Wednesday
Sep052012

What the Hell is Omega 3 and Why Should I Give a Damn?

Omega 3, it's important stuff. Really.

I'm sure that if you're reading this you will have heard about omega 3 once or twice. I mean lets face it, yu're on a health and fitness blog; chances are that you give a crap about your body's wellbeing. And if you haven't heard about omega 3 even in passing by now... erm... where have you been?

 

You wouldn't understand man - you weren't there!

People say you should get more of it, they say it is good for you, but very few know why it is good for you.

Well you could be eating a pretty good diet and yet optimal health may still elude you. Omega 3s directly influence every organ, every muscle fibre, and every single cell in the body. If you're not getting enough of it, you are seriously compromising your health and potential longevity, and wouldn't even realise it.

In this blog post we will be looking at what this Omega 3 stuff is, how it affects your body, and why it is just as important to your health as vegetables and sunlight are (more on those two another time).

Get ready to watch me wax lyrical about omega 3

 

Omega 3 first came to light in a 1971 study that tried to determine why the Inuit population of Greenland did not suffer from cardiovascular disease like western populations did. The Inuit population in Greenland was particularly remarkable in this respect as cardiovascular disease was almost unheard of in that part of the world.

The study compared the fats found in the blood of the native Inuits from Greenland, with that of more "westernised" people of comparable ages from Denmark. A group of Inuits that themselves had emigrated to Denmark were also studied to assess how much of the variation in the results were down to genetic factors. 

The Greenland Inuits diet was different from the Danish control population primarily its consumption of meat. The Inuit's main source of calories was from sea food, making their diet highly rich in protein and quite low in carbohydrate. This is simply because the environmental factors of Greenland don't exactly lend themselves to agriculture; only 1% of Greenland is considered arable. This is further illustrated by the following picture:

Greenland: Crops don't do well here, much like your precious "hope". 

The study suggested that high amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids in the Inuits diet was the reason why cardiovascular disease was of such low incidence, as this reduced triglycerides, heart rate, blood pressure, and atherosclerosis.

Source: Dyerberg J, Bang HO, Hjorne N. (1975). Fatty acid composition of the plasma lipids in Greenland Eskimos. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 28, 958-966.

Fast forward to today and there is an ever growing body of research to indicate that Omega 3 plays a hugely significant role in the health and wellbeing of the human body. To date, over nine thousand human studies have been conducted and national health organisations are beginning to acknowledge this importance.

 

Okay Nick, but you still haven't really told me why I should care. I mean, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.

Let me draw your attention to something.

Below are the results of a study done by the World Health Organisation in 2002 to determine the causes of death for the world's population. Guess what occupies the number 1 spot...

 The Full list is available here.

Here's a sobering thought:

Ever wondered how you're going to die? Well chances are it's on the list you're currently looking at...

Also, it is most likely going to be that one right at the very top; "Cardiovascular Diseases", coming in at a whopping 29.34%.

Omega 3 plays a key role in preventing all cardiovascular diseases.

Here is what the American Heart Association has to say on Omega 3 consumption.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in epidemiological and clinical trials to reduce the incidence of CVD (Cardiovascular Disease). Large-scale epidemiological studies suggest that individuals at risk for CHD (Coronary Heart Disease) benefit from the consumption of plant- and marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids, although the ideal intakes presently are unclear. Evidence from prospective secondary prevention studies suggests that EPA/DHA supplementation ranging from 0.5 to 1.8 g/d (either as fatty fish or supplements) significantly reduces subsequent cardiac and all-cause mortality. For alpha-linolenic acid, total intakes of 1.5 to 3 g/d seem to be beneficial.

Source: Kris-Etherton P., Harris W. & Appel L. (2002). Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of the American Heart Association. 106, 2747-2757.

In English: More Omega 3 = Less Cardiovascular Disease and Coronary Heart Disease.

 

Now that's all well and good, but what matters when it comes to Omega 3, isn't simply the physical amount of Omega 3 intake, but rather the ratio between Omega 3, and it's evil twin brother molecule Omega 6, otherwise known as the n-6 to n-3 ratio.

In the words of the Journal Nutrition Reviews:

Omega-6 (n-6) and omega-3 (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are precursors of potent lipid mediators, termed eicosanoids, which play an important role in the regulation of inflammation. Eicosanoids derived from n-6 PUFAs (e.g., arachidonic acid) have proinflammatory and immunoactive functions, whereas eicosanoids derived fromn-3 PUFAs [e.g., eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)] have anti-inflammatory properties, traditionally attributed to their ability to inhibit the formation of n-6 PUFA-derived eicosanoids.

Source: Wall R., Ross R.P., Fitzgerald G.F., & Stanton C. (2010). Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutrition Reviews. 68 (5), 280-289.

