OMEGA-3

WHAT IT DOES AND WHY WE NEED IT

Omega-3 is one of the most important nutrients in our diet. From conception to old age it plays a vital role in our development and in maintaining good health, protecting us from heart disease, arthritis, some cancers and many other health problems.

GOOD FATS AND BAD FATS

Many of us believe that we ought to cut back on our fat intake. Actually, some fats are good for us. In fact, some are absolutely crucial for our health and well-being. The problem is that while the bad fats are available in abundance, we often don’t get enough of the good ones.

The ‘bad’ fats are ‘saturated’. In general these are the solid fats like animal fats. Over-consumption increases body weight and they have been linked to high cholesterol levels and heart disease.

The ‘good’ fats are all ‘unsaturated’. These are liquid oils. There are two groups, the Omega-6s and the Omega-3s.

These fats are directly involved in the cell membranes, and they also give rise to a group of substances called prostaglandins (PGAs).

Your body is a finely tuned biological organism that can be compared to a symphony orchestra, and the PGAs (which are similar to hormones in their function) act as the conductors.

The PGAs themselves need to be balanced to ensure that the body responds properly to their instructions.

MORE ABOUT ESSENTIAL OILS

Our bodies cannot make these good fats - we have to take them in from what we eat and drink. The technical terms for this is ‘essential’, and these fats are called Essential Fatty Acids or EFAs.

The Omega-6 fats are produced in the body from linoleic acid which comes from whole grains, some nuts and seed oils that are common in our normal diet, although modern food processing often destroys their nutritional value. Getting adequate amounts of these essential oils is therefore quite easy.

The Omega-3 fats, on the other hand, are mostly found only in certain kinds of oil-rich fish.

Flaxseed oil is sometimes suggested as a good source, but this is not really true.

Flaxseed actually provides linolenic acid which has to be converted by the body before it becomes biologically active. This process is not really as efficient as it should be, and becomes less so as we get older.

Moreover, flaxseed oil is very unstable, soon oxidises and quickly goes rancid.

The best source

The best source of Omega-3 is fish, because it does not need to be converted by our bodies. The fish already contains the active forms of these oils, predominantly EPA and DHA.

However, these fish have to be the oily or fatty kinds such as salmon, trout, herrings, mackerel, sardines, pilchards, kippers and fresh tuna. Canned tuna and hake, cod and other popular “fish ’n chips” varieties simply don’t provide adequate amounts!

Very few people eat enough oily fish to get a sufficient supply of Omega-3. One recommendation is that children should eat at least two portions of oily fish a week, and adults up to four portions a week (one portion is about 140 grams.)

How many people do you know who actually achieve this?

A BODY OUT OF BALANCE

Because most of us are not eating nearly enough oily fish, our bodies are thrown out of balance.

Ideally there should be twice as much of the ‘6’ family as the ‘3’ family (a ratio of 2:1). In reality, this ratio is way off, ranging from 15:1 to 30:1 in typical Western diets!

What effect does this imbalance have on our health?

For example, the body uses Omega 6 fats to produce the prostaglandins (PGA1 and PGA2) that induce inflammation - which is the body’s natural counter to infection.

On the other hand it requires EPA and DHA in order to produce prostaglandins (PGA3) that are anti-inflammatory and keep the inflammation in check.

If we do not get enough Omega-3 this inflammation is no longer under control, and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis result.

Another example is that DHA oils are essential for proper brain function, concentration and learning ability, healthy eyesight and emotional wellbeing.

THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF BALANCE

Getting the right balance of the Omega oils has some important health benefits:

Heart Health:

Omega-3 oils lower blood pressure, inhibit cholesterol production, reduce plaque formation in the blood, increase HDLs (the good lipoproteins), inhibit the aggregation of platelets and blood clot formation, lower plasma lipid levels, and reduce pain from angina. A diet rich in these oils prevents the development of these conditions.

Arthritis and Inflammatory Ailments:

As we have already noted, Omega-3 oils reduce inflammation and thus reduce the swelling, pain and immobility of joints.

Sportspeople can reduce the extent of muscle discomfort following vigorous exercise.

Taken together with zinc, these oils can improve various skin conditions, sometimes dramatically, e.g. dandruff, dry, rough scaly skin, eczema, psoriasis, sun sensitivity, and acne.

Reproductive Health:

Women suffering from premenstrual syndrome and menstrual cramps may get relief. Fertility problems may be helped.

Omega-3 is essential for men since the health of the prostate depends on adequate supplies. Prostatic diseases, including prostatitis, enlargement of the gland and even cancer might be prevented.

Infant and Children’s Health:

From conception onwards, children need plenty of Omega-3 oils for their brain and eye tissue to develop.

Because of this, pregnant and breast-feeding mothers should supplement their diets.

Sudden infant death syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders have been associated with a deficiency of these oils, and there is also evidence to suggest that autism and orthodontic problems are a consequence of this deficiency.

Brain and Mental Health:

Omega-3 is important for the transmission of nerve impulses, and it can affect emotions, moods and actions. Supplementation can lead to inner calm and greater control over one’s life.

Deficiency can also result in severe mental illness and schizophrenia. Less dramatic but no less important is the reduction in headaches, migraines, tinnitus and fatigue, and the improvement of memory and learning ability.

Immunity and Cancer:

If you don’t have enough Omega-3, your immune system will be weakened. This makes you prone to common infections like colds and flu.

This may be a warning sign of worse things to come if the imbalance is not corrected.

These oils have also been found to inhibit the growth of many cancers such as breast, colon, skin and prostate, and to decrease the incidence of metastasis.

It also appears to increase the response to chemotherapy while protecting the normal cells against the toxicity of the drugs.

It also reduces the cachectia (or weight loss) associated with cancer - often malnutrition is the actual cause of death.

SOME CONCLUSIONS

Altogether, a proper balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 is vital for good health.

As we have already noted, the best way to get enough Omega-3 you need to eat a lot of oily and fatty fish, and very few of us actually do that.

Nutritionists believe that our ancestors got this balance from their normal diets, but today this no longer is true

In the modern world, the damage done to our bodies by pollution makes it all the more important to get plenty of Omega-3, while the amount of processed foods in our diet makes it all the more difficult to get it.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Remembering that your body can only get the essential oils through your diet, judge for yourself whether you are eating oil-rich fish such as mackerel, herring, tuna and salmon on a regular basis.

Most people don’t, and this is why problems such as heart disease and arthritis are now so common.

What you can easily do is take a nutritional supplement - and just about everyone needs to do this.

But be sure...

There is still a problem, however. Fish oil is the best source, but the oceans are polluted and many fish are contaminated by mercury and other heavy metals.

Farmed fish are often fed grains which lack Omega 3. Also, in order to extract the oils cheaply, many producers press the whole catch, regardless of what it contains. And they pay little attention to the presence of dangerous heavy metals and other pollutants in their products.

Look for a brand of supplement from a reputable manufacturer that is careful about the source of the fish oils (preferably salmon oil) that it uses.

It may cost a little more than other brands, but hey! You are worth it.


You'll find that Omega-3 is recommended at every stage of life, from conception to old age. We cover each stage in our Health Foundations pages.