Decades before the science behind Omega 3 was understood, families were taking a spoonful of cod liver oil a day because they knew that it made a real difference to their wellbeing. The importance of these micronutrients is no old wives’ tale, extensive studies have shown that Omega 3 can have profound effects on your ability to learn, your physical and mental health and can also help protect you against life-threatening chronic diseases.
What is Omega 3?
Omega 3 is a part of a group of chemicals called polyunsaturated fatty acids. Unlike most of the other fats that we need to function, our bodies can’t make Omega 3, so it’s vital (1) that we get enough from our diets, or from supplements. The three types of these essential fatty acids involved in our body’s function are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). These omega 3 fatty acids have great health benefits, particularly EPA and DHA.
Why do I need them?
DHA and EPA form an important part of our cell membranes and help the cell receptors work properly. They are involved in regulating genetic function and also have a key role in the manufacture of hormones that control blood clotting, inflammation and the ability of our arteries to contract and relax.
So, it is easy to see that getting insufficient Omega 3 can have a dramatic impact on our body’s ability to perform optimally. These essential fatty acids have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, decrease blood pressure and may help control inflammatory conditions such as eczema, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease as well as protecting us from certain cancers.
However, all the Omega 3 fatty acids are not equal. The American Institute of Medicine says that “ALA is not known to have any specific functions other than to serve as a precursor for synthesis of EPA and DHA.” So some dietary ALA can be converted in the body to the crucial fatty EPA and DHA, but this ability is rather limited and inefficient, so it’s a good idea to ensure that your intake of EPA and DHA is adequate, and add in some ALA as a bonus!
Omega 3, how to boost your levels
Omega-3 can be found in both animal and plant sources, however it is the animal sources and particularly those of marine origin that contain the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) that are most beneficial for health.
Choose plenty of fish, and especially oily fish, to really boost your Omega-3. Mackerel, sardines, salmon, tuna and crab will all increase your intake whether they’re fresh, frozen or canned. To get enough omega it’s is important to eat fish or other seafood one to two times per week, particularly choosing the dark fattier meat that is richer in EPA and DHA. This is especially important for women who are trying to conceive and nursing mothers. But remember to choose sustainable sources, so that there is enough oily fish for future generations too.
Omega-3, predominantly ALA, can also be found in nuts and seeds such as walnuts and pumpkin seeds with flax, chia and hemp seeds being rich sources. It is also found in vegetable oils like rapeseed and flaxseed, in green leafy vegetables and in soya and all soya products.
Governments have become increasingly aware of the essential role omega 3 plays in our health and have driven the fortification of some foods, so that eggs, margarine, dairy produce and juices may all have had their EPA and DHA content boosted.
Is diet enough?
In an ideal world, eating a healthy balanced diet should ensure that the body gets all the micronutrients it needs to function well. But our modern lives are often far from ideal, we’re often too busy to plan and prepare meals and just grab food that is quick, easy and convenient. So, it can be tricky to get enough Omega 3 from diet alone, indeed studies have shown that very few adults are meeting the recommended levels. The good news is that high quality omega 3 fish oil supplementation is effective and readily available and you no longer have to grin and bear the fishy flavour of cod liver oil to get all the benefits of omega 3!
The British Dietetic Association recommends a daily supplement that is based on fish oil for maximum benefit when intake is insufficient.
The Genetic Difference
Genetic research has shown that our ability to absorb and use specific micronutrients may be written in our DNA. Some individuals have a gene that makes it more difficult to metabolise Omega 3, so that their function will be lower, even with a dietary intake that would be ample for other people making it harder to get all the omega 3 benefits. For these people boosting their intake with omega 3 fish oil supplements can help maintain their health.
Omega and Disease Prevention
Most people simply don’t get enough Omega 3 in their diets and scientists (2) believe that this could be causing as many as 84,000 premature deaths in the States every year, with many more across the world. In fact, DHA and EPA deficiency is believed to be the sixth biggest killer of Americans. In the western world with plentiful food it is sad to see that we are still nutritionally deficient. However, by adjusting our diets and taking supplements when needed, we can improve our health and prevent disease.
It all started with the Inuit Indians in Greenland. Scientists observed that these Eskimos had significantly lower levels of cardiovascular disease, with around one tenth the incidence of heart disease seen in many western countries. Similar findings were found in Japan. What was it in these cultures that was protecting them against a disease that was such a big killer elsewhere?
