There is so much written about Omega-3, Omega-6, Fish Oil, EPA, DHA, ALA….it becomes very confusing and the information is enough to make your head spin. The following article will help set the record straight on this important topic and make you more confident in your selection of fish, decision on taking fish oil or flax seed oil supplements, etc.
Some Background on Omega 3’s (DHA, EPA, ALA)
A little background info: Omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be essential fatty acids as they are necessary for human health but the body cannot produce Omega -3’s. These polyunsaturated fatty acids must be ingested from food sources.
There are several types of omega-3 fatty acids including EPA, DHA, and ALA.
The two most talked about and researched omega 3’s, EPA and DHA, are found in fish particularly wild salmon, halibut ,mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, anchovies, bluefish, sturgeon, shrimp, cod. Other omega-3 sources include algae and krill.
Many experts recommend eating these omega-3 containing fish two times a week.
Choose the right fish. While eating more fatty fish is a good idea, some are more likely to have higher levels of mercury, PCBs, or other toxins. These include wild swordfish, tilefish, and shark. Farm-raised fish of any type may also have higher levels of contaminants. Children and pregnant women should avoid these fish entirely. Everyone else should eat no more than 7 ounces of these fish a week.
Another omega-3 fatty acid, ALA (or alpha linolenic acid), must be converted into DHA and EPA in the body. As a result, ALA is considered a precursor to DHA and EPA. Good food sources of ALA include walnuts, flax and flaxseed oil, olive oil, rapeseed (canola oil) , soybean oil, tofu, kale, collard greens, and winter squash. Whole flaxseeds must be ground within 24 hours of use, so the ingredients stay active. Flaxseeds are also available in ground form in a special mylar package so the components in the flaxseeds stay active.
Experts say that DHA and EPA — from fish and fish oil — have better established health benefits than ALA.
American Heart Association Supports Benefits of Omega-3’s
Omega-3’s have made the news as the American Heart Association recommends eating fish (especially the varieties listed above) at least twice a week to increase consumption of Omega-3’s. Research supports the findings that ingestion of Omega-3’s may help reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, depression, inflammation, cancer, and arthritis.
Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain. They appear to be an important factor in cognition, memory, and behavioral functioning. Symptoms of Omega-3 deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, heart problems, depression, dry skin, nails, membranes, constipation, poor concentration, lack of physical endurance, joint pain and decreased circulation
Omega 6, too?
There is another type of essential fatty acid called Omega-6. Omega-6 fatty acids are also polyunsaturated fats but they may actually promote inflammation. (The jury’s still out on this). They are said to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. It seems to be important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 in the diet and the typical American diet tends to contain approximately 20 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. (omega-6 is present in corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil.)
A diet rich in omega-3’s emphasizes whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, healthy oil, garlic. It has a healthy balance of omega 3’s and omega 6’s
How do cooking, storage, or processing affect omega-3 fatty acids?
Polyunsaturated oils, including the omega-3 fats, are extremely susceptible to damage from heat, light, and oxygen. When exposed to these elements for too long, the fatty acids in the oil become oxidized, a scientific term that simply means that the oil becomes rancid.
Vitamin E, the primary fat-soluble antioxidant, protects omega-3 fats from oxidation. Oxidation is a chemical process that produces free radicals.
Rancidity not only alters the flavor and smell of the oil, but it also diminishes the nutritional value. More importantly, the oxidation of fatty acids produces free radicals, which are believed to play a role in the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
Under most circumstances, the problem of rancidity only arises when the oils are removed from their “natural food package”. For example, the hard shell of the flaxseed protects the oil inside the seed from heat, light, and oxygen. Flaxseeds also contain antioxidant compounds, like vitamin E, that provide additional protection against oxidation. But, when the seed is pressed to isolate the oil, the oil becomes vulnerable to the elements.
As a result, oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids should be stored in dark glass, tightly closed containers in the refrigerator. In addition, these oils should not be heated on the stove. So, instead of sauteeing your vegetables in flaxseed or walnut oil, make a salad dressing using these oils.
Health Attributes of Omega 3’s…especially for those with Met B!