Once again, in English that means:

  1. Omega 3s are anti-inflammatory agents.
  2. Omega 6s are pro-inflammatory agents.

"Evil twin" might be a bit of an exaggeration. Inflammation happens in the body as a reaction to harmful stimuli. These may include, diseases, infections, cellular damage, or irritants. It is a key part of your immune system, whithout which you would end up as a number on that aforementioned list.

But when that inflammatory system is overstimuliated, bad things happen.

An overactive inflammatory response is at root with such joyous afflictions as: inflammatory bowel disease, cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, psychiatric disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and of course not forgetting, good ol' cardiovascular disease.

He's making a list, he's checking it twice...

Omega 3 and Omega 6 affect every cell in your body, so the balance between these two is very important.

Too much of one or the other and you could find yourself in trouble.

In the westernised world, we are overwhelmingly weighted towards the Omega 6 consumption, AKA the inflammatory end of the scale.

Several sources of information suggest that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1 whereas in Western diets the ratio is 15/1-16.7/1. Western diets are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, and have excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared with the diet on which human beings evolved and their genetic patterns were established.

Source: Simopoulos AP. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.. Nutrition and Health. 56 (8), 365-79.

This is because we base our diet heavily on rich sourses of Omega 6.

Which includes all this stuff:

Source

And all this stuff:

Source

So basically, oils and grains; things which we consume an enormous amount of in the modern world.On top of that, we also feed our livestock grains too.

  • What are cows supposed to eat? Grass. What do we feed them? Feedlot (lots of grains)
  • What are chickens supposed to eat? Insects, worms and bugs - like most other birds. What do we feed them? Primarilly mixed corn and other grains.

Oh don't worry Mr. Consumer, they're eating "organic grains".

What this does is upset the balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 in these animals, making them pro Omega 6 as well.

So we're eating Omega 6 heavy grains, and Omega 6 enriched meat (and by extension omega 6 enriched dairy products). As a result our Omega 6, Omega 3 balance is around 15/1, instead of around 1/1 where it should be.

 

What do I need to do to correct my Omega 3 to Omega 6 balance?

Cut back or elimate vegetable oils and grains, things that aren't meant to be in your diet anyway. These substances only started to be consumed ten thousand years ago, whereas humans have been around in one form or another for the last two million years. I went over this in some detail in the series of videos I made explaining the idea of the Paleo Diet.

Instead we need to concentrate on getting the majority of our calories from vegetables, fruits and wild caught sources of meat and fish (Or if this is too expensive - supplementing regular meat with fish oil capsules).

Now for most people buying wild caught animals, or catching your own is:

A) expensive.

or

B) time consuming.

Though it does provide some epic photo opportunities.

That's where Omega 3 supplementation comes in.

It comes in two principal flavours:

  • The vegetarian Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
  • The marine sourced Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

When compared to vegetarian sources, fish oil is an overwhelmingly superior source of Omega 3. The body can process it far better, and as a result needs far less of the stuff in order to achieve the desired effect.

 

How much should I take?

Well it depends. If you are eating lots of wild caught fish every day and barely touching the grains and oils, you might not need any at all. If you aren't so lucky to be able to do this then supplementation may be in order.

If you eat a 100g portion of fatty fish (such as salmon), this provides approximately 1000mg of active omega-3. If you can get your omega-3 requirements through food before resorting to supplements, do so.

However, if you do take fish oil capsules, a couple of things you should know. 

Firstly, make sure you have fish oil capsules and NOT cod liver oil capsules; they're not the same thing.

Cod liver oil contains enormous amounts of vitamin A, so much in fact that it can be dangerous to you if you take large doses. Fish oil is made from the fatty flesh of the fish, not the liver (where the vitamin A is concentrated) and so does not have this problem.

To clear up any confusion have a look on the back of your labeling and you will see the following.

The problem being highlighted here in red.

Just check the back of your fish oil and make sure you have the right stuff. Simple :-)

 

Next, you need to understand what constitutes Omega 3. I've drawn the handy diagram below to outline what you need to look at when buying fish oil capsules.

The size of the fish oil capsule is really neither here or there. What really counts is the amount of "Active EPA/DHA" or "Active Omega-3". In this case a 1000mg capsule contains a 300mg dose of the good stuff.

As a minimum I would advise that people get at least 1000mg of Omega-3 per day, from whatever source you can.

At the maximum, limit your intake to 3000mg of active omega 3 per day. Any further increase should be done under the supervision of a registered doctor who knows what he is doing. This is in line with American Heart Association advise and what well established websites such as Livestrong.com recommend.

Personally I opt to go for around 2500mg per day, from a mixture of fish oil and fish itself, as I find that works well for me. Give the stuff a go and see how you feel from the amount you're taking.

 

Concluding...

And that's it. Omega 3, one of the best things to get into your body. I hope you found that a convincing argument and that it does you some good. Questions as always are welcome.  :-)

   

 

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Reader Comments (1)

Very well written and instructive article.
I am heading to the supplement shop!

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHAHA(french accent)

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