Here's to omega 3 - the highly beneficial fats found in small, oily fish, flaxseed oil, butter, free range eggs and grass-fed and wild meats. Omega 3 plays so many important roles in supporting your health, including:
Omega 3 fats also show promise for reducing the symptoms of depression, post-natal depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, ADHD and schizophrenia. And with mental health problems on the increase, it's notable that many of us are deficient in omega 3, largely because of the way our food choices have changed so much in the last several decades.
Because omega 3 is a nutrient we absolutely need – our bodies cannot make it – and because it can help support mental health, this article introduces omega 3 and discusses how you can get it from foods and what to look for when buying a supplement.
So what is omega 3?
Omega 3 is a type of fat (or lipid). In the lipids family, omega 3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid.
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 docosahexaenoic 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 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 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.
So how can we get omega 3 from foods? The following are good sources.
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. Because of its twisty atomic structure and lack of hydrogen bonds, omega 3 goes rancid easily if exposed to heat. Shop staff will sometimes tell you flaxseed oil does not need to be refrigerated but this is not true.
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 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) can help keep omega 3 from going rancid by limiting exposure to oxygen.
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 support my recovery from OCD with good results, but not everyone would benefit from such high doses. If you are taking warfarin or antiplatelet drugs, speak to your doctor 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, 1-3g can be taken daily.
Children need lower doses, and toddlers and babies even less. Discuss this with your nutritionist if giving your child, toddler or baby omega 3 supplements.
It’s a good idea to take your omega 3 supplement with protein (such as meat, fish, eggs, beans, lentils), because protein foods stimulates the release of hormones that stimulate bile production. Bile is produced by the liver and is needed to break down fats we eat.
WARNING: Individuals affected by the condition Pyroluria may have adverse reactions to omega 3, and experience a worsening of mental and physical symptoms. If you feel worse for taking omega 3 supplements, talk to your nutritionist.