Many people are striving to eat the right foods, get enough sleep and keep stress levels down. But how many days a month do you really meet those goals? It can be tough taking good care of yourself if you have a fulltime job, family obligations, and friends we want to connect with. Making sure to get the proper nutrients each day in the right amounts is key to sustaining physical and emotional wellbeing so you can keep up with a busy schedule.
One kind of nutrient the body has to get through nutrition is omega fatty acids. The body is quite the remarkable manufacturer of fats and can make most of the different types of fats it needs, such as cholesterol, from the food we eat. Many fats are part of the group of nutrients the body needs to maintain good health. Omega oils, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, are one of those types of nutrients that are called “essential” because they are a kind of fatty acid your body needs, but does not make on its own.
Few nutrients have been studied so much by our science community than these wondrous omega-3 oils.
What Exactly Are These Wonderful Essential Fats?
Omega oils refer to omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids which are all polyunsaturated fats. You may have heard or read that saturated fats are unhealthy for you because they can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries, raise your low-density cholesterol (LDL), and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. For example, eating too much fatty meat, processed and fast foods, certain cooking oils, and dairy can really raise the levels of saturated fat in your diet. The typical Standard American Diet (SAD) contains way too much of these types of food.
Omega oils are different than most other fats and are called the good kind of fat because they are biologically active food. They have very important roles to play in your body such as making sure your cells membranes are healthy, helping to prevent inflammation and heart disease, giving you more energy, improve gut health, improving your emotional wellbeing, and even supporting a healthy pregnancy. That is quite the power punch for something that is so easy to obtain in a healthy diet!
Let’s learn a little more about these omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are actually a family of polyunsaturated fats. Due to the lack of a proper healthy diet for most Americans, omega-3 oils often need to be added to our daily dose of nutrients. The 3 main omega 3-fatty acids are:
- Eicosapentainoic Acid (EPA) – is the most powerful omega-3 for supporting gut health and well-documented for its ability to protect intestinal mucosa and reduce oxidative damage in the gut.
- Docosahexasenoic Acid (DHA) – is most known for its beneficial impact on brain health. One of DHA’s most important roles is to promote healthy signal conduction in neurons and to protect the nerves in both the brain and the gut.
- Docosapentaenoic Acid (DPA) – DPA is also known as the “forgotten fatty acid”, but it’s receiving more attention in the omega-3 family due to its unique ability to increase EPA and DHA levels in the body’s tissues. It also supports a healthy gut by reducing certain proteins that cause inflammation and, thus, reduces damage to the lining of the gut.
Why We Also Need Omega-6 Fatty Acids
The omega-6 fatty acids are mostly used by the body for energy, brain health and maintenance of the reproductive system. Our American diet trends towards getting more than enough of these types of fatty acids. Omega-6 oils are a group of 4 different fatty acids:
- Linoleic Acid – LA fatty acid is considered a “provitamin” because the body first has to break it down to form other essential fatty acids. When converted to other forms, it helps promote blood clotting, induces the good kind of healing inflammation, forms proinflammatory agents, helps with smooth muscle contraction.
- Arachidonic Acid – AC fatty acid is significant for its role in helping maintain membrane fluidity, repair muscles, metabolize cholesterol, support with blood vessel dilation, inhibit stomach acid, and assist in gut motility.
- Gamma Linoleic Acid – GLA fatty acid is a special type of fat in the omega-6 family. The body thrives best when there is a proper balance of omega-6 oils. GLA nourishes your cells and decreases inflammation and without it, things don’t work properly. It is great for maintaining youthful skin (yes, please!), balancing hormone levels, and making your metabolism run efficiently. As we age, our body does not have activated sources of GLA so we need to get it from our food and supplements.
- Conjugated linoleic Acid – Research has shown that this fatty acid has a significant inhibitory effect on the establishment and progression of heart disease. It can support reduction of the “bad” LDL cholesterol and help with having the right LDL to HDL balance.
A Deep Dive in to Omega-3 Health Benefits
Omega 3s have dozens of therapeutic effects and this gem of a nutrient has been well-studied for over 50 years. Here are 7 important health benefits to show you why consumption of omega-3 oils should be on your daily to-do list:
Heart health – There has been so much research conducted on the use of omega-3 oils to protect your heart. They help to lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a to role in the development of atherosclerosis. Several large patient trials have looked at the effects of omega-3 oils on heart disease, and one very notable study is called the GISSI Prevention Trial. Heart attack survivors who took a 1-gram capsule of omega-3 fats every day for three years were less likely to have a repeat heart attack, stroke, or die of sudden death than those who took a placebo. Notably, the risk of sudden cardiac death was reduced by about 50 percent. That is pretty amazing!
