Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega fatty acids are starting to become household names, just like Vitamin C. They benefit your heart, brain, and joints function optimally, and they contribute to your psychological well-being. Low levels of omega 3 are associated with an increased risk of heart ailments, cancer, and other diseases. What's more, an imbalance of omega fatty acids can increase inflammation, contributing to numerous health conditions.
What do you need to know about them?
What are omega 3 fatty acids?
Fatty acids are the building blocks of the fat in your body and in the food you eat. The ones we need the most but often get the least of, are omega 3s.
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. The human body can’t produce polyunsaturated fatty acids, so they’re in the essential fatty acids category.
Of the 11 types of omega 3 fatty acids, the two with the most health benefits are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These two types are called long-chain molecules because they contain 20 (EPA) or 22 (DHA) carbon atoms. The third most important type, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), has only 18 carbon atoms, so it’s known as a short-chain molecule. ALA has limited conversion to EPA and DHA within the body, so consuming both short and long chain sources of omega 3 are recommended.
Researchers are looking into the benefits of another omega 3, DPA (docosapentaenoic acid). Although it hasn’t been studied as much as the above omega 3 fatty acids, it’s believed to help wound healing and reduce inflammation.
Omega 3 dietary sources
The primary sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish:
- Bluefin and albacore tuna
- Canned anchovies
- Salmon (especially wild salmon)
In addition, some eggs and dairy products are fortified with DHA.
Because of high levels of mercury and other contaminants, it’s has been suggested to limit some fish consumption to once a week, these include: king mackerel, shark, tilefish, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy, ahi tuna and bigeye tuna. Children under six and pregnant and nursing women are recommended not to consume these types of fish at all.
ALA is available through some plant sources:
- Flax seeds and flax seed oil
- Chia Seeds
- Pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil
- Soybeans and soybean oil
- Canola oil
- Walnuts and walnut oil
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and salad greens
Getting enough omega 3s every day through food can be a challenge. For this reason, many people take omega 3 supplements.
Omega 3 health benefits
Humans need healthy fats, and omega 3 fatty acids provide an amazing array of health benefits. When you get enough omega 3s, your brain will function better, your mood will be better, and you'll have less inflammation.
Thousands of medical studies have concluded that omega 3s can reduce your risk for heart disease and reduce the symptoms of ADHD and other psychological disorders. As anti-inflammatories, they can help to reduce the symptoms and risk of health conditions from arthritis to cancer. Some of these conditions are discussed in more detail below.
Omega 3 deficiencies
Despite the huge health benefits of omega 3s, most people in industrialised nations are deficient in omega 3. In addition, they get too much omega 6, which works against omega 3. This imbalance contributes to a variety of chronic conditions.
Along with omega 3, omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated, so you have to get them in your diet or via supplements. They contribute to normal development, including skin, hair, and bone health. They also regulate metabolism and are necessary for brain function.
Most people in Western countries get more than enough of AA (arachidonic acid) and LA (linoleic acid), the most common types of omega 6. LA converts to GLA (gamma linolenic acid), which is the most beneficial type of omega 6, because of its anti-inflammatory effects. However, when you have too much AA in your body, the excess amount blocks the conversion of LA to GLA. The result of this imbalance is increased inflammation throughout your body.
Sources of AA include chicken, beef, eggs, sausage, bacon, fish, and pork. Unless you eat a vegan diet, you almost certainly get enough. Chicken is also a significant source of LA, along with grain-based desserts, salad dressing, potato chips and other chips, nuts and seeds, pizza and yeast bread. In addition, vegetable oils, commonly found in packaged food, contain a lot of omega 6.
The “good” omega 6, GLA, is found in borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, and spirulina.
Omega 9s are the only omega fatty acids that the body can produce. Therefore, they aren’t essential fatty acids. That is, it isn’t essential to get them from other food sources, but they are beneficial for your health.
The most common type of omega 9 is oleic acid, which is monounsaturated.
Diets high in monounsaturated fat have been found to have these benefits:
Reduced insulin resistance, which, if not treated, can lead to diabetes
Sources of omega 9 include olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, mustard oil, macadamia seeds and oil, and almonds.
Before we look at how omega fatty acids can benefit people with certain health conditions, let’s look at the prevalence of some of these conditions in the UK.
In 2014, 19.7% of people aged 16 and older showed evidence of depression or anxiety. Women had higher levels of anxiety and depression at 22.5% compared to 16.8% for men. The overall number increased from 18.3% for the previous year.
Heart disease is one of the most common causes of death. Interestingly, communities where a lot of fish is consumed, have lower rates of coronary heart disease. Studies concluded that fish oil — an important source of omega 3 — had beneficial effects on heart disease rates in these communities.
Omega 3 has been proven to reduce triglyceride levels. Triglycerides, the fat in the blood, are necessary, but too-high levels increase the risk of heart disease. Studies have also concluded that omega 3 helps reduce plaque build-up in the arteries.
Psychological and mood disorders
Anxiety: Both anxiety and depression are linked to increased levels of inflammation, especially in the brain. Too much of the omega 6 fatty acid AA increases inflammation in the brain. To control this inflammation, an ongoing supply of the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA is needed. As studies have proven, omega 3 supplementation can reduce anxiety levels.
Depression: Studies have shown that omega 3 intake reduced the depression levels in study subjects. In one study, it was so effective that after three weeks, 67% of the subjects were no longer depressed.
Memory and cognition
Omega 3 has been studied for its effects on people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
In one study involving over 200 people ages 70 to 89, participants who consumed the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA had a significantly reduced cognitive incline compared to the people in the study who didn’t consume these fatty acids. In a different study, 40 people ages 51 to 72 years old were given either omega 3 or a placebo for five weeks. The group receiving the omega 3 had improved cognitive performance at the end of the study.
The evidence is clear that we need omega 3 and that many of us need more than we’re already getting. Those who eat a lot of food containing the omega 6 fatty acids AA and LA especially need omega 3 supplements to balance their omega fatty acid intake. For vegetarians and vegans, algae oil omega 3 supplements are becoming increasingly popular to meet EPA and DHA requirements.
In addition to omega 3 supplements for general health, people with any of the health conditions described here could find improvement in their symptoms when they have a sufficient omega 3 intake.
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