Because omega 3 is a nutrient we absolutely need – our bodies cannot make it – and because it can help heal so many health problems, this blog introduces omega 3 and discusses how you can get it from foods and what to look for when buying a supplement. This will be the first of two blogs; a second blog will look at omega 3’s functions in the body, and some illnesses and imbalances omega 3 can help heal.
So what is omega 3?
Omega 3 is a lipid, or fat. In the lipids family, omega 3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Like all fats, it is made up of a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms filling available bonds.
The ‘3’ in omega 3 refers to the fact its first double bond occurs at the third carbon atom. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have more double bonds and thus fewer hydrogen atoms than monounsaturated (e.g., olive oil) and saturated (e.g., butter, lard, coconut oil) fatty acids, which makes the atomic structure of polyunsaturated fatty acids more kinky and twisty as the atoms do not pack together easily. For this reason, polyunsaturated fats like omega 3 remain liquid and do not go solid at cold temperatures, such as in the fridge. This contrasts with saturated fats such as butter, which stay solid at room temperature and become hard when cooled because their hydrogen-saturated structures pack together more easily.
Because of their chemical structure, omega 3 fats are unstable and easily go rancid when exposed to heat and oxygen. Omega 3-rich oils such as flaxseed oil should never be used for cooking. However, it is possible to gently cook fish and maintain the integrity of the omega 3 because it is within cells and thus protected from oxygen and less easily damaged by heat.
There are several names for omega 3, which can be confusing. It is commonly referred to as omega 3, Essential Fatty Acids, EFAs, fish oil, alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and decosahexaenoic acid (DHA). If you are ever looking for omega 3 supplements and confused about names, fish oil and/or flaxseed oil are what you are looking for.
There are different types of omega 3: ALA, which comes from plant sources such as walnuts and flax seeds, and EPA and DHA, which are found in animal and ocean sources such as fish, eggs and micro-algae. The body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is low. Ideally, you want to get all three forms of omega 3 in your diet.
We need to get omega 3 from foods we eat because the ‘essential’ in ‘Essential Fatty Acids’ refers to the fact our bodies cannot make omega 3. We can only obtain omega 3 from food. In contrast, the body can make the other types of fats – we make saturated fats from carbohydrates, and monounsaturated fats from saturated fats.
So how can we best get omega 3 from foods? The following are good sources.
Vegan and vegetarian sources
Micro-algae supplements, such as those made by Bioceuticals and Lifestream (EPA and DHA; stores stocking vegan products and foods often stock or can order in micro-algae supplements)
Flaxseed oil (ALA, one of the highest sources; the oil is a better source than the seeds in terms of the amount of omega 3 you get in one tablespoon)
Raw walnuts (ALA)
Raw chia seeds (ALA)
Pasture-raised eggs (ALA, EPA and DHA; these contain more omega 3 than battery, barn, or grain-fed eggs because of the animals’ natural diet)
Fish, especially sardines, mackerel, anchovies, crab, and shrimp (EPA and DHA; broiling, baking and steaming are preferred over frying to maintain omega 3 properties. Please note, if you buy canned sardines or mackerel, an affordable, tasty and versatile source of omega 3, it is best to choose a brand canned in olive oil, rather than sunflower oil.)
Wild and pasture-raised meats such as venison and grass-fed beef (EPA and DHA; these contain more omega 3 than farmed meats because of the animals’ natural diet)
What should I look for in an omega 3 supplement?
For flaxseed oil, you ideally want one that is organic and has been stored in the shop’s fridge – not on the shelf. Remember, omega 3 goes rancid easily if exposed to heat. Don’t believe shop staff who tell you flaxseed oil does not need to be refrigerated (unless the shop is in the North or South Poles and never heated).
In a fish oil, you want a product that states on the label that it has been filtered for heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls/industrial chemicals) – common dangerous pollutants in the oceans that end up in fish. If the label does not clearly state this, don’t buy it and find a product that has been filtered. Capsulated fish oil (also called capsules and soft gels) is better than liquid fish oil supplements as the capsules help keep omega 3 from going rancid by limiting exposure to oxygen.
Nordic Naturals is considered one of the best-quality brands of fish oil by many health practitioners; it is rigorously tested for heavy metals and PCBs and sustainably fished. Definitely a good brand to buy if you have the budget for it. Whichever brand you decide on, check that your fish oil does not contain soy oil, as this is high in inflammatory omega 6, which can 'cancel out' the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega 3..
How should I store my omega 3 supplements?
Always store fish oil and flaxseed oil in the fridge to stop them going rancid. Don’t leave them on the kitchen bench/worktop or shelf.
And finally, what do I need to know about taking omega 3 supplements?
Dosage varies from person to person depending on your health condition. I have personally taken very high doses to treat my OCD (up to 10g a day) with good results, but not everyone would benefit from such high doses. If you are taking warfarin or antiplatelet drugs, speak to your nutritionist before taking omega 3 as the risk of excessive bleeding may be increased.
A guideline for adults taking omega 3 is to take two tablespoons of flaxseed oil per day, separately (one in the morning, one at lunch or night). For fish oil, 1-2g can be taken daily. One gram (1g) is normally one capsule.
Children need lower doses, and toddlers and babies even less (their livers are very small – see below). Discuss this with your nutritionist if giving your child, toddler or baby omega 3 supplements.
It’s best to always take your omega 3 supplement with protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, lentils), as this stimulates the release of hormones that stimulate bile production. Bile is produced by the liver and is needed to break down fats we eat.
For the above reason, I recommend that anyone taking omega 3 supplements also support their liver. My preferred way to support the liver is by using herbs such as dandelion and milk thistle. See a qualified herbalist or naturopath for advice on herbs and dosage, and guidance on any possible interactions with medications you may be taking. Eliminating or reducing alcohol, tea and coffee also supports the liver, as does eating organic foods (no pesticides, herbicides, insecticides for your liver to have to bind and eliminate) and eliminating toxic cleaning products and cosmetics from your home and body. Additionally, you can support your liver by drinking plenty of water every day and eating a diet rich in garlic, onions, eggs, red peppers, broccoli, green leafy veg, red cabbage, goji berries, citrus fruits, pumpkin seeds, and sardines.
WARNING: Individuals affected by the not uncommon condition Pyroluria may have adverse reactions to omega 3, and experience a worsening of mental and physical symptoms. If you have Pyroluria or would like to be tested for Pyroluria, talk to your nutritionist.
Coming up next: Functions of omega 3 in the body, and health conditions omega 3 can help heal.
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