2) Inflammation – Inflammation is a natural response to infections and damage in your body, and, therefore, vital to a healthy body. Because of today’s high level of stress, poor diet, and environmental pollution, the body tends to always be in an overactive state of inflammation. Long-term inflammation is the root cause of almost every chronic Western illness, including metabolic disease and obesity. Fortunately, the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the production of proteins and substances linked to inflammation. Many studies using omega-3s for chronic inflammatory diseases revealed significant benefit, including decreased disease activity and a lowered use of anti-inflammatory drugs.
3) Reduced risk of blood clots – Omega-3 oils first came into the research community way back in 1970’s when the research team of Dyerberg and Bang studied the native Greenland community and their high fish-based diet. This was the first study to indicate that fish oils could help to reduce blood clotting because they thought that the fatty acids worked much like aspirin to prevent blood platelets from clumping together.
4) Lowering triglyceride levels – Omega-3s are an effective and safe options to cut down on higher levels of triglycerides, according to the American Heart Association. Omega-3s with their EPA and DHA fatty acids, when taken at a higher dose of 4 grams per day, have been shown to reduce triglyceride levels by at least 30% in patients with triglycerides of 500 mg/dL.
5) Improving Gut Health-There are about 3 trillion microbes that inhabit your gut and keeping them happy and healthy is critical for optimal health. Numerous studies have shown that consuming omega-3 oils can change the gut microbiome for the better by increasing the number of bacteria in the gut that produced anti-inflammatory compounds as well as short-chained fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA protect us form a whole host of diseases, such as bowel cancer, diabetes and depressions. There also seems to be interaction between the gut microbe, omega-3 fatty acids, and an increase in immunity and maintenance of a healthy gut lining. It is important that your gut have a healthy bacterial community without an overrun of “bad” inflammation-causing bacteria. A daily, healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids will ensure that you and your gut are on good terms! Remember: omega-3 fatty acids.
6) Fight Depression and Anxiety – Today’s world has so many people stressed with anxiety and depression on a constant rise. Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the world. Many people don’t know that omega-3 fatty acids can help with emotional issues. It has been documented that people who consume omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to be depressed and, in fact, studies have indicated that low omega-3s have been reported in people with psychiatric disorders. Mood disorders in teenagers have shown improvement with the addition of omega-3 oils to their diet. One major reason that anxiety seems to improve when taking omega-3 oils is the lowering of inflammation and increased health of the gut microbiome. With all the reasons to be stressed these days, adding omega-3 oils to your daily regime is a must!
7) Improving Pregnancy– It is essential that women who are pregnant, hoping to become pregnant, and nursing mothers get a good daily dose of omega-3 oils. From the third trimester until the second year of life, a developing child needs a steady supply of DHA to form the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Almost 40% of the fat makeup of a brain is DHA fatty acid! Many women shy away from eating fish because of concerns that possible contaminants might harm their babies, yet the evidence for harm from lack of omega-3 fats is far more consistent. Make sure you are always buying wild-caught fish to ensure a health source of omega-rich protein.
Why You Need To Balance Consumption of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Oils
We have talked about the importance of getting adequate levels of omega-3 and omega-6 oils in your diet but did you know that it is very important to balance the intake of each type of omega fatty acids? Nutritional scientists have conducted research to show that most people on a Western-style diet eat too many foods rich in omega-6 oils but low in omega-3 oils. While the evidence is not clear-cut, many nutritionists believe that a diet high in omega-6 oils leads to an increase in inflammation and emotional problems.
Why are we consuming so much omega-6 oils in our diet? Before the Industrial Age which allowed for mass production of food, people ate 4 times LESS of foods that are high in omega-6 oils. Early Americans lived off the land and were “hunter-gatherers” who raised their own produce, grains, and fruits and hunted or fished for their protein. This is because there was no highly-processed foods made with “bad” oils such as corn and peanut oil, and the consumption of soybean oil was very low. In addition, foods such as store-bought baked goods, fatty cured meats and certainly fast food restaurants weren’t available. When a pre-industrial person wanted dinner, they didn’t go to a drive through restaurant… they cooked a healthy meal at home!
With the development of our Standard American Diet, omega-6 oils are abundant and can lead to issues such as chronic inflammation, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and brain dysfunction. For example, the graph below shows the exponential increase in the consumption of soybean oil since the Industrial Age. This is a health problem because soybean oil is 55% omega-6 fatty acid (linoleic acid)! Soybean oil is used in so many processed foods and is one of the most widely-used cooking oils.
