The health food store shelves are lined with supplements labelled fish oil, Omega-3 fatty acid and essential fatty acid (EFA). Do you need those? Which one?
The answer is…it depends. (Couldn’t be a simple yes or no, could it?)
First of all, a quick explanation to clear the confusion.
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids are fats that you must get from your diet. Your body doesn’t make them, that’s why they are called ‘essential’. These fats benefit your brain and your body in numerous ways. One of the biggest benefits of essential fatty acids is in reducing inflammation.
Many health experts like Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride agree that inflammation is the root of all disease.
There are two types of EFAs and both are polyunsaturated: Omega-6 and Omega-3. Don’t let anyone try to tell you that polyunsaturates are bad, they’re wrong! In fact, they are quite essential. What they mean to say is that many types of refined, processed polyunsaturated oils and foods are bad–it’s all in the way they are produced.
Omega-6 fatty acids, aka linoleic acid (LA), are one type of essential fatty acid. They are found in corn oil, safflower oil, peanut oil and many others. In our typical Standard American Diet (SAD), we get way too much Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 is great but not when you consume too much. And we do.
Omega-3 fatty acids, aka alpha linolenic acid (ALA), is the other type of essential fatty acid. They are found in flax seed, wheat germ, walnut, hemp seed as well as many others.
Our ancestors typically consumed Omega-6s and Omega-3s in a ratio of 1:1. In today’s diet, estimates are that we consume Omega-6s and Omega-3s in a ratio of 16:1 or more! That imbalance is the part we need to correct.
How do Fatty Acids Reduce Inflammation?
Fatty acids are converted by the body into prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances that are present in every tissue and fluid in our body. They have the ability to inflame or anti-inflame. Inflammation is part of the healing process, but a chronic state of inflammation leads to trouble.
You see, Omega-3s and Omega-6s compete for the same enzymes.
Too much Omega-6 will drive down the conversion of Omega-3. An elevated level of Omega-6 fatty acids can lead to:
- cardiovascular disease
- type 2 diabetes
- metabolic syndrome
- irritable bowel syndrome & inflammatory bowel disease
- macular degeneration
- rheumatoid arthritis
- psychiatric disorders
- autoimmune diseases
There are some fatty acids that are considered conditionally essential, meaning that your body can make these fatty acids from the two essential fatty acids, but the conversion is difficult. It requires the proper enzymes that most of us are deficient in and that decline with age.
Conditionally essential Omega-3:
- Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)–from fish oil
- Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)–from fish oil
Both of these fatty acids lead to the prostaglandin pathway known as PG3. ALA can be converted to EPA, but again, this can be difficult.
As Chris Kresser reports, “research clearly indicates that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is extremely limited. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% (one-half of one percent) of ALA is converted to DHA”.
If you think you can get enough EPA from eating flax seed, that’s probably not going to happen. Vegans, be aware of this fact.
Your Body Needs these Nutrients to Reduce Inflammation
In order for the body to use essential fatty acids to reduce inflammation, your body has to have adequate supplies of:
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
- Vitamin E
- Amino Acids
Our SAD (Standard American Diet) diet along with pharmaceutical usage (antacids, birth control, NSAIDs, aspirin, steroids, etc), alcohol, and trans fats have left many of us deficient in these vital nutrients, particularly Vitamin B6, Zinc and Magnesium. What’s more, proper digestion and liver function are necessary for the anti-inflammatory pathways to function properly.
It’s no wonder we are walking around with chronic pain!
So Do I Need to Take Fish Oil Supplements or Not?
If you are eating plenty of seafood (2-3 servings per week of cold-water, fatty fish), you are sufficient with all your vitamins, minerals and amino acids, and your digestion and liver functions are adequate, you probably don’t need fish oil. Your PG3 anti-inflammatory pathway would be optimally healthy.
Very few of us meet that criteria, however. Fish oil supplementation would be advised.
Certainly eating fresh fish would be a better option than taking a supplement. Fish contains vitamin D, selenium, protein co-factors and a more complete fatty acid profile than fish oil. Selenium, in particular, is important because it protects against mercury toxicity. Vitamin D protects against nearly every modern disease.
Concerns about mercury toxicity, PCBs and other toxins plague us and for very valid reasons. Shop carefully for seafood using this handy chart compiled by the Marine Stewardship Council, the Environmental Working Group and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
Vegetarians and Vegans may find it difficult to get enough DHA and EPA fatty acids as most sources are marine-based. Some sea plants do provide DHA and EPA.
How to Select Quality Fish Oil Supplements
The quality of fish oil supplements is critical. Factors to consider when buying a fish oil supplement include:
Purity: Just like buying fish, contamination with mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants is a concern. In general, fish that are lower on the food chain like sardines and anchovies naturally have a lower concentration of contaminants. Ask for a Certificate of Analysis (COA) from the manufacturer before you buy their fish oil product. A COA is an analysis performed by an independent lab to measure the ingredients of a product and confirm whether it lives up to the claims made by the manufacturer. This is standard procedure in the supplement world.
Freshness: Fish oil can go rancid just like any other polyunsaturated oil. Buying a mega supply of fish oil is not recommended as it will surely get rancid before you finish the bottle. If you break open a capsule, it should smell like the ocean, not fishy.
Potency: Ensure that your product has approximately 200-300 mg of DHA per capsule. According to Chris Kresser, a therapeutic dose for chronic inflammation would be between 1 and 2 grams per day. If you are taking it simply for health maintenance, 500 mg is probably sufficient. Too much fish oil, as with anything, is not a good idea and can even be harmful causing oxidative damage.
Bio-availability: The ability for the body to absorb and use the nutrients in fish oil depends on how it is extracted from the fish. The natural triglyceride method (basically squeezing the whole fish) is the best production method for fish oil and should be taken with a meal including fat. Krill oil, from an Antarctic crustacean, has proven to be a very bio-available source of EPA and DHA.
One of the best fish oil options that your grandmother probably advised is to take cod liver oil (yes, that yucky stuff). Cod liver oil (CLO) is a healthy source of Vitamin A, K, and D as well as DHA and EPA. The quality of cod liver oil matters a lot. A recent scandal in the CLO world has brought this to light. I recommend Rosita’s Cod Liver Oil.
Here’s your simple change for the day: Eat fresh fish 2-3 times per week and evaluate your diet for quality fish oil.
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Joli Tripp and Simple Changes Healthy Results are not medical doctors nor licensed medical professionals. No comment or recommendation should be construed as being a medical diagnosis. If you suffer from a medical or pathological condition, you should consult an appropriate healthcare provider.
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Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, “Gut and Psychology Syndrome“, 2010