THE IMPORTANCE OF OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
As a follow-up to my newsletter on fats, it is essential that I touch on the subject of Omega-3 fatty acids. An increasing number of people are hearing about the importance of taking fish oil or flax seed to supplement their diets but many don't know why they are so important. I am going to attempt to give you a condensed but clear understanding of just what Omega-3's do in our body and why it is essential that you consume them.
Let's do a quick review of fats. Fats, or fatty acids, are some of the most important nutrients we consume. They are the building blocks for cell walls, hormones, and neurotransmitters, to name a few. To categorize them, there are saturated fats (primarily from meat products) and unsaturated fats (which are all of your vegetable oils, nut oils, and certain types of fish). Unsaturated oils are further divided into mono-unsaturated (which are mainly olive, canola, and peanut oils) and poly-unsaturated which covers most of the other oils. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature while unsaturated tend to be liquid. Unsaturated fats are listed in three categories depending on their bonding structure: the Omega-6, Omega-9, and the Omega-3 fatty acid family. (Cholesterol is another very important fat but belongs to the sterol family and is not considered a fatty acid.)
Our main concern is the ratio between the Omega-6 family (which is mostly vegetable oils) and the Omega-3 family (which comes from fish, flax seed, canola, walnut pumpkin, and chia). We should consume them in a 1:1 ratio but most diets today are not even close to this. It is estimated that the average diet is about 30:1 for the Omega 6-3 ratio. I hope I haven't lost you yet!
How did this happen?
--Increased consumption of Omega-3-deficient warm weather oils
--Hydrogenation of oils in commercial processing
--Decreased fish consumption
--Loss of cereal germ (which contains the fatty acids)
--2500% increase in Trans-fatty acid intake (which interferes with fatty acid synthesis)
--250% increase in sugar intake (which interferes with the enzymes of fatty acid synthesis)
WHY ARE OMEGA-3s SO IMPORTANT?
There are different types of Omega-3 fatty acids but we are going to limit our topic to the two most important ones: DHA and EPA. Although DHA is found in different parts of the body it is considered a brain fat. Our brains are approximately 60% fat and function primarily on Arachidonic acid and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). We get Arachidonic acid from animal products, (ie; beef, chicken, dairy) and some sources of plant life while DHA comes mainly from cold-water fish such as Salmon, Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Albacore Tuna and Herring. Our body can produce its own DHA to some degree using alpha-linolenic acids such as flax seed, walnuts, pumpkin, and canola but it is a difficult process and limited in scope.
When we don't get enough of this molecule in our diet we make a substitute molecule called DPA which scientists feel can compromise neural function. DHA is found in highest concentrations at the synaptic junctions between nerve cells. (The synaptic junction is merely where two nerve cells come together for the purpose of transferring nerve energy or information.) This nerve energy or information is transferred from one nerve cell to the next via molecules called neurotransmitters inside the synaptic junction. These molecules must attach to the next nerve cell at a "docking port" in order to transfer this information. DHA is the molecule that facilitates this docking and is considered crucial for the normal function of all neurotransmitters or essentially the normal function of our nervous system. Other areas of importance for DHA:
--Crucial for the normal function of photo-receptors, the portion of the retina of the eye that receives light stimulation.
--Mitochondria, a source of energy for all nerve cells
--Cerebral Cortex, the outer layer of the brain is dense with cells rich in DHA
A growing body of scientific evidence supports the theory that a deficiency of these important molecules could be closely associated with such common conditions as depression, anxiety, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other neural related health issues including senile dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Dr Norman Salem, of the National Institutes of Health, has remarked that simple modifications of fatty acid balance can have profound influence on functions of the brain. It can essentially affect the spectrum of behavior and functions in which the brain engages -- in essence, it has the power to change who we are!
EPA is another very important molecule found in fish. One of its most important functions is in prostaglandin production. Prostaglandins are hormone-like messengers that have profound effects on a vast array of functions in the body. We essentially make three types simply labeled PGE1, PGE2, and PGE3. The key is that different fatty acids stimulate different types of prostaglandin production and they all have somewhat different functions. PGE1 contains mainly fatty acids from vegetable oils, PGE2 is mostly from animal fats, and PGE3 is from fish oils. Again, balance is the key! PGE2 is very pro-inflammatory and if you don't have enough of PGE3 to counter-act that, your tissue tends to become hyper-inflammatory which can lead to chronic pain syndromes, digestive problems, and a host of other health problems including heart disease. PGE3 also controls blood viscosity (prevents blood platelets from clumping) and helps prevent blood vessel spasm which helps control blood pressure. This is extremely important in prevention of cardiac disease and is often given credit for the low rates of heart disease in cultures that consume fish on a regular basis. In addition, EPA plays a very important role in the digestive tract. The cells that line our digestive system (an area the size of a tennis court) depend on EPA molecules for construction of cell walls that are essential for absorption of all of our nutrients.
