Omega 3’s are essential fatty acids (EFA) meaning they are necessary components of our diet, as the body does not synthesize them. The term essential refers to the body’s requirement of them for biological processes and not just for fuel. Almost all EFA’s are grouped under a larger classification of polyunsaturated fats. Unfortunately many of us fall far short of this “essential” component on a daily basis. Similar to how vitamins and minerals are needed for the human body to function, so are EFA’s.
Actually Omega 3’s are really like vitamins (originally called vitamin F),(i) but unfortunately the vast majority of Americans are deficient. The incredible health benefits of Omega-3 fats have been making headlines over the last several years. Omega 3s have been linked to reducing cardiovascular risk, improving cognitive brain function, decreasing inflammatory symptoms associated with autoimmune disorders, anticancer benefits, and reducing depression.
Both Omega 3 and Omega 6 are EFAs and are grouped under a larger classification of polyunsaturated fats. Unlike Omega 3, Omega 6 EFAs are readily found in our diet through corn and soybean oils, but may trigger a potential rise in health complications, including inflammation, blood clots and insulin resistance. As inflammation increases, it can generate fat cells and weight gain. Because the Standard American Diet (SAD) is so saturated in Omega 6 fatty acids, it may be one of the reasons obesity rates are rising.
Accordingly, it is recommended that we incorporate a better balance between Omega 3 and Omega 6 with a suggested 1 to 3 ratio. The SAD reflects current consumption closer to 1 to 30.
ALA vs. EPA and DHA
The Omega 3 family of fatty acids is found in both vegetable and fish sources. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in sources such as flax, walnuts, hemp, and canola oil as well as dark leafy green vegetables. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in animal dietary sources such as fish oil and sea life, including algae and krill. While both vegetarian and animal sources are anti-inflammatory, the clinical benefits of Omega 3 EFA from EPA and DHA are found to be more potent and most beneficial.
Overall, Omega 3’s have broad anti-inflammatory benefits, yet the clinical evidence and benefits of EPA and DHA Omega 3 fatty acids is strongest and most widely studied in cardiovascular health. Studies show Omega 3 benefits include reductions in total cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, plus an increase in HDL (good cholesterol).(ii), (iii), (iv). Omega 3’s from fish oil also appear to aid in lowering blood pressure, and the prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by slowing the development of plaque and blood clots that create blockage.
Fish oil has also been shown to increase the effectiveness of insulin and decrease insulin resistance, and may help prevent obesity by lowering hormones associated with obesity.
Powerful and widespread evidence also exists regarding the benefits of EPA and DHA on the brain. Healthy pregnancies and fetal cognitive brain development is associated with adequate maternal levels of DHA in the diet. Research in the areas of childhood to adult neuropsychiatric, psychological, and learning disorders, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, autism, and Alzheimer’s, all have documented the benefits of including dietary sources of EPA and DHA.(v)
Additional research also supports possible benefits for those diagnosed with auto- immune disorders, such as rheumatology, where inflammation is a common theme. (vi) Research similarly supports benefits for those who suffer from inflammatory disorders of the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., IBD, IBS, Crohn’s disease) (vii), for disorders of the eyes,(viii) and for the prevention of many cancers.(ix)
Diet and Supplementation:
While plant sources provide ALA Omega 3, the body’s ability to successfully convert it to the clinically proven benefits of EPA and DHA is an ongoing debate.
Eating enough fish to support a balanced ratio carries with it the concern about consuming toxins, such as harmful polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and methyl mercury. Deep cold water fish offers the highest amounts of EPA and DHA, yet one would have to have a minimum daily 3oz serving in order to provide levels of EPA and DHA found in high quality supplements.
Supplementation of Omega 3 is easy, affordable and relatively low risk. There are, however, a couple of considerations before taking fish oil, such as an allergy to fish or vegetarian limitations. Consult your physician if you are taking blood thinners.(x)
Aside from these scenarios, most everyone can benefit from supplementing their diet with Omega 3 supplements. It is not harmful to our organs, there are limited drug-to-drug interactions, and toxicity from contaminants, mercury or PCB’s is unlikely when good quality supplements are used.
(i) Tribole, Evelyn, MS RD The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet, New York McGraw Hill 2007
(ii) Balk EM, Lichtenstein AH, Chung M et al. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on serum markers of cardiovascular disease risk: A systematic review. Atherosclerosis. 2006 Nov;189(1):19-30.
(iii) Galli C, Risé P. Fish consumption, omega 3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. The science and the clinical trials. Nutr Health. 2009;20(1):11-20. Review.
(iv) Kelley DS, Siegel D, Fedor DM, Adkins Y, Mackey BE. DHA supplementation decreases serum C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation in hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr. 2009 Mar;139(3):495-501.
(v) Frangou S, Lewis M, McCrone P et al. Efficacy of ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid in bipolar depression: randomised double-blind placebo-controlled study. Br J Psychiatry. 2006;188:46-50
(vi) Berbert AA, Kondo CR, Almendra CL et al. Supplementation of fish oil and olive oil in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Nutrition. 2005;21:131-6.
(vii) Belluzzi A, Boschi S, Brignola C, Munarini A, Cariani C, Miglio F. Polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory bowel disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71(suppl):339S-342S.
(viii) Cho E, Hung S, Willet WC, Spiegelman D, Rimm EB, Seddon JM, et al. Prospective study of dietary fat and the risk of age-related macular degeneration. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001;73(2):209-218.
(ix) Daniel CR, McCullough ML, Patel RC, Jacobs EJ, Flanders WD, Thun MJ, Calle EE. Dietary intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and risk of colorectal cancer in a prospective cohort of U.S. men and women. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009 Feb;18(2):516-25.
(x) Buckley MS, Goff AD, Knapp WE, et al. Fish oil interaction with warfarin. Ann Pharmacother. 2004;38:50-2.
Originally written for Lifetime Fitness Omega-3 is Essential to Your Diet