A lot of questions have come in lately about the essential fatty acid omega 3 and how to ensure we are getting enough of this ‘essential’ nutrient. Omega 3 is known as an essential fatty acid or EFA because it is essential to healthy function but cannot be made by the body so it is essential that we get it from food. The same applies to omega 6, but that’s for another day.
EFAs are known as super poly-unsaturated oils. This means they are extremely vulnerable to damage. Exposure to heat, light and oxygen will rapidly turn the precious fats rancid. Hence, when you extract and EFA for its source food, think fish oil from the fish or flax oil from the flax seed, the oil immediately starts to spoil. This makes treatment of foods that contain omega 3 a really important issue and crucially the making of supplements too.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in precious few food sources. Oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, herring, anchovies, tuna and wild salmon along with a little omega 3 in the meat of animals fed exclusively on grass and some free range organic eggs have a little too. When you understand how many bodily functions require omega 3, the issue of getting enough become clear:
Omega 3 is very anti-inflammatory, which helps with healing and general function; it is important in the regulation of many hormones; supports healthy brain function including improving mood regulation; eye heath requires large amounts of omega 3; immune regulation; body fat management; joint health; heart health and reduction in blood pressure are just some of the benefits.
Omega 3, along with omega 6, is also found in small amounts in some nuts and seeds, ,flax seeds and chia seeds being particularly rich in omega 3, as are walnuts (ever eaten some walnuts and noticed a sour smell and taste – this is the precious oils turning rancid). However, and this is really critical, there is NO EPA or DHA in these sources of omega 3. What does this mean? Plant source of omega 3 are not biologically available. The body has to covert plant omega 3 (short chain fatty acid) to active omega 3 (long chain), which comes in 2 forms, EPA and DHA. DHA is especially rich and required in the brain, and EPA is highly anti-inflammatory and nourishing for the body. To convert plant omega 3 to active is partly a genetic predisposition but also a matter of health. This conversion is difficult and minimal. Even in a really healthy body, only 2- 4% of the omega 3 gets converted to activated omega 3, so masses would have to be consumed. But many people are simply not able to make the conversion at all due to poor gut health.
Getting enough omega 3, due to the few foods that contain it, can be tough. It is suggested that oily fish should be consumed 3 – 5 times a week. As farmed salmon, the vast majority of salmon in the supermarkets, has very little omega 3 due to the way they are farmed and tuna should be limited to once or twice a month due to the mercury levels in big sea fish, this means eating small, deep water fish, the fishy ones! Very few people do this.
So where do omega 3 supplements fit in? Well, the jury is out. I don’t think there is any doubt that getting nutrients from whole foods is always preferable to using supplements, but if we are not getting what we need from our diet, are supplements a good option? Some people are allergic to fish, many people don’t like oily fish, there’s the vegetarians and vegans who won’t eat fish, so this makes supplements are really the only option.
Your choice of supplemental omega 3 in a readily absorbable form are, fish oils, krill oil and omega 3 from algae. That’s because we eat fish that contain omega 3, fish eat krill for omega 3 and krill eat algae. So there is a very specific algae that has recently become widely available in supplement form that is the only non-animal source of EPA and DHA.
In my experience, many fish oil capsules are rancid. If you get nasty fishy burps, don’t consume them. Krill oil, a lovely deep red colour, is generally better absorbed and has the added bonus of containing a very potent anti-oxidant called astaxanthin, which is good for you and prevents krill oil turning rancid. Krill will be more expensive than fish oil capsules but you need far less as its higher absorption rate requires only small amounts to be taken. Always check that the krill is sustainably sourced as krill is a massively important food source for fish, birds and wales. Krill and fish contain more EPA to DHA, EPA being essential for managing inflammation. Algae has a higher amount of DHA, brain food. Taken with food, these precious oils should be well absorbed, but quality is really important, so you generally get what you pay for and always check that the bottles are opaque and kept cool so avoid light and heat damage.
Although there are questions about the benefits of omega 3 taken as a supplement, considering its crucial role in our health and its lack in our foods, it is probably a good strategy. I take an algae and a krill daily as well eating whole, fresh nuts and seeds and I use freshly ground and soaked flax seeds for their numerous benefits. My genetics suggest I am not a good converter, but there are many other benefits to freshly ground flax seeds and just maybe, due to my high fibre diet with lots of fermented foods, my gut is in good enough shape to convert some flax omega 3 in to these super-helpful long-chains. I eat oily fish whenever possible, but in reality it is once a week and not more. I eat really good eggs, probably 6 -8 a week and grass-fed meat once a week to once a fortnight.
I hope that helps with your questions on omega 3s. Let me know what else you need some help with. Here’s to health and happiness.