*This is one in a series of posts, in which readers respond to the question “What’s the deal with _________?” If you have a question or a suggestion for a topic, feel free to leave ideas in the comments section below. Chances are if you’re curious about it, other readers are as well.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are fats that 1) our bodies cannot synthesize and 2) are in some way integral to our bodies’ function. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I understand that the idea that fats are healthy for us is kind of foreign. But the truth is that countless physiological processes require healthy fats, both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory in nature.
There is also a lot of talk about omega-this and omega-that, a lot of which, I find, is really lost on all but scientists. To clear up the confusion, the word omega is describing the structure of the fatty acid chain; if you want to get really nerdy, it’s describing the placement of a double bond on the 3rd position from the omega end of the fatty acid chain. The position of every atom changes the way the body receives and uses the fat. Hence the evolution of the whole omega-3 versus omega-6 discussion: the former contributing to more anti-inflammatory processes and the latter lending itself to pro-inflammatory reactions. Overall, just know that the strange Greek nomenclature is just a way of describing the structure of the fat, and therefore the properties when it enters the human body.
Omega-3 EFAs have been widely researched for many chronic and acute conditions, and have shown benefits in ADHD, autism, anxiety and mood disorders, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, asthma, forms of arthritis, and nervous system disorders. (For more research on these benefits, search ‘Essential Fatty Acids’ or ‘Omega 3 Fatty Acids’ on PubMed.org.) The most commonly-used forms of delivery for these omega-3s are fish oil and cod liver oil (CLO), which both contain EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid). Many physicians are also starting to purport the benefits of krill oil, as it is higher in antioxidant content than fish oil or CLO and may be a much more environmentally-sustainable source of omega-3s. Another important difference between fish oil and CLO is the Vitamin A and D content. CLO contains added Vitamin D and Vitamin A, both of which can be useful in certain health situations and deficiencies. But Vitamin A can also be toxic over 10,000IU per day or in liver conditions. Because of this fact, I give only fish oil or vegetarian sources – rather than CLO – to breastfeeding women and other special populations. It’s important to ask your doctor about specific dosing of fish oil/CLO for certain conditions, but I usually tell adults to aim for about 1000mg of omega-3s total per day.
Although some viable vegetarian sources of omega-3s are available (algae and flaxseed for example), many of us have a difficult time converting the form of fatty acid in these substances (alpha-linoleic acid or ALA) to the form that’s most usable in the body (EPA and DHA). I personally recommend non-animal sources of omega-3s when the person prefers vegetarianism or veganism or when patients are very young, as fish can be a very common allergen in kids of Southeast Asian and Southern European descent.
With all of the benefits of consuming omega-3s, one might question why we even need the more pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. The reason is that our bodies need a certain amount of inflammation in order to survive. Without inflammation, our blood would not clot, our wounds would not heal, and our barriers to infection of vital organs would be virtually non-existent.
Since we need inflammation to survive, it’s vital that we consume a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. But balance, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean a ratio of 1:1. After all, most of the chronic conditions we struggle with are ones of too much inflammation, rather than too little. Heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and obesity are all related to inflammation. And it all – you probably guessed – comes back to the food we consume. The Standard American Diet is very largely composed of omega-6 fatty acids; the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 consumption is a whopping 16/1. High omega-6 soybean and corn oils, for example, are used in the majority of restaurants and processed foods. As a cheap source of nutrition, these grains are often used as feed for cattle and chickens, subsequently increasing omega-6 fatty acids in meat and eggs. Of course, we then eat the more pro-inflammatory animal product, and thus the cycle continues. This is also the origin of the ‘red meat is bad for your heart’ myth. It’s true that consuming a diet devoid of fruits and vegetables and high in grain-fed, feedlot beef is very pro-inflammatory and therefore predisposes to countless chronic health conditions. But it turns out that the health benefits associated with animal products, more often than not, are associated with the diet of the animal itself. Omega-3 content is one of the main reasons behind the recent ‘grass-fed beef’ resurgence, for example; as a part of a balanced and colorful diet, grass-fed products can offer valuable macronutrients and less of the inflammation we’ve been associating with all meat. So it’s no secret why health professionals are purporting the benefits of supplementation of omega-3 EFAs and shifting our diets toward less inflammatory foods.
During the conversation about fish oil and essential fatty acids, I am inevitably asked about mercury. People are most concerned with the quantity of mercury in different types of seafood, and discussion of the amount of mercury that’s ‘just too much.’
The answer to the latter discussion varies depending on each person’s ability to process and excrete metals, and thus on his or her own liver, gut, and immune health. I think that in general, it is obviously a good idea to limit our overall exposure to heavy metals. This is especially important if we are experiencing other symptoms of immune or inflammatory overload, such as migraines, allergy symptoms, joint pain, high blood pressure, or frequent infections.
Luckily, studies over several years have found that commercial fish oils contain negligible, if any, amounts of mercury and other contaminants such as PCBs. Since they have been found to be very safe in moderate doses, it should be fine to take them to supplement our omega-3 intake or treat certain chronic conditions. As usual, I would advocate getting a good amount of our omega-3s and EFAs from our food, and knowing the mercury content of fish and other marine creatures is an excellent way to make that happen.
Want to make sure you’re getting enough EFAs? A diet that is rich in antioxidants, nuts and seeds, organic fruits and vegetables, organic grass-fed animal products, and high quality and low mercury sources of non-farmed fish can provide the majority of what a healthy body needs to function and thrive. Health experts recommend an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 4:1. And if you need more antioxidant power, feel free to add in some anti-inflammatory herbs and spices, and even some dark chocolate!
Did you ever expect someone would be telling you to eat more fat? Well, just remember: With omega-3s, you truly can’t get enough.
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