Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids




Here is a list of most common natural products consumed by people:
  • Echinacea (40.3%)
  • Ginseng (24.1%)
  • Ginko biloba (21.1%)
  • Garlic supplements (19.9%)
  • Glucosamine (14.9%)
  • St. John's wort (12.0%)
  • Peppermint (11.8%)
  • Fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids (11.7%)
  • Ginger supplements (10.5%)
  • Soy supplements (9.4%)

As you can see it, fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids is not on the top which I think it should be. If you have read my previous post (i.e., Did you get enough Zinc lately?), you should know that omega-3 is ranked no. 3 using the popularity ranking from the perspective of scientists' research interests. Probably people are still not fully aware of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids to our health and this article aims to fill that gap.


Omega-3 and Omega-6

Not all fats are bad. For example, omega-3 fatty acids are good ones. Omega-3s are essential because the body can't manufacture them and must rely on dietary supplies. There are three kinds of omega-3 fatty acids:
  1. ALA
    • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short-chain omega-3 fat found mainly in plant-based sources:
      • Flax
      • Walnuts[9]
      • Hemp
      • Green leafy vegetables
      • Canola oil.

  2. EPA and DHA
    • The long-chain omega-3 fats are EPA and DHA and are the most potent and beneficial omega-3 fats. These fats are found in algae and the fish (retain high level of fatty acids in their skin) that eat them. One known land based vegetable sources of EPA is purslane.
    • EPA and DHA is the bioactive form in the body. Normally, the human liver must convert omega-3s from plant sources into EPA and DHA. The conversion requires a great deal of energy as well as the presence of a specific enzyme (delta-6-desaturase) that is lacking in some people[4]. The latest research shows that less than 1% of ALA gets made into EPA, and seldom (if ever) does it make DHA. That's why many researchers believe that all three of these omega-3 fats are essential.
Similar to omega-3s, omega-6s are essential fatty acids. However, most Americans consume too much of the omega-6 fatty acids and not enough of the omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s appear to play an important role in[5,6] :
  • Neurological development and processing
    • The highest concentrations of omega-3s in humans are found in the tissues of the brain and the eyes.
  • Visual acuity
  • Permeability of cell walls
  • Metabolism of glucose
  • Calming of inflammation
while omega-6s are involved in:
  • Fat storage
    • Omega-6 serves as a store of energy for the developing seedling.
  • Rigidity of cell walls
  • Clotting
  • Inflammation response
Because omega-3s and omega-6s compete with each other for space in cell membranes and for the attention of various enzymes, the ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s, in the diet and in turn in our tissues, may matter more than the absolute quantity of either fat. So, too much omega-6 may be just as much a problem as too little omega-3.

Ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 Fats

The following table describes the possible impact of ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats on health and disease:

Health Condition

Ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 Fat

Comments

Alzheimer's disease

4:1

  • A fat balance of 4:1 improved the quality of life for Alzheimer's patients, whereas higher ratios had no benefit.
  • Research has found that omega-3 fatty acid levels tend to be low in people with Alzheimer's disease (or in people with ADD, depression, who have trouble thinking, who attempt suicide).
Asthma
5:1
Twice the ratio (10:1) had adverse consequences on asthma.
Bone health

-

A high ratio is associated with lower bone density, regardless of hormone replacement status.
Brain function

4:1

  • A dose-dependent study indicated that optimal learning occurred at this ratio.
  • In a Danish study that compared the diets of more than 5000 healthy older people, findings showed people who ate more fish in their diet were able to maintain their memory longer.
  • Researchers in Holland found that consuming fish decreased the risk for dementia.

Breast cancer

1:1-2.5:1

A study on French breast cancer patients showed that the balance between omega-6 to omega-3 fats rather than the individual amount of fats, had the greatest impact on breast cancer prevention. A study on five countries reported similar findings.

Cancer prevention

1:1-2:1

A review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that we need to eat a diet with a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats (1:1 or 2:1) to lower the risk of getting cancer.

Cardiovascular health

4:1

A ratio of 4:1 has been associated with a 70% decrease in death rates.

Colon Cancer

1:1-2.5:1

Fish oil supplements were beneficial only with a low ratio of 2.5:1.0.

Dry-eye Syndrome

Lower ratio protective

A high ratio is associated with more than double the prevalence of dry-eye syndrome relative to those with a low ratio.

Healing

<1:1

The ratio influences a critical step in healing, collagen production. When the ratio was than 1:1, collagen formation increased in a dose-dependent manner.

Inflammation

1:1

Ratios of 1:1 (or less) decrease inflammation. When patients were supplemented with fish oil, a ratio of 3:5:1.0 had no benefit.

Insulin resistance

2:1

Diets high in omega-6 fats trigger insulin resistance, which is implicated in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Animal studies show that a ratio of 2:1 may prevent this problem.

Pregnancy complication

-

A lower ratio was associated with a 46% reduction in risk for preeclampsia, a condition that can progress to a life-threating situation for both Mother and Baby.
Rheumatoid arthritis

2:1-3:1

A lower ratio suppresses the harmful effects of inflammation.

Sleep

4:1

Two studies on students showed significant improvement in sleep at this lower ratio.

Stress

4:1

A lower ratio reduces the production of stress chemicals.


Increase Omega-3 Intake


When it comes to fat, you are what you eat. Unlike carbohydrates and protein, fat is the only macronutrient that does not get broken down into smaller units when you eat and digest it. The main source of omega-3 fatty acids (are less stable than omega-6s and spoil more readily) include:
  • flax seeds, romaine lettuce, kale, mustard seeds, scallops, cloves, nuts, oregano, salmon, halibut, snapper, shrimp, tuna, cod, soybeans, cauliflower, tofu, squash, broccoli, spinach, collard greens, cabbage, and strawberries.

