In the last 30 years, there have been over 10,000 studies published validating the many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. This really should be no surprise as omega-3’s are a crucial component of all our organ and tissue membranes. In addition, they play a critical role in our metabolism, cardiovascular and immune system, brain development and cognitive function, as well as skin, joint, and eye health. Let’s look at the key points of omega-3’s.
What are omega-3’s and where do they come from?
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) necessary for normal metabolism. They are considered essential because our bodies cannot synthesize them, and we must acquire them either through diet or supplementation. The three types of omega-3’s are:
- α-Linolenic acid, or ALA (short-chained fatty acids) found in plants such as flaxseed oil, hemp oil, and chia seeds.
- eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA (long-chained fatty acids) found in algae oil or marine oil such as fish or krill oil.
- docosahexaenoic acid or DHA (long-chained fatty acids) also found in algae or marine oil.
ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA, but our bodies are very inefficient at converting ALA into EPA and DHA. This process also worsens with age. Because the greatest health benefits come from DHA and EPA, we should be getting our omega-3’s directly from either fish, fish or krill oil, or algal oil for vegetarians.
What are the health benefits of DHA and EPA?
DHA comprises about half of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and is naturally found in breast milk. Some of its roles include:
- infant brain and eye (particularly retinal) development
- cell communication
- memory and cognitive health
- lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and lowering triglyceride levels if combined with a healthy lifestyle
- supporting eye health and reducing the risk of age-related vision issues, such as macular degeneration
Because DHA is so critical in infant development, pregnant and breastfeeding women should supplement and have a diet high in DHA (at least 300 mg/day if not more). This is especially critical during the 3rd trimester, where DHA concentrations increase dramatically (up to 300-500%) in the infant brain.
EPA is useful and applicable in later stages of life. For children, EPA is important once they start school to aid in cognitive development and social adjustment. For adults and the elderly, EPA helps to decrease inflammation, improve cardiovascular function, support cognitive function, and treat depression.
What is the best way to get omega-3’s?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming 3.5 ounces of cooked fatty fish at least 2-3 times a week (for a total of 7-10 ounces), in order to supply ourselves with all the omega-3’s we need. However, mercury, heavy metals, and radioactive poisons found in fish now make it much more difficult to maintain the levels of omega-3’s our bodies need.
The best fish to eat is wild salmon, herring, and mackerel, (which have the highest concentrations of DHA and EPA with lowest amounts of mercury per 3 ounce serving), or smaller fish such as sardines and anchovies, which will be less susceptible to mercury contamination due to their size. Fish should be baked or grilled and not fried, as frying eliminates much of the nutritional content of the fish. It is best to avoid larger fish such as king mackerel, swordfish, shark, and tilefish due to high levels of mercury. Beware also of farmed salmon, which may contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), chemicals that can cause serious long term health effects.
If you cannot eat enough fish in your diet or are strictly vegan, then supplementation will be essential.
What should you look for in an omega-3 supplement?
The best omega-3 supplement will be fish oil in the triglyceride form, which is the natural bioidentical form found in fish for our bodies to maximize absorption. This is opposed to fish oil in an ethyl ester form which results in lower absorption and lower assimilation into our cells and tissues.
The fish oil should be pollution-free and purified of any mercury, lead, harmful chemicals, or pesticides. It should also be non-GMO and hexane free.
It should be fresh without any fishy odor or taste. The oil should be burp free, found in products where the fish protein is completely removed.
Finally, it should be eco-friendly and come from a sustainable source.
The two brands I recommend for my patients are:
- Ortho-molecular Products Orthomega 820, with 430 mg EPA and 390 mg DHA in 1 soft gel
- Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, with 650 mg EPA and 450 mg DHA in 2 soft gels, liquid form available
If you are vegan, then Nordic Naturals offers a vegetarian option algal oil:
- Algae Omega, with 180 mg EPA and 320 mg DHA in 2 soft gels, one of few algal oils with a significant amount of EPA, liquid form available
For babies and children, Nordic Naturals has several options:
- Baby’s DHA, liquid form for babies 5-35 lbs, with 350 mg EPA, 485 mg DHA, and 300 I.U.’s Vitamin D
- Baby’s DHA vegetarian, liquid form from microalgae source for babies 5-35 lbs, with 225 mg EPA and 450 mg DHA
- Ultimate Omega Junior, for children 5+ with 325 mg EPA and 225 mg DHA in 2 soft gels
Note: I usually recommend the formulations with the highest concentration of EPA and DHA. These concentrations are good for everyone in general, and especially for pregnant and nursing women as well as those with documented coronary heart disease, as recommended by the AHA. However, everyone responds differently, may have different needs, or may be sensitive to higher concentrations. Higher concentrations of fish oil may also increase the risk of bleeding, particularly for those who are on blood thinners such as Coumadin. Please use with caution.
Now time to bake that salmon!
In health and wellness,