Consumption of omega-6 oils is part of a healthy diet, but the issue becomes having the right amount of both omega-3 and omega-6 oils. People who eat very little fish, nuts, beans and leafy green vegetables are most likely to have a high imbalance of omega-6 fatty acids over omega-3 fatty acids. Fortunately, that can be corrected with changes in diet and an addition of an omega-3 supplement.
The Best Sources for Healthy Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Hippocrates is often given the nod for the quote “Let food be they medicine and let medicine be they food.” We always want to obtain our essential nutrients from good, high-quality food that is free from pesticides and other contaminants. You’re best source of high-omega-3 fatty acids comes from fish. All fish has some level of omega-3s, but anchovies, salmon, halibut, crab, tuna, sardines and cod are all excellent examples. The American Heart Association recommends that people who do not have a history of heart disease eat at least 2 servings of fish each week (a total of 6-8 ounces. If you have a pre-existing issue with high cholesterol, high triglycerides, or heart disease you probably will want to consume fish at least 5-6 times a week as your primary source of protein.
Red meat is a good source of omega-3 oils if it is not from large cow lots that are fed grain-based food containing soy and corn. This type of feed reduces the omega-3 content of the meat so the polyunsaturated fats in the meat are mostly omega-6s. Therefore, you only want to eat beef that has been grass-fed and grass-finished. If you are getting your protein from chicken or pork, eat the lean cuts of meat to prevent getting excessive omega-6 fatty acids.
Non-meat sources of omega-3 oils come from certain nuts and flax seed, chia seed and walnuts are great examples. If you are someone that enjoys a good protein smoothie, and a few tablespoons of flax seed to the mix. Seaweed, nori, and spirulina are a great vegetarian source for omega-3 oils and seaweed also comes with a protein punch.
Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements
You always want to strive to get your essential nutrients from good, wholesome food but oftentimes the best of intentions are met with a lack of time to go to the store, prepare meals, and be watchful of what you eat. A high-quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement can be the next best source of ensuring that you get the necessary daily dose of this amazing nutrient. Using an omega-3 supplement allows you to regulate the quantity of omega-3s you take in and to boost the dose if desired to support managing a specific health issue.
There are dozens of companies that make all sorts of combinations of omega-3 oils but one main factor to consider is the ratio of the different kinds of omega-3 fatty acids. Earlier we talked about how omega-3 oils are actually 3 kinds of fatty acids: EPA, DHA, and DPA. An omega-3 supplement will contain all three of these fatty acids but for the best health results, you want to choose a supplement that has a 2:1 ratio of EPA: DHA. Studies have shown that this fatty acid ratio is better at reducing inflammation. Here is a picture of the supplement label from our favorite omega-3 formulation, Gut Specific Fish Oil from Microbiome Lab. You can see it has both the proper ratio of EPA to DHA and includes the essential DPA fatty acid.
Vegetarian Omega-3 Algae Oil Supplement
Algae oil is another good source of omega-3 oils if you are someone that either really does not like fish or practice a vegetarian or vegan diet. You might think of green pond scum when you think of algae, but you may not know that this marine organism is also cultivated in laboratories for its unique oil. Certain species of microalgae are especially rich in two of the main types of omega-3 fatty acids — EPA and DHA. In fact, one study found that the percentage of omega-3s in microalgae is comparable to that of various fish.
One of the major differences between a fish oil-based supplement and an algae oil one is that algae omega-3s do not contain the 2:1 ratio of EPA to DHA. However, if you don’t eat a lot of fatty fish, then you may want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement. For people deficient in omega-3, this is an inexpensive and highly effective way to support overall health.
The (Fat) Bottom Line
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most well-studied nutrients ever and there are dozens of health benefits to convince you to make sure they are included in your diet or supplement regimes. They can help you protect your heart, reduce inflammation, prevent blood clotting, reduce triglycerides, and improve gut health.
Adding a daily portion of fish, nuts, or seaweed while eliminating processed foods and vegetable oils will ensure that you are getting the right amount of omega-3 oil while reducing your intake of omega-6 oil. When you are feeling rushed and don’t have time to cook, go for a high-quality supplement with a 2:1 ratio of EPA:DHA fatty acids to give your body these essential fatty acids. If you don’t eat meat or fish, you can easily supplement with an algae-based omega-3 oil. Regardless of how you get them, omega-3 fatty acids are one of the keys to maintaining a healthy mind and body.
Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live. Jim Rohn