By Adam Swenson
Fish oil has long been the king of omega-3s, but the field is changing. Omega-3s show up in a wide variety of foods and supplements originating from both plants and animals. They come in three varieties (each of which have their own merits), are an essential part of the membrane of each cell in the body, and help correct or prevent a long list of conditions. And studies estimate that 99 percent of Americans are deficient.
What We Learned from the Eskimos
Though we have known about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for normal growth and health since the 1930s (or possibly before, if you consider cod liver oil remedies), our understanding took a major leap forward thanks to a landmark 1971 study Danish researchers published in The Lancet. In their study they found that Greenland Eskimos, though often obese, had very low levels of heart disease. They were getting a tremendous amount of omega-3s through their diet, which featured far more fatty fish than most citizens of the Western world. The study’s authors noted that “Coronary atherosclerosis is almost unknown among these people when living in their original cultural environment.”
A sample population of Eskimos living in Denmark showed that their rates of heart disease were comparable to the overall population. In other words, it wasn’t the genes, it was the fish that made heart disease a nonissue. The study sparked an interest and soon fish oil became nearly synonymous with omega-3s.
Omega-3 is a Family Name
The term “omega-3” does not refer to a specific fat, but rather a group of three polyunsatured fatty acids (or PUFAs) that share certain characteristics. These fats are mainly referred to by their acronyms, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosatetraenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). So, while it is true that tuna and flaxseed both contain omega-3s, tuna offers EPA and DHA, while flaxseed offers ALA, and each will affect health differently.
ALA, the omega-3 found in plant sources like flax and chia, is the “shortest” and simplest of the bunch. It contains 18 carbon atoms. If two more carbon atoms are added, it becomes EPA. Two further carbons and it becomes DHA. Our bodies actually have the ability to convert ALA to DHA and EPA as long as we have an adequate supply of other nutrients (including B complex vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium). But even with those nutrients on board, conversion among the general population is pretty inefficient—one study found that only six percent of ALA was converted to EPA and only 3.8 percent was converted to DHA.
What Kind of Omega-3 do I Need?
The ever conservative Mayo Clinic writes, “There is supportive evidence from multiple studies that suggests the intake of recommended amounts of DHA and EPA in the form of dietary fish or fish oil supplements lowers triglycerides; reduces the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms, and strokes in people with known cardiovascular disease; slows the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques (‘hardening of the arteries’); and lowers blood pressure slightly. However, high doses may have harmful effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding. Although similar benefits have been proposed for alpha-linolenic acid [ALA], the scientific evidence is less compelling, and the beneficial effects may be less pronounced.”
Dr. Oz notes that, on top of those effects, omega-3s lubricate joints, decrease systemic inflammation, fight wrinkles, protect vision, attack acne, help the brain, increase fertility in both men and women, and are a prerequisite for pregnancy because they greatly aid brain development in the fetus and reduce the mother’s risk of depression.
Most experts recommend getting at least 600 – 1,000 milligrams of DHA per day. If you’re getting that from a fish oil source you’ll also be getting EPA. The World Health Organization also recommends getting 1,000 milligrams of ALA. All of the oils in the omega-3 family are good for you, but the consensus is that DHA is the most critical.
A Balancing Act
One other important factor to consider is the balance between omega-3s and omega-6s. Though we need both, we need them in the proper ratio, and the Standard American Diet skews heavily in the direction of omega-6s, which are found in oil seed crops and grains and in the flesh of grain-fed animals. Several studies suggest our primal ancestors enjoyed a 2:1 or even 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3,whereas in modern Western diets the ratio can be 15:1 or worse—out of balance omega-6s are powerfully inflammatory and disease causing. Lowering that ratio to 4:1 can dramatically reduce the odds of cancer, cardiovascular disease (a 70 percent reduction in overall mortality), and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Straight to the Source: Where to Get Your Omega-3s
FISH. Fish make a fine source of omega-3s, heavy in EPA and DHA. Of course, eating fatty fish is the most direct way (a six-ounce serving of salmon has 2,000 mg and it’s well-absorbed), plus you’ll get an excellent serving of protein. You’ll want to avoid the fish at the top of the food chain like shark and swordfish, as they’ll have the highest levels of mercury. Sardines, herring, salmon, and tuna are all good choices, but skip the farmed salmon. They are not as healthy and much worse environmentally.