The answer was in their diets. They had dramatically higher levels of Omega 3 than those in other countries because of the quantities of oily fish they consumed.
The fats were shown to stabilise the heart’s beat and prevent dangerous arrhythmias. They also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve the function of blood vessels and when taken in higher quantities they can lower triglycerides more efficiently than statins as well as decreasing levels of inflammation. So, omega-3 can benefit heart health in a number of ways, in fact in a study, men who consumed fish once or more a week, had a fifty percent lower risk of dying from a sudden cardiac event.
But it’s not too late to make a difference if you already have heart disease, or even if you have suffered a heart attack. The Italian GISSI trial found that heart attack survivors who subsequently took fish oil supplements had a much lower risk of another heart attack, stroke, or death.
Omega and inflammation
Inflammation is one the biggest threats to our bodies. Diseases including arthritis, Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, eczema, psoriasis, lupus and other autoimmune conditions, are all characterized by high levels of inflammation. A number of clinical trials (3) have shown that supplementing with fish oils can make a significant difference, decreasing disease activity and reducing the need for medication.
This is exciting news in itself-however it becomes even more important when you consider that many other chronic diseases including major depression, cancer and dementia as well as the ageing process itself, are associated with inflammation. It will be interesting to see what further research reveals about the potential for omega 3.
Omega 3 for your brain
EPA and DHA omega 3 fatty acids can increase the cerebral blood flow and also keep the levels of dopamine in the brain high. This can have positive effects on both mood and cognitive function.
Low omega-3 has been linked to suicide and with symptoms of depression in the elderly. Increasing fish intake or introducing supplemention can reverse this trend and help prevent (4) and combat depression.
There is also early evidence (5) that regular consumption of fish and omega-3 may help reduce dementia risk. More research is needed but the theory makes some sense. Omega 3 fatty acids are broken down into chemicals, which have important roles in the brain, reducing the immune response and protecting cells from damage. This combination is thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, so Omega 3 could well prove to be protective.
Omega and cancer
There have been many studies suggesting that omega 3 fish oil may help protect against some forms of cancer. Research (6) showed that those men whose diets are rich in EPA and DHA (mainly from fish and seafood) are less likely to develop advanced prostate cancer. Also higher intakes of EPA and DHA from dietary sources were reported (7) to be associated with a 25% reduction in breast cancer recurrence as well as improved overall mortality. A recent study showed improved results in patients with certain skin cancers when their omega input was higher. This may be due to a combination of the anti-inflammatory effects of the fats and their potential ability to inhibit tumour growth.
However, there can be too much of a good thing, very high doses of omega 3 were thought to be associated with higher levels of prostate cancer in one early trial, more research is ongoing, but it may be wise not to overdose.
Omega 3 and children
From their time in your womb to the second year of life and beyond, a child is going through an extraordinary level of growth and change. The rapidly developing brain, eyes and nervous system need a steady supply of Omega 3 to support this vital process.
In the womb and while they are being breastfed they will depend on you to provide all the Omega 3 their evolving body needs. Later they will rely on their own diet to get the nutrition they need.
However research shows that most women in the west are deficient in omega-3 and the dangers of mercury contamination in fish can make pregnant and nursing mothers understandably worried about upping their intake and endangering their child. Omega 3 fish oil supplements can be a simple and safe way of boosting levels and the best quality ones will have all the mercury removed, however it is wise to avoid fish liver oils, these contain Vitamin A, which has been shown to cause damage to the unborn child.
Learning and Development
Later in life Omega 3 continues to have an impact, with significant effects on a child’s learning and behavior. Children with learning problems and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were shown in studies to be more likely to have lower levels of Omega 3 and a study in 2013 (8) linked decreased DHA with poorer reading, as well as memory and behavioral problems in healthy school-age children.
However, the great news is that we may be able to do something about this deficit. A study (9) published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that infants who were given a Omega-3 supplement as infants performed better when tested on intelligence, rule learning and vocabulary at ages 3 to 5. Maybe we really can feed their brains.
When choosing an omega 3 fish oil supplement for your little one, make sure they’re child-sized and free from any smells so that they’ll swallow it safely, without a fight.
Omega-3 and diabetes
Resistance to the effects of insulin is one of the biggest problems in health today. It is believed to be a key cause of diabetes, high blood fat levels and high blood pressure. There is increasing evidence (10) suggesting that dietary omega-3 may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes. Higher levels, either in the diet or measured in the blood stream have been shown to make a real difference, and early studies have also shown that insulin resistance may be reversed by supplementation with fish oil. So, as well as avoiding obesity and exercising, we should be increasing our intake of oily fish and boosting with a supplement.