Eating more omega-3s are good to your health, the following tips are offered for increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids from food sources:
  • Eat omega-3 enriched eggs. Omega-3 eggs usually come from chickens that have been fed algae or flaxseeds.
  • Cook with canola oil rather than corn or safflower oil. Note that olive oil is a better oil, but not the best.
    • When shopping for oils, look for those that have been minimally processed. Look for "expeller-pressed" or "cold-pressed."
  • Eat walnuts and soy nuts, pecans, and pumpkin seeds.
  • Sprinkle wheat germ and/or ground flaxseed (has a short shelf life and requires refrigeration) meal on cereal and yogurt.
  • Eat salmon or similar 2 to 4 times per week.
  • Look for salad dressings that contain some canola or soybean oil.
  • Use walnut oil in homemade salad dressings.
  • Add ground flaxseed when baking muffins, breads, and pancakes.
  • Avoid processed foods.

Plant Source Oils

All plant source oils are cholesterol free. But, they don't come as equals. Some of them are better than others. Choose the ones with lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. In the following table, it lists the proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in plant source oils:

Fat or Oil

Ratio of
Omega-6 to Omega-3 Fats

Cottonseed oil

234:1

Sunflower oil

180:1

Safflower oil

77:1

Evening primose oil

75:1

Low-linolenic (1%) soybean oil

56:1

Corn oil

46:1

Partially hydrogenated soybean
oil

39:1

Palm oil

30:1

Chicken fat

19:1

Olive oil

13:1

Lard

10:1

Butter

9:1

Margarine, hard stick,
hydrogenated soybean oil

9:1

Basic soybean oil (salad or
cooking oil)

8:1

Mayonnaise made with soybean oil

8:1

Walnut oil

5:1

Beef fat

2:1

Canola oil

2:1

Flaxseed oil

0.3:1.0

Perilla oil

0.3:1.0


Fish or Krill Oils

To get enough EPA and DHA, either fresh or canned fish are good sources. However, most of our fish sources have been contaminated with toxins such as mercury, PCBs, etc. Only for this nutrient, you probably should get your daily required portions of EPA and DHA from supplements (i.e., fish oils or krill oils) because technology such as molecular distillation can be used to filter out toxins from the fish oil. When you choose such supplements, watch out for the following:
  • Check the expiration date.
  • Look for USP on the labels.
  • Store them in the fridge to prevent rancidity.
  • To prevent fishy burps,buy enteric-coated varieties, take with food, and split doses throughout day.
    • The coating prevents the fish oil capsules from being digested in the stomach, which has been known to cause a fishy reflux (fish burps).
  • Choose fish oil supplements that contain natural antioxidants (for example, vitamin E) which protect and keep the omega-3 fats stable. Or you can squeeze one capsule of vitamin E oil into the bottle to keep it from going stale after opening a new bottle of oil.
Krill are tiny shrimp-like crustaceans (zooplankton) that feed the largest animal in the world, the blue whale. Along with EPA and DHA, krill oil also contains some other types of fats called phospholipids that may be beneficial. For more information, you can read here.

Finally, be warned that:

  • Because fish oil acts as blood thinner, it should not be taken by people who have hemophilia, or who already taking blood thinning medications or are on aspirin therapy (unless approved by their doctor).
  • People with diabetes should talk with their doctors before trying fish oil supplements because they may affect blood sugar.
  • Omega-3 can raise LDL modestly, which is potentially harmful result, but the increase may not be significant. However, if you take it together with garlic pill, it will not have this adverse effect.
  • Fish oil doesn't cause excess bleeding, but right after surgery you don't want it to slow down the clotting process. Resume fish oil after you heal, perhaps after 3 days.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids in capsule form do not interfere with other medications. If you have concerns, ask your doctors.
  • Dr. Leaf has found:
    • A subgroup of people who actually got worse when they consume omega-3 fatty acids: those with congestive heart failure or chronic recurrent angina (chest pain) due to insufficient blood flow to their heart.
    • Any patient with an advanced state of impaired cardiac function should not be prescribed fish oil fatty acids or be urged to eat fish.
  • A recent study[8] found that men with high levels of omega-3 in their blood were at 43 per cent greater risk of prostate cancer than those with low concentrations, while less common aggressive “high-grade” tumours were 71 per cent more likely than in those not taking supplements.

Source(s):

  1. The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet by Evelyn Tribole, M.S., RD
  2. The Spectrum -- A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, Gain Health by Dean Ornish, M.D.
  3. Change Your Brain Change Your Body by Daniel G. Amen, M.D.
  4. Joseph O. Nwankwo, Arthur A. Spector, and Frederick E. Domann.  A nucleotide insertion in the transcriptional regulatory region of FADS2 gives rise to human fatty acid delta-6-desaturase deficiency.  J. Lipid Res., Dec 2003; 44: 2311 - 2319. 
  5. Cook, H. W. 1991. Fatty acid desaturation and chain elongation in eukaryotes. In Biochemistry of Lipids, Lipoproteins and Membranes. D. E. Vance and J. E. Vance, editors. Elsevier, Amsterdam. 141–169. 
  6. Sprecher, H., D. Luthria, B. S. Mohammed, and S. P. Baykousheva. 1995. Reevaluation of the pathway for the biosynthesis of polyunsaturated fatty acids. J. Lipid Res. 36: 2471–2477.
  7. The Queen of Fats by Susan Allport
  8. Omega-3 supplements 'could raise prostate cancer risk'
  9. The scientific evidence for a beneficial health relationship between walnuts and coronary heart disease.
  10. Potential protective properties of flax lignan secoisolariciresinol diglucoside
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