Oh, me! Oh, my! Omega!!!
- What’s So Important About Fish?
- What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
- Why Do We Need Them?
- How Do You Choose An Omega-3 Supplement?
Look Inside And Find Out How Sufficient Omega-3 Fish Oil Can Protect Your Health….
Topic: Omega 3 Oils
A new study from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found omega-3 deficient diets cause up to 96,000 preventable deaths annually in the US.
Of the 12 risk factors examined in the study, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency ranked as the sixth highest killer of Americans.
The numbers are shocking given that these deaths are easily preventable with the daily intake of a relatively inexpensive fish oil supplement.
Oh, me! Oh, my! Omega!!!
Improved heart health… Better blood profiles… Anti-inflammatory action… Enhanced immunity… Mood elevation… Arthritis relief… Promotion of brain and vision development in infants and children…
These are some of the strongest findings among the more than 20,000 articles reporting the effects of omega-3 oils.
Further findings suggest the usefulness of omega-3 with ADHD, menstrual pain, and more.
Fats of Life
Fish contains a special kind of fat. Cold water fish, especially salmon, are a very rich source of this fat, called omega-3.
In this issue of Nutrition News, we discuss why this fat is essential to our health, the difference between plant-based omega-3 and that from fish, and how much omega-3 to get in your diet every day.
Lastly, we explain why getting sufficient omega-3 as EPA/DHA can be a matter of life or death.
Like protein and carbohydrate, fat is an essential nutrient. The body stores fat as an energy source, as insulation to maintain 98.6, and as a cushion for our tissues and organs.
Any fat eaten can fulfill these tasks. However, our intake of “good” fats and “bad” fats helps determine how healthy we are.
All fat consists of molecules called fatty acids. Some fatty acids are required for health, but cannot be manufactured by our bodies. These are called essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Because our bodies can’t make these from any fat we eat, we must include them either by eating foods containing them or by taking supplements.
The kinds of fatty acid we ingest directly affects how well our cells function.
In this issue, we are interested in two functions of EFAs: 1) as basic elements of the cell membrane, and 2) as components for hormone-like substances called eicosanoids.
In the first place, EFAs protect the integrity of the membrane, keeping it soft and permeable. Somewhat like our skin, the membrane surrounds the cell, holding the cell parts and nutrients.
It also helps form a barrier against foreign molecules, viruses, bacteria, yeasts, and fungi.
Secondly, EFAs are used to make special hormone-like substances called eicosanoids.
Unlike hormones, which travel in the blood, eicosanoids remain in the cells. There, they regulate secretions of digestive juices and hormones, plus they influence cell division and growth.
Our interest is in the anti-inflammatory function of omega-3 fatty acids. These protect the body from low grade inflammation and the progressive diseases this can cause.
Formally, only two fatty acids are recognized as essential: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA).
ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid and LA, omega-6. Omega-3 is far more rare in nature and in our diets.
Sources include fish and other wild game, flaxseed, perilla seed, canola, and walnut oils.
On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids occur in many popular oils, particularly corn and soybean oils.1
Through digestion, the body breaks down both omega-3 and omega-6 oils, reforming them to meet its needs.
To be of use, ALA (omega-3) must be transformed into the fatty acids EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid).
Unfortunately, the conversion of vegetable sources of omega-3 (such as flaxseed oil) into EPA and DHA is so inefficient that estimates are that only 1-10% becomes EPA, the precursor for DHA. We get the calories but not the EPA and DHA fatty acids we need.
On the other hand, the omega-3s in fish oil naturally contain EPA and DHA in large amounts. This gives the body almost immediate access to them.
This is the reason that ingesting fish and high quality fish oil supplements is so important. It is also the reason we are beginning to see EPA and DHA defined as essential fatty acids.
Meanwhile, our intake of omega-6 oils is so out of balance that these fatty acids suppress the beneficial functions of the omega-3s, creating havoc with our health.
Fats of Life
1 Other oils high in omega-6 fatty acids include safflower, sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin.
Olive and macadamia nut oils are neutral, carrying neither a preponderance of omega-6 nor omega-3 oils.
Health in the Balance
We Americans eat the smallest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in the world and the largest amounts of omega-6.
This is bad news. Although we need both, we need them in a healthy ratio. This is believed to be at least one part omega-3 to every 4 parts of omega-6 (1:4).
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the typical American diet tends to contain 14-25 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids.
It is this shift away from omega-3 fatty acids and our resulting deficiency in these oils that is the basis for the up to 96,000 preventable deaths per year estimated by the Harvard School of Public Health.
In this study, researchers looked at 12 dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors.
Of these, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency ranked as the sixth highest killer of Americans. Simply taking a relatively inexpensive fish oil supplement daily could begin to rectify this situation and save thousands of lives.