Omega 3 and exercise
Exercising hard is tough and we all get fatigued and suffer muscle cramps every now and again. Cramping happens when there is too little oxygen flowing to the muscles, they have to work anaerobically and lactic acid builds up, leading to pain and poorer performance. By improving the way the blood vessels contract and relax, omega 3 can increase the blood flow to the muscles so that they get the oxygen they need to function and any waste products are whisked right away, so you can perform to the best of your ability.
Omega 3 has also been shown to help increase muscle mass. It does this by improving insulin sensitivity and increasing blood flow so more nutrients can reach the muscle cells, and also by switching on the body’s muscle building pathway known as mTor.
The right supplement
Just spotting the words omega-3 on a supplement label may not be enough to get you the supplementation you need. Research (11) has emphasised that it is essential to get the right types of Omega 3, at the right levels.
Check to see that the supplement is predominantly EPA and DHA. If the omega-3 is mostly from ALA, then there will be a reduced benefit because the body is only able to convert a small amount into the protective fatty acids. We also recommend omega 3 fish oil supplements in their natural triglyceride form. Around 90% of the omega 3’s on the market are in the artificial ethyl ester form. These ethyl esters are cheaper to produce which is why most companies use them, but studies have shown they are between 70% and 400% less well absorbed and less effective when they are in the body.
Getting the balance right
We don’t just have omega 3 fats in our diet, we also have another type called omega 6 and the correct balance of these could be key to our wellbeing. The perfect ratio is 1:1. But our modern diet contains huge amounts of omega 6; it is found in corn, soy, canola and sunflower oils so the scales are heavily tipped in omega 6’s direction with ratios of up to 50:1 common. Many scientists believe that this imbalance is dangerous for our health; increasing inflammation and predisposing towards heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, premature aging, and some cancers. By increasing omega 3 we can help counteract the damaging effects of omega 6.
The Omega 3 fish oil benefits are huge and it is one of the absolutely essential nutrients. By improving our diets and supplementing our intake we can help maintain the health of our neurological and cardiovascular systems, as well as protecting ourselves against inflammation and chronic disease. As Hippocrates said, let food be thy medicine.
- Holman RT, The slow discovery of the importance of omega 3 essential fatty acids in human health., J Nutr. 1998 Feb;128(2 Suppl):427S-433S
- Singh GM, Danaei G, Farzadfar F, Stevens GA, Woodward M, Wormser D, et al. (2013) The Age-Specific Quantitative Effects of Metabolic Risk Factors on Cardiovascular Diseases and Diabetes: A Pooled Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(7): e65174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065174
- Simopoulos AP, Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases,J Am Coll Nutr. 2002 Dec;21(6):495-505.
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- Science behind the headlines: How to reduce your risk and other popular topics, Alzheimer’s Society
- Harvard School of Public Health, Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution.
- Carol J Fabian,Bruce F Kimler, and Stephen D Hursting, Omega-3 fatty acids for breast cancer prevention and survivorship, Breast Cancer Res. 2015; 17(1): 62. Published online 2015 May 4.
- Mats Johnson, Sven Östlund, Gunnar Fransson, Björn Kadesjö, Christopher Gillberg,Omega-3/Omega-6 Fatty Acids for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial in Children and Adolescents, Journal of Attention Disorders March 2009 vol. 12 no. 5 394-401.
- John Colombo, Susan E Carlson, Carol L Cheatham, D Jill Shaddy, Elizabeth H Kerling, Jocelynn M Thodosoff, Kathleen M Gustafson, and Caitlin Brez, Long-term effects of LCPUFA supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes, Am J Clin Nutr August 2013, vol. 98 no. 2 403-412.
- Benjamin B. Albert, José G. B. Derraik, Christine M. Brennan, Janene B. Biggs, Greg C. Smith, Manohar L. Garg, David Cameron-Smith, Paul L. Hofman & Wayne S. Cutfield. Higher omega-3 index is associated with increased insulin sensitivity and more favourable metabolic profile in middle-aged overweight men. Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 6697 (2014)
- Chenchen Wang, William S Harris, Mei Chung, Alice H Lichtenstein, Ethan M Balk, Bruce Kupelnick, Harmon S Jordan, and Joseph Lau, n−3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not α-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review, Am J Clin Nutr July 2006, vol. 84 no. 1 5-17