The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Optimal Health
by Dr. Jason Plotsky
The significance behind the Omega-3 fatty acids is that they are essential to our body. This means not only are they necessary, but our bodies cannot make them and they need to come from our diet. Well what happens when we don’t get enough of these essential fatty acids in the diet? That’s why there are 2000 peer-reviewed studies on omega-3’s and their role in health.
Without boring you with the biochemistry, we need to make a few distinctions with regards to “omega-3s.” There are short chain omega-3s such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) mostly found in flax seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. There are also longer chain omega-3s like EPA/DHA found in cold water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies. While there are a few good sources of omega-3s (mainly flax seeds/oil), a lot of the research is done studying the long chain omega-3’s EPA and DHA. While your body can convert a percentage of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid into EPA and DHA with various enzymes, we can consume EPA and DHA directly from the fish oils.
Part of the reason we need DHA in our bodies is because it composes part of the brain. At birth, your brain is composed of 60% fat and a total of 11% of the brain’s mass comes from DHA. So what happens when the mom does not get enough EPA/DHA in her diet? We know from research that DHA continues to accumulate in the brain and neural tissues until the age of two. This is part of the reason it is important for the mom to breast feed. Not only does the baby get the perfect nutritional composition and immune support, but they also get the necessary omega-3s for proper brain development. This also poses an interesting question about post-partum depression. They have studied the correlation between countries with low fish consumption and the incidence of post-partum depression and noted that it is significantly higher than those countries that have a higher consumption of fish.
Fish oil has also helped people with arthritis and inflammatory conditions. The long chain omega-3s like EPA have a role in blocking the inflammatory process. Too much of an omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid (AA) found in saturated fats will promote the inflammatory process. They estimate a typical North American diet has a ratio of 20:1 omega-6:omega-3 when it should be closer to 4:1 like our hunter/gatherer ancestors. This AA is also found in most vegetable oils and therefore is in a lot of processed foods. So there is another reason to avoid saturated fats and processed foods, you are essentially eating inflammation!
Well what about the risk of contamination from the heavy metals and other environmental pollutants? The reputable companies will put their oil through several processes to ensure the oil is free from contaminants. Ask your local health food store who these good companies are. This may be one case where it is better to take a supplement than eat the actual food. Most fish oils don’t taste anything like fish. In fact, they usually taste like lemon or orange. I usually recommend people take the oil as it is more cost effective, but there are capsules if you need them. Most of the studies done with regards to EPA/DHA would require us to take 1-2 teaspoons of fish oil/day. This would provide approximately 1.6-3.2 grams of the brain-protecting, heart- protecting, good stuff per day. This would take a lot of capsules, so read your labels. It has been shown that most humans will convert between 5-15% of alpha-linolenic acid (found in flax oil) to EPA/DHA. This would require a lot of flax oil so this is why I recommend the fish oil. Some people ask about the “blended” oils of omega-3,6,9 and these are great, but most people are so deficient in EPA/DHA that it won’t provide enough. Besides, if you consume olive oil, nuts and seeds in your diet you will get enough of the other oils.
I knew this was an important topic when the first two seminars I attended this year revolved around the topic of omega-3 fatty acids and their role in health. It was also interesting that both seminars were focused on the consumption of EPA/DHA and this made it clear to me why everybody needs to look at their current intake and supplement as necessary. (Well, only if you want to decrease your chances of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, etc). Who knew that 2 teaspoons a day could have such an impact on your health!
|Dr. Jason Plotsky|