The first and most obvious reason to increase our fish oil intake is to suppress and reverse the negative influences of omega-6 oil on our health. (See sidebar, “What’s Up With Omega-6 Fatty Acids?”.)
Secondly, because they are essential fatty acids (just as vitamins are essential), EPA and DHA from fish oil deliver benefits throughout the body, including improved heart health, better blood profiles, anti-inflammatory action, enhanced immunity, mood elevation, and relief from arthritis pain.
Three recent studies demonstrate the usefulness of omega-3 fish oils in protecting against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), periodontitis, and significantly decreasing the risk of psychotic behavior in people at “ultra high risk”.2
Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, mood swings or depression, poor circulation, indications of internal inflammation (as shown by a C-reactive protein blood test), and heart problems.
Health In The Balance
2 Amminger GP, Schafer MR, Papageorgiou K, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders. Archives of General Psychiatryi, 2010;67: 146-154.
A Closer Look
The strongest evidence for the use of fish oil-based omega-3 fatty acids is in the maintenance and support of heart health. In fact, the American Heart Association states,
“Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart health of healthy people, and those at high risk of – or who have – cardiovascular disease.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, both large-scale human epidemiological studies and randomized trials have shown that the intake of recommended amounts of DHA and EPA fatty acids can lower both triglycerides and blood pressure.
In addition, the beneficial effects of fish oil (or eating fish more frequently) also include reductions of heart rate and increases in HDL cholesterol, called the “good” cholesterol.
Together, these benefits can reduce the risk of death from heart attack, heart attack itself, abnormal heart rhythms, strokes, and hardening of the arteries.
Mayo Clinic medical experts are impressed with the published evidence on fish oil in the following areas:
- reducing excess triglyceride levels;
- reducing the recurrence of heart attacks;
- reducing blood pressure;
- preventing heart disease;
- relieving the pain of rheumatoid arthritis;
- and protecting the recipients of organ transplants.
As you see, the first four are concerned with the heart and circulation.
Certain aspects of immune function also appear to show favorable responses to fish oil supplementation.
There are many other disorders where the scientific evidence indicates benefits. These include preventing or treating: stroke, atherosclerosis, cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart beat), angina, cancer (breast, colon, prostate), kidney trouble, skin diseases, asthma, mental disorders, menstrual pain, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes.
One of the most important properties of fish oil is its ability to act as an anti-inflammatory. For example, fish oil supplements have been studied as complementary or alternative treatments for irritable bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease.
Results vary, but in one study, 59 percent of Crohn’s patients taking fish oil supplements maintained their remission, compared to less than half that number in the control group.
Additional benefits include alleviating the symptoms of ADHD, diabetes, skin diseases, menstrual pain, and more. In fact, one of the most important uses of DHA is the promotion of brain and vision development in infants and children.
This neurological connection has lead to research that suggests fish oil fatty acids help to improve mood and decrease depression. New studies are investigating the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Or not…. Unless you are willing to eat fatty fish 4-5 times a week, the way to get sufficient amounts of omega-3 EPA/DHA essential fatty acids is to take supplements.
This is also the easiest way to achieve a healthy omega-3:omega-6 balance.
How Much To Take
Data from the massive MRFIT study indicate that intakes of 650-700 mg/day of DHA/EPA combined are associated with overall reductions in lifestyle-related diseases as well as reduced coronary disease-related mortality.3
This amount of omega-3 represents approximately 4-5 fatty fish servings per week. (A serving is 3.5 ounces or 3/4 cup.)
Unfortunately, across North American, the average per capita intake of omega-3 fatty acid (as DHA plus EPA) is approximately 130-150 mg/day.
This is only about one-fifth the desirable amount for overall heart health. The American Heart Association advises two fish servings/week for healthy individuals free of heart disease.
That is only 250-300 mg per day of DHA/EPA, far below the amounts indicated as protective by MRFIT.
How to Take It
The number of fish oil supplements you take is based on the amount of EPA and DHA in the fish oil, not on the total amount of fish oil.
The specific amounts of EPA and DHA are listed on the label. Adding the two amounts together will give you the total omega-3 available. Thus, a capsule may have 1000 mg of fish oil but only 300 mg of EPA/DHA combined.
In the case above, to meet the MRFIT recommendation you would need to take two grams of fish oil daily. Because fish contain variable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, supplements vary in the amounts and ratios of EPA and DHA. All fish oil contains approximately 9 calories per gram.
Keep in mind that it may take 2-3 weeks for the benefits of fish oil supplementation to be realized.
The University of Maryland Medical Center states that when taken in low doses (3 grams or less per day), fish oil is “likely safe” for most people, including pregnant and breast-feeding women.
All sources agree that not more than this should be taken without the supervision of a health care provider. Fish oils thin the blood, increasing the risk of bleeding.
Exceptions are made by the American Heart Association for adults with high cholesterol. In such cases, 2-4 grams daily of EPA/DHA are needed.