If that were not enough, numerous studies have been published on the benefits of fish oil and the immune system, specifically for fighting cancer. Common Signs of Fatty Acid Imbalance:
Dry Skin Dry --Unmanageable hair --Dandruff --Excessive Thirst --Frequent Urination --Hyperactivity --Irritability --Dry Eyes --Attention Deficit --"Chicken skin" on the backs of the arms --Soft Nails --Learning Disabilities --Alligator Skin --Poor wound healing --Allergies --Patches of pale skin on cheeks --Lowered Immunity --Cracked skin on heels or fingertips --Fatigue. There is also a blood test that will give you a fatty acid profile of your omega fats.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SUPPLEMENT
If you consume cold-water fish 2-3x/week you probably don't need supplements but if you are like most people, supplements are a good alternative. When shopping a for quality fish oil supplement, I tend to shy away from the bargain-basement brands. The quality of the oil depends a lot on the extraction as well as the filtering process. Unfortunately fish contain a great deal of mercury and other heavy metals which need to be filtered out. I like to buy from companies with independent lab certifications for being Heavy-Metal free. I often recommend Nordic Naturals, Carlson's, and Spectrum brands. A good supplement should not have any fishy taste or reflux. Most of us remember stories of our grandparents giving out cod liver oil that tasted horrible by most accounts. Fortunately, manufacturers have learned how to filter out the "fish" taste as it comes from a fatty acid that is not really important to the body. A good standard dose is about 1200 mg/day of a combination of Omega-3s. There are many different formulas available; you just have to read the labels. You might run across some that have gamma-linolenic acids (GLA), which are actually Omega 6 fats but are known to help neurological conditions due to their influence on PGE1 prostaglandins. These are oils such as Primrose and Borage Oils. They are excellent oils and are often used to help with mood swings, depression, ADHD and PMS.
Most formulas will be predominately EPA and DHA in different ratios. Other formulas might include all of the Omega-3s (EPA, DHA, and the ALAs like flax, walnuts, etc.) I personally take Nordic Naturals Pro-Omega that is a combination of EPA and DHA and I supplement that with 3-4 tablespoons of ground Flax seed daily as it is a great source of fiber as well as Omega-3s. Some people recommend cod liver oil in the winter months for its Vitamin D content. Vitamin D deficiencies are very common when there is a lack of sunlight. If you decide to purchase Nordic Naturals, check with me; I carry some of their formulas and offer them at a discount over the retail you will pay in the store. If you have never taken fish oil, start slow and work up to a full dose. If you have issues with insomnia you possibly will do better with a formula that is lighter on DHA. DHA is absorbed mostly by the brain and initially can cause a stimulating effect. I always recommend taking it in the morning with food.
It is also important to add an antioxidant to your regime as fish oils are susceptive to oxidation. If you experience any digestive problems initially, I would suggest taking a digestive enzyme with the oil. Vegetable based, broad spectrum Digestive Enzymes are available at all health food stores and are relatively inexpensive. (Refer to my previous Newsletter on Probiotics for more information on enzymes.) Most people are very low on digestive enzymes and an oil supplement can cause some indigestion in such cases. I am not aware of any contra-indications for taking fish oil. You should consult your physician if you are taking blood thinners or heart medication. EPA is not recommended for infants as it can displace Aracadonic acid which is essential for brain development. DHA is extremely important for expectant mothers as it is a crucial molecule for the developing brain of the fetus. Many researchers feel post-partum depression is related to DHA deficiencies as well. If you are pregnant, always consult your physician before adding a supplement to your diet.
I hope I have not over-whelmed you with too much information. This subject can be very involved. There is a great book on this subject if any of you are interested in more information; it is called "The Omega-3 Connection" by Dr. Andrew Stoll. I highly recommend it, especially if you or a loved one has neurological health issues. There are many supplements out there and it is hard to know what is important and what is a waste of money. I often prioritize supplement buying when financial concerns are involved. I would list a good antioxidant as my Number 1 choice, but fish oil is a very close second, if not equal. I will be discussing supplements in detail in a future newsletter.
Yours in Health,
Dr. Roy Murrell, DC 200 NE 20th Avenue, Suite 140 Portland Oregon 97232 - disclaimer - 971-312-9497