Fish oil is another excellent source, and there are many excellent products on the market. Look for a reputable brand (Nordic Naturals is good) and make sure that your chosen product verifies that the fish oil is free of heavy metals like mercury. Keri Marshall, MS, ND, chief medical officer at Nordic Naturals, says, “Research shows that a high-quality, purified fish oil supplement is the best source of the most important omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). In fact, fish oil is one of the most well-researched natural health supplements, supported by thousands of clinical studies. Concentrated fish oil is more cost-effective than other options when trying to achieve optimal omega-3 levels in the blood.”
She also notes that, to serve vegetarians, Nordic Naturals now offers algae oil. It has both DHA and EPA, which is rare among algae oils.
KRILL. Toothpick-sized shrimp-like crustaceans that weigh 1/30th of an ounce on average, krill are found in all the world’s oceans. They are chock full of EPA and DHA and they also have a powerful antioxidant known as astaxanthin. Studies indicate that the omega-3s in krill oil are more bioavailable than those found in fish oil, and less likely to cause reflux. Recent studies show that krill oil is extremely effective in lowering inflammation markers, and improving blood sugar control and cholesterol markers.
Sustainability in the krill fishery has been raised as a concern, but most experts agree we are well short of a problem. Aker Biomarine and other krill harvesters are licensed to operate in Area 48 off the coast of Antarctica. They harvest only 1/3 of one percent of the krill in the area, to the tune of about 200,000 tons. Current regulations allow for harvesting 5.6 million tons, which would be nine percent of the krill biomass in the area. Conservation groups estimate that even a 5.6 million ton harvest would leave sufficient krill for population stability and would not adversely affect krill predators like whales, seals, fish, and penguins.
Aker uses an “ecoharvesting” technique that allows unintentionally netted species to escape. Krill is processed on board the vessel to maintain freshness as krill is subject to spoilage if not processed quickly. Mercury contamination is also not an issue, making this a very good choice if you take animal-based supplements. Though still a tiny fraction of what the fish oil market is, krill is currently the fastest-growing omega-3 market segment. As always, look for a reputable brand—Twinlab is supplied by Aker and makes a very good product.
CHIA. A growing number of people have been turning to plant-based omega-3s for reasons ranging from dislike of the taste of fish oil to ideological principles of vegetarianism or veganism and sustainability concerns surrounding the world’s fisheries.
As mentioned earlier, plant-based omega-3s typically contain only ALA. Though several studies have found rates of conversion to EPA and DHA to be quite low in the general population, an interesting 2010 study found that the ALA conversion process is much more efficient in vegetarians and vegans. Though the study found that vegan and vegetarian omega-3 intakes were between 60 to 80 percent lower than fish eaters, the levels of EPA and DHA in the blood of vegans and vegetarians was typically within 15 to 20 percent. Conversion is also affected by gender and age: women convert ALA about twice as efficiently as men do, and the conversion process becomes less efficient as we get older.
And, conversion aside, ALA has benefits like optimizing energy reserves and aiding in muscle repair, so it makes sense to consume ALA as well—all three are important. Essential Formulas makes a chia-based line of omega-3s, and in each product the ALA is accompanied by a bonus—one formulation has vitamin D, the second has Co-Q10, the third enzymes, and the fourth has DHA and EPA. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may be getting enough DHA and EPA by consuming ALA only, but there’s merit in the idea of getting all three in one supplement.
FLAX. Flax, whether it comes through consuming ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, is also a good source of ALA. It has been shown to lower the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. If you’re going to eat flaxseed, it is important to eat it ground, as whole flaxseeds can pass through your system undigested. Ground flaxseed is a good fiber source as well as being high in an important antioxidant called lignans. Barlean’s makes a good product called Lignan Flax Capsules that gives you ALA as well as some omega-6 and omega-9 and lignans.
The importance of omega-3s for a long and vibrant life cannot be overstated. However you choose to get them, get them! With a wide array of excellent food and supplement choices now available, it is easier than ever to remove yourself from the 99 percent who are currently omega-3 deficient.
OTHER SUPPLEMENTS FOR HEART HEALTH
February is heart health month. While omega-3s are arguably the most important, they are not the only important supplement. Here are four more, supplied by the rogue nutritionist, Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS.
> RESVERATROL: A strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Make sure to get 250 milligrams a day of transresveratrol.
> MAGNESIUM: Lowers blood pressure, controls blood sugar. Half of Americans are low.
>COENZYME Q10: Your heart needs copious quantities. Our cells make it, but they make less as we get older. A must if you’re on cholesterol-lowering meds, as they deplete your natural supply.
> CURCUMIN: Fights inflammation and oxidation, clots, and protects your heart. This is one of the best for your whole body!