What is Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids. They are necessary for human health, but the body can’t make them. You have to get them through food. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, other seafoods including algae and krill, some plants, and nut oils. Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development. They have also become popular because they may reduce the risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) at least 2 times a week.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function. In fact, infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.
It is important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. The typical American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, which many nutritionally-oriented physicians consider to be way too high on the omega-6 side. Indeed, studies suggest that higher dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratios appear to be associated with worsening inflammation over time and a higher risk of death among hemodialysis patients.
The Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, has a healthier balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Many studies have shown that people who follow this diet are less likely to develop heart disease. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, garlic, and moderate wine consumption.
Health benefits of uses of Omega-3 Fatty Acid
People who follow a Mediterranean-style diet tend to have higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which help promote heart health. Inuit Eskimos, who get high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from eating fatty fish, also tend to have increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides (fats in the blood). Several studies show that fish oil supplements reduce triglyceride levels. Walnuts, which are rich in alpha linolenic acid or ALA, which can convert to omega-3s in the body, have been reported to lower total cholesterol and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol levels.
High blood pressure
Several clinical studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. An analysis of 17 clinical studies using fish oil supplements found that taking 3 or more grams of fish oil daily may reduce blood pressure in people with untreated hypertension. Doses this high, however, should only be taken under the direction of a physician.
The role of omega-3 fatty acids in cardiovascular disease is well established. One of the best ways to help prevent heart disease is to eat a diet low in saturated fat, and to eat foods that are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3 fatty acids). Clinical evidence suggests that EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), the two omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help reduce risk factors for heart disease, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Fish oil has been shown to lower levels of triglycerides (fats in the blood), and to lower the risk of death, heart attack, stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms in people who have already had a heart attack. Fish oil also appears to help prevent and treat atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by slowing the development of plaque and blood clots, which can clog arteries.
Large population studies suggest that getting omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, primarily from fish, helps protect against stroke caused by plaque build up and blood clots in the arteries that lead to the brain. Eating at least 2 servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50%. However, high doses of fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding. People who eat more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day (equivalent to 3 servings of fish per day) may have higher risk for hemorrhagic stroke, a potentially fatal type of stroke in which an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures. Studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may have antioxidant properties that improve endothelial function and may contribute to heart benefits.
People with diabetes often have high triglyceride and low HDL levels. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can help lower triglycerides and apoproteins (markers of diabetes), and raise HDL. So eating foods or taking fish oil supplements may help people with diabetes. Another type of omega-3 fatty acid, ALA (from flaxseed, for example) may not have the same benefit as fish oil. Some people with diabetes can’t efficiently convert ALA to a form of omega-3 fatty acids that the body can use. Also, some people with type 2 diabetes may have slight increases in fasting blood sugar when taking fish oil. So talk to your doctor to see if fish oil is right for you.
Sources of Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats
Perhaps you are wondering what animal-based omega-3 options are available for you. Here are the primary ones:
•Fish – In a perfect world, fish can provide you all the omega-3s you need. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the fish supply is now heavily tainted with industrial toxins and pollutants, such as heavy metals which include mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium, PCBs, and radioactive poisons. 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 of 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. It 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 they are given.
•Fish oil – Fish oil is among the primary ways that people enhance their intake of omega-3 fats. High-quality fish oils can certainly 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.
This happens because fish oil is a bit perishable, and oxidation leads to the formation of harmful free radicals. Antioxidants and other protections are therefore necessary to ensure that the fish oil doesn’t oxidize and become rancid in your body.
•Cod liver oil – I no longer recommend this because of the potential for problematic ratios of vitamins A and D.
•Krill oil – This is my preferred choice for animal-based omega-3 fats. Krill oil not only contains the important and necessary DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids, but they are bound to phospholipids (see a discussion on this later). Additionally, krill oil’s 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.
Krill – or “okiami” as the Japanese call it – are small, shrimp-like creatures that are a cherished food source in Asia since the 19th century or earlier.