Omega-3 fatty acids – masters at keeping you healthy

Omega-3 fatty acids are a must in everyone’s diet but many of us are failing to achieve the amounts required for good health.  When we fall short of obtaining what we need, we may be setting ourselves up for developing chronic health conditions that could be avoided with an adequate intake.

Understanding what is a fatty acid

When we eat foods containing fat, our digestive system breaks down fats into fatty acids which are then absorbed into the bloodstream.  Fatty acids are essentially the building blocks of fat in our bodies and also in food.  The majority of fatty acids our body can make but there are two fatty acids our bodies cannot make on its own – Linoleic acid or omega-6 fatty acids and Alpha-linolenic acid or omega-3 fatty acids.  This article focuses on omega-3 fatty acids and why they are a critical component of keeping us healthy.

What is an omega-3 fatty acid?

Omege-3 fatty acids are referred to as essential fatty acids meaning our body needs them but cannot make them on its own and can only be obtained from foods we eat.  By making wise food choices, they positively impact our health.  Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), research has shown omega-3 fatty acids ability to reduce inflammation possibly lowering the risk of chronic diseases. 

When you compare our food intake of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, the typical American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s.  We need omega-6 fatty acids but we are consuming much more than necessary and this is creating an imbalance that appears to be associated with increasing inflammation leading to an increased risk of chronic diseases.  One main source of omega-6 fatty acids is corn oil found abundantly within the American food supply.

Most of us have an adequate intake of omega-6 fatty acids but our intake of omega-3 fatty acids is lacking, setting many of us up for numerous health problems.

Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids come in three varieties:

1.      Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – Found in cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna and herring.   

2.      Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – EPA’s are also found in cold water fish.   

3.      Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – Found in flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil,  purslane, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.   

Our intake of ALA is usually adequate for most of us.  The problem lies in the fact we are disappointingly low in both EPA and DHA.   

How do omega-3 fatty acids affect our health?

There are many ways omega-3 fatty impact our health.  Let’s take a look:

·         Heart disease – It is well-established omega-3’s role in preventing heart disease.  Those native to Alaska, Greenland and Canada, even though eating a diet high in fat, have low rates of death from heart disease.  The reason?  They consume a lot of fish that contain EPA and DHA in the fish oils.  EPA and DHA appear to prevent blood clot formation by slowing the development of plaque (hardening of the arteries), lower blood pressure and protect against irregular heartbeats.  In addition they lower triglycerides (fats in the blood) reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.   

It is recommended to eat at least 2 servings of fish per week to help reduce the risk of a stroke by as much as 50%.   

·         Diabetes – Those with diabetes are already at an increased risk for heart disease and often have higher triglyceride and low HDL (good cholesterol) levels.  By consuming more fish and obtaining the oils rich in EPA and DHA, this can help lower triglycerides and raise HDL levels. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help reduce hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance. 

·         Rheumatoid arthritis – This autoimmune disease causing inflammation and pain in joints along with morning stiffness, may have symptoms reduced by the intake of fish oils.  Some studies have shown taking fish oil supplements may bring relief from the symptoms but they not appear to slow the progression of RA.   

·         Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease – Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the severity of symptoms. 

·         Osteoporosis – There have been a few studies showing omega-3 fatty acids may increase levels of calcium thus improving bone strength.    

·         Prostate Cancer – Men who consume more omega-3 fatty acids either from fish or fish oil may have a reduced risk of developing prostate cancer based on population studies. 

·         Growth and development – For growing babies, EPA and DHA are critical in the neurodevelopment of the brain and in the retina of the eye where vision function is affected. 

·         Mental function  - Studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids as an effective means of reducing the severity of several mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and bipolar disorder.  It has also shown improvement in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.   

Best way to get in omega-3 fatty acids 

The optimal method of achieving adequate omega-3 fatty acids is to eat two or more servings of fatty cold water fish each week.  A serving size is 3.5 ounces cooked or about ¾ cup of flaked fish. 

 Some fish are not as heart healthy like cold water fish are – such as tilapia or catfish which tend to contain higher levels of unhealthy fatty acids.  How you prepare fish makes a difference too – broiling or baking fish is a healthier option than deep-frying.  

Some fish may have potential harmful contaminants such as heavy metals like mercury.  Know the source of where your fish come from and avoid those with possible contaminants. 

Fish oil supplements 

If you don’t like fish, fish oil supplements are another option but only with the advice of your physician.  Dosing for fish oil supplements should be based on the amount of EPA and DHA and not on the total amount of fish oil.  The amounts of EPA and DHA in supplements can vary.  Common amounts in fish oil supplements for EPA is 0.18 grams (180 mg) and for DHA is 0.12 grams (120 mg).  Those taking more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from supplements should do so only under the supervision of a physician.   

There are some precautions on using fish oil supplements: 

·         Children, pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take them without the advice of their physician as they can have potent effects. 

·         People taking blood thinning medications such as warfarin (Coumadin), Plavix, or aspirin should consult with their physician first.  High doses of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding. 

·         People with diabetes may experience increases in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements.   

·         Buy fish oil supplements from reputable sources that test for mercury and other pesticide residue.