function, and to regulate inflammatory responses involved in allergic reactions.
Getting the balance right
Historically the human diet contained a balanced proportion of Omega 6 to Omega 3 EFAs. Recent research indicates a greater risk of clinical depression when your EFAs are out of balance. Too great a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 can block the important conversion of ALAs to DHAs in the body. Excess dietary Omega 6s create a pro-inflammatory environment, in the absence of adequate Omega 3s which are the anti-inflammatory EFAs. Typically, people today eat a western diet containing far more Omega 6 than Omega 3, sometimes 20 to 30 times more, resulting in ratios that have blown out to between 15:1 and 25:1 (USA figures). Remember the optimal balanced ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 for a healthy functioning body is between 4:1 and 1:4.
For a healthy balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 EFAs through daily food intake, either the Mediterranean or Paleo diets are recommended, being rich in Omega 3 through both fish and plant sources.
The range of diseases indicated with a low Omega 3 ratio include inflammatory and auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, coronary heart disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis psoriasis, migraine, multiple sclerosis and lupus erythematosis. The anti-inflammatory properties of Omega 3 as revealed in various studies indicate a role in prevention of these diseases and also migraines, cancer, major depression and the aging process.
Other studies have shown that in joint disease such as osteo arthritis, treatment with a combination of Omega 3 and glucosamine sulphate gives better results than with glucosamine alone.
Sources of Omega 3
Omega-3 fatty acids are sourced from both fish and plants. Fish sources include anchovy, salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, halibut, cod liver and other seafood including NZ green lipped mussel, algae and krill, all of which supply long chain fatty acids. Plant sources include seeds, nuts, beans and wholegrains.
Omega 3 Fish Oil vs plant based Omega 3
In recent studies evidence has emerged that the plant based sources of Omega 3 may be as important as fish oils in maintaining healthy heart function. This is because plant-derived Omega 3s contain high amounts of vitamin E which keep them fresh for longer in the body. Fish oil Omega 3s contain much lower levels of protective Vitamin E, and are therefore not protected from quickly turning rancid. So your body stores far more short chain omega 3s from plants in your body fat than it does the long chain omega 3s from fish oil. While research suggests the body converts only a small percentage of the plant based short chain omega 3s to the EPAs and DHAs needed, their relative stability may increase their efficacy in the body over time.
Why take Omega 3 Fish Oil supplements?
Because the long chain fatty acids derived from fish oil are inherently unstable, we need to provide our bodies with a fresh supply on a regular basis. Supplementation of good quality Omega 3 fish oils ensures an ongoing source of these important nutrients for optimum health.
Fish oils have been the subject of thousands of studies that support this source of Omega 3 fatty acids as vital to healthy body function.
Avoiding pollutants & supporting sustainability of fish resources
Mercury and other pollutants (including solvents, pesticides, PCBs, lead, chromium, cadmium, strontium, and arsenic) discharged into our oceans from industrial waste are contaminating fish populations at an alarming rate. High levels of these toxins are not present in the tissues of smaller fish such as sardines, anchovies, herring or the tiny organism krill. NZ Hoki and South Pacific tuna caught in our unpolluted southern oceans are mercury free and naturally high in DHAs and EPAs. Look for products made from contaminant-free fish sources.
Many sources of fish oil supplements are harvested using unsustainable fishing practices that either endanger the resource or impact negatively on other species in the food chain and surrounding ecosystem. Look for companies that use raw materials from sustainable sources in their products, harvested and prepared in ways that preserve the quality of the nutrients.
by Carolyn Simon, Naturopath
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