However, omega-3 fatty acids should be used cautiously by people who bruise easily, have a bleeding disorder, or take blood-thinning medications including warfarin (Coumadin) or clopidogrel (Plavix).
Contamination is another concern of people taking fish oil. Reinforcing this fear, a recent San Francisco lawsuit made headlines by fingering five fish oil manufacturers for unsafe levels of PCBs. (They targeted fish liver oil products).
Timothy Fitzgerald, senior policy specialist at the Environmental Defense Fund, comments that fish oil supplements have lower levels of contaminants than most types of fish, especially when you consider comparatively minute quantities consumed.
Here’s how to make sure your supplement is safe.
1) Choose supplements made from small, low-contaminant species such as sardines and anchovies. Krill and algae are also safe.
2) Buy supplements made by established companies who certify that their products are free of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium.
3) Ask your local natural products retailer about product quality standards and recommended brands.
Fish oil can cause side effects including belching, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, loose stools, rash, and nosebleeds.
Freezing fish oil supplements can often decrease these side effects. Time release can be helpful as can deodorized brands. Or, try taking your fish oil with food and a digestive enzyme.
Medline Plus at the National Library of Medicine lists oral doses for 24 specific conditions. Here are a couple of examples based on per diem amounts:
- For high blood pressure: Either 4 grams of fish oils OR fish oils providing 2 grams of EPA and 1.5 grams of DHA.
- For rheumatoid arthritis: Fish oils providing 4 grams of EPA and 2 grams of DHA.
- For preventing and reversing the progression of atherosclerosis: 6 grams/day of fish oil the first 3 months, followed by 3 grams/day thereafter.
- For treating asthma in children: 17-27 mg EPA/kg of body weight and 7-11 mg DHA/kg.
Remember, it may take 2-3 weeks for benefits of fish oil supplements to be apparent.
Prefer To Get It On The Fin?
There is about 1 gram (1/4 t) of omega-3 fatty acid to 3.5 ounces of fish (about 3/4 cup).
When fish oil is obtained by eating fish, the way it is prepared makes a difference. Eating broiled or baked fish can reduce the risk of heart disease, but eating fried fish cancels out the benefits of the fish oil – and may actually increase heart disease risk.
3 The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MR FIT) was a 7-year clinical trial initiated in 1972.
It was designed to demonstrate the value of special interventions to reduce health risks from smoking, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels.
The study particularly examined the extent to which intervention could affect death rates from coronary disease.
The participants were 13,000 middle-aged males at high risk for heart disease. (www.sourcewatch.org)
The Word Is Omega
In the past year, sales of products containing natural fish oil concentrates increased 25 percent (from $215 million to $270 million).
According to new consumer research, among 6000 people who take supplements regularly, more of them are likely to be taking fish oil than a multivitamin-mineral.
(Following multivitamin-mineral use, this group was taking vitamin D, calcium, and CoQ10.)
The overall increase in fish oil sales is attributed to an increase in the number of conventional physicians who are recommending it for heart health and other conditions.
The American Heart Association first began recommending fish oil supplementation to heart patients in 2002. Today, it keeps its guidelines updated regularly on its website.
In closing, at a recent conference, Adam Ismail, executive director for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), commented,
“From omega-3 researchers’ findings in the early ‘70s to the latest developments in omega-3’s role in reducing healthcare costs and its emerging uses in helping children with motor skill disorders, [we are] also reminded that there’s still much to discover when it comes to the health benefits of omega-3.”
What’s Up With Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
During the last century, our fatty acid intake altered radically from that of the previous 12,000 years.
Physiologically, this shift is very significant. Eating large quantities of omega-6 fatty acids have lead directly to an increase in heart attack risk, cancer, and a number of diseases related to low grade inflammation.
Today we are eating 20-30 times more pro-inflammatory omega-6 oils than anti-inflammatory omega-3 oils.
Most of the omega-6 fats we eat come from corn, safflower, sunflower, and soy oils.
The highly processed foods made with these oils displace nutrient dense foods, such that we are also eating fewer anti-inflammatory nutrients.
To be useful, omega-6 fatty acids must be transformed by the body into gamma linolenic acid.
Because people with certain health conditions do not process omega-6 oils correctly, they experience worsening symptoms.
The conditions include arthritis, allergies, eczema, heart problems, diabetes, immune deficiency, PMS, hyperactivity, cancer, liver degeneration, alcoholism, overweight, dry eyes, and brittle nails.
If you experience any of these symptoms, consider taking the one anti-inflammatory omega-6 oil gamma linolenic acid.
This special fatty acid was once thought to occur only in mothers’ milk. Now it is available from the following plant sources: borage oil, black currant seed oil, and evening primrose seed oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils are anti-inflammatory and serve to neutralize the effects of omega-6 oils.
Olive oil and macadamia nut oils are neutral, and don’t carry a preponderance of either omega-3 or omega-6 oils.