I once heard legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin say that if our cells, tissues and organ systems were like the pages of a book, then Omega-3s would be the spine that bound these pages together. Essentially speaking, Omega-3’s constitute the fundamental building blocks that our body requires for optimal function and survival.
Omega-3 can be derived in two main forms: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), commonly sourced from small cold water fish such as sardines and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from, larger fish like salmon. However, despite the ‘acid’ terminology given to it, Omega-3s (and it’s less famous counterpart Omega-6) are actually forms of polyunsaturated fat. That’s right, it is a FAT!
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are both essential in our diets because they cannot be self-generated by the body but instead need to be externally sourced from the foods we consume. Over the centuries of human evolution, our feeding habits have seen our DNA built upon a 1:1 ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 – an optimal proportion for cellular function and overall health. This remained the case even up till the early 1900s where natives were living off a Paleolitic diet. For more information on the Paleolitic Diet, see our article The Paleo Diet – Stone Age Nutrition or Fad?
However, in the past hundred years or so, modern western diets have changed to include more processed and pre-prepared foods, distorting our Omega-3 to Omega-6 consumption to a staggering 1:20 ratio! One main reason for this is the introduction of seeming ‘healthy’ plant oils like peanut oil, corn oil and sunflower oil which are high in Omega-6 and have become a complication which is a staple for numerous households. At the same time, our diet has neglected important sources of Omega-3 such as fish and seafood, most likely due to cheaper and more convenient alternatives. Furthermore, even our cheaper meat alternatives like beef are now disproportionately higher in Omega 6 because these animals are now mainly grain fed (a cheaper alternative which contains more Omega-6) rather than grass fed (which is high in Omega-3).
OMEGA-6S VS OMEGA-3S
Whilst Omega-6 remains essential to the human body for growth and general maintenance of health and brain cells, a high Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio can lead to a thickening of the blood as well as cardio-vascular problems such as blood clots, blocked arteries and heart failure. It may also aggravate autoimmune and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis as well as promoting obesity, high insulin and blood sugar levels.
On the other hand, the health benefits associated with a diet higher in Omega-3 has been well documented. This was first discovered by scientists in the 1970s researching a particular tribe in Greenland who ate large amounts of fatty fish and seafood, yet displayed no signs of heart disease. It supported the findings that Omega-3s reduced the risks of coronary heart disease as well as triglycerides and atherosclerosis. Further evidence also showed that Omega-3s improve blood flow circulation and prevent plaque build-up in arterial walls.
In addition to the numerous cardio-vascular benefits, Omega-3s have been associated with other positive side effects:
Weight Loss – A high intake of Omega-3s in obese individuals has been shown to promote fat loss and increases in their metabolism.
Insulin Sensitivity – Research has found that Omega-3s improve the insulin sensitivity of cells. This increases the body’s efficiency in storing glucose as glycogen within the muscles as opposed to storing it as fatty tissue – in other words, this keeps you lean.
Reduces Stress – Omega-3s have been found to decrease cellular stress and disruption (this is a precursor for inflammation and numerous modern diseases), as well as contributing to restoring cellular integrity.
Reduced Cancer Risks – Several studies have found a possible link between Omega-3s and a reduced likelihood of cancer (especially breast, colon, and prostate cancers). There is also evidence that Omega-3s may benefit existing cancer patients by improving appetite and energy levels, as well as retaining muscle mass.
Immune Function – It has been found that particularly with infants and children, Omega-3s improve immune function maturation.
Healthy Brain Function – An increased intake of Omega-3’s (and carnitine) during pregnancy have shown to produce children with higher IQs. High Omega-3s dosages have also helped improve learning disabilities and cognitive disorders in kids, such as ADHD (attention deficient disorder). There is also recent evidence that Omega-3s impede the progression of psychotic and neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Sources of Omega-3 – Good sources of Omega-3 come mainly from Seafood such as oysters, mussels, prawns, scallops, etc. and Oily fishes of both small and large species. Many fishes nowadays however, tend to contain traces of toxic heavy metals (e.g. lead, nickel and mercury) as well as solvents (e.g. PCBs and PBDEs) due to their feeding and breeding environments. When ingested, these toxic substances can accumulate within our bodies and adversely impact our short health.
A safe recommendation would be to limit consumption of oily fish (with the exception of tuna which should be completely eliminated due to its high mercury levels) to two servings per week and supplement the rest of your Omega-3 needs with high quality fish oil. Some of my preferred brands include: Nordic Naturals, Melrose and Poliquin, all available in Melbourne containing minimal solvents and are highly regulated to ensure quality.
Cod Liver Oil has been a popular choice of Omega-3s especially for growing children (you might remember the orange flavored emulsions as a kid). However, the high levels of Vitamin A and Vitamin D in this oil may cause toxicity with prolonged consumption. Such oils are best consumed by individuals with specific conditions like Chromes disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, both of which are conditions associated with vitamin A and D deficiencies.
For some vegetarians and individuals with seafood allergies, choosing to avoid fish (even if this mean oils in supplementary form) often means switching to plant-based ‘alternatives’ such as Flax Oil for their Omega-3 fix. Whilst flax oil is often advertised to contain Omega-3s, these are in the form of short-chain Omega-3s called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While ALA carries its own health benefits, our bodies are not able to convert them efficiently to the desired long-chain EPAs and DHAs, and even when they are converted, it is in minute amounts. Flax oils also tend to be unstable, and most store bought oils would have been already oxidised upon transportation, making the oils rancid upon consumption. The danger of this, apart from not getting your money’s worth, is the fact that rancid oils are cancer causing and have known to lead to other diseases such as arthritis, stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Krill Oil is another good and nutritious source of Omega-3, however the mass harvesting of krill has been found to damage the ecosystem, particularly their impact on whales that rely on them for food. It is therefore in the best interest of the environment that if we source our Omega-3 oils from seafood and oily fish.