The Supplement Scoop
Many people have heard some buzz about “Omega-3 Fats” in the media for the past few years, and you’ve probably seen the bottles of countless brands lining the shelves at your drugstore or supermarket. So what’s the big deal? And what’s the difference between all the supplements out there? I’m glad you asked. I’ll address the science behind omega-3, explain the pickle we Americans are in concerning it, then talk about health benefits and sources of omega-3.
Technically speaking, an omega-3 fatty acid is an unsaturated fatty acid that has its final carbon-carbon double bond in the n-3 position (third from the end). Some of the most common omega-3’s used in the body are ALA (α-linolenic acid) EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). All omega-3’s are essential – meaning your boy cannot make them de novo out of spare parts. Additionally, your body has only a limited ability to convert “short-chain” omega-3’s (like ALA) into the extremely beneficial “long-chain” fatty acids (EPA and DHA). Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both used to produce eicosanoids (like prostaglandins, etc.) which are partly responsible for pain sensation and inflammation to aid in healing. The difference between the two is that omega-6 is converted into eicosanoids much more rapidly, and therefore can promote chronic inflammation if not properly balanced with omega-3’s, which are “less inflammatory.” Okay, that’s enough Biochem…
Why are they so important? Many of the chronic diseases afflicting our modern society are inflammatory in nature, notably heart disease. Therefore, since omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential, ingesting them in the proper ratios is absolutely crucial to good health and avoiding chronic inflammatory disease. The proper ratio in humans of omega-6 to omega-3 ranges from 1:1 to 1:4, depending upon which study you look at, though most agree that you need more omega-3.
The dilemma: our modern civilization has perverted our “natural” food supply and the resulting effects on our health are devastating. The typical western diet has an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of anywhere between 10:1 to 30:1 – that’s an absurd imbalance on the side of omega-6! No wonder we have so many inflammatory diseases wreaking havoc in our society. And the only “adjustment” I know of that will enable the body to correct the ratio of essential fatty acids is an “adjustment” to our diet.
The benefits of supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids have been studied extensively, resulting in the following conclusions: Omega-3 supplementation is extremely effective in preventing, reducing, and reversing cardio-vascular disease, along with other inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to be an effective means for preventing and even treating cancer, especially breast, colon, and prostate cancers. They are also paramount to the proper development of both the neurological and immune systems in children, and protecting these systems in adults. While these findings are impressive, please understand that I’m not advocating the use of omega-3 fatty acids as a supplemental, silver-bullet treatment for disease, but rather as a necessary dietary lifestyle change to maintain good health.
So where do we get these amazing fatty acids? This is where our processed food and factory farming industries have done us a grave disservice. On the one hand, most of the oils used in processed food are outrageously high in omega-6 – e.g. Soybean oil 7:1, corn oil 46:1, canola oil is 2:1 The following oils contain no omega-3’s: sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil.. On the other hand, parts of our diet that normally would be good sources of omega-3’s have been altered by factory farming: grass-fed beef is 1:4, grain-fed beef is 36:1. Generally, grass-eating animals have much higher ratios of omega-3. This is one more reason it is crucial to buy grass-fed beef, rather than grain-fed.
Remembering that EPA and DHA are really what we’re after, a few great sources, other than grass-fed meat, for omega-3 fatty acids are fish oils (salmon, cod liver,) flax seed oil (ALA only,) krill oil, and oils from algae. Having these sources available as a part of our diets is not always convenient, which is why I recommend supplementation. I do strongly urge, however, to find a good quality supplement. The drugstore or supermarket brand of omega-3 capsules are often rancid and of poor quality. Here are a few brands that I trust: Carlson’s, Nordic Naturals, Garden of Life, Mercola, and Maximized Living’s “Perfect Omega.”