High cholesterol and triglycerides
Several studies have shown that fish oil supplements help reduce triglyceride levels. Those with uncontrolled Met B often have elevated triglycerides due to blood sugar fluctuations. Met B is also known for low HDL and high LDL.
Eskimos who get high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from diets high in fatty fish tend to have increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides. Walnuts have been reported to lower total cholesterol and triglycerides in people with high cholesterol levels.
EPA, DHA, and even ALA seem to have a role in lowering blood lipids.
High blood pressure
Several clinical studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure in people with hypertension. High blood pressure is linked to uncontrolled Met B.
There is a well established link between omega 3 fatty acids and cardiovascular health. Fish oil and a diet low in saturated fats (high in mono and polyunsaturates) helps reduce risk factors of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms as it lowers cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. Fish oil also appears to help prevent and treat atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by slowing the development of plaque and blood clots, which can clog arteries. It also works as a blood thinner.
Eating at least 2 servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50%. However, high doses of fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding. People who eat or supplement with more than 3000mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day may have higher risk for hemorrhagic stroke. Consult with your MD regarding the appropriate dosage for your health condition.
As you know, those with uncontrolled Metabolism B, pre diabetes, or type 2 diabetes generally have high LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides, and low HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol).
Another type of omega-3 fatty acid, ALA (from flaxseed, for example) may not have the same benefit as fish oil as some people with pre diabetes or type 2 diabetes cannot convert the ALA to a form of omega-3 fatty acids that the body can use.
It should also be noted that some people with type 2 diabetes may have slight increases in fasting blood sugar when taking fish oil, so talk to your doctor to see if fish oil is right for you. In most instances, the slight rise in blood sugar is far less problematic than the benefits from using omega-3’s.
A number of studies show that reduced intake of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with increased risk of age related cognitive decline or dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists believe the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is protective against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. There is a link between uncontrolled Met B, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease…so if omega-3’s can help reduce the risk of dementia, it’s a bonus for those with diabetes.
Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids seems to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. For example, Eskimos, who tend to have a high fat diet, but eat significant amounts of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, have a low rate of colorectal cancer. Animal studies and laboratory studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids prevent worsening of colon cancer. Preliminary studies suggest that taking fish oil daily may help slow the progression of colon cancer in people with early stages of the disease. If you have colorectal cancer, ask your doctor before taking any supplements.
How to Take It:
Dosing for fish oil supplements should be based on the amount of EPA and DHA, not on the total amount of fish oil. Supplements vary in the amounts and ratios of EPA and DHA. Experts usually recommend 1 gram (1,000 milligrams) of DHA and EPA combined from fish oil daily for those with heart disease.
Do not take more than 3 grams daily of combined EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids from capsules without the supervision of a health care provider, due to an increased risk of bleeding.
- For healthy adults with no history of heart disease: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish at least 2 times per week.
- For adults with coronary heart disease: The AHA recommends an omega-3 fatty acid supplement (as fish oils), 1 gram daily of EPA and DHA. It may take 2 – 3 weeks for benefits of fish oil supplements to be seen. Supplements should be taken under the direction of a physician.
- For adults with high cholesterol levels: The AHA recommends an omega-3 fatty acid supplement (as fish oils), 2 – 4 grams daily of EPA and DHA. It may take 2 – 3 weeks for benefits of fish oil supplements to be seen. Supplements should be taken under the direction of a physician.
- For adults with high blood pressure, scientists generally recommend 3 – 4 grams per day, but you should only take under the supervision of a health care provider.
Because of the potential for side effects and interactions with medications, you should only take dietary supplements only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider.
Omega-3 fatty acids should be used cautiously by people who bruise easily, have a bleeding disorder, or take blood thinning medications including warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin. High doses of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, even in people without a history of bleeding disorders — and even in those who are not taking other medications.
Fish oil can cause gas, bloating, belching, and diarrhea. Time release preparations or enteric coated varieties may reduce these side effects.
Some fish may contain potentially harmful contaminants, such as heavy metals (including mercury), dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). For farm raised, imported, or marine fish, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant or nursing women and young children avoid eating types with higher levels of mercury (such as mackerel, shark, swordfish, or tilefish), and eat up no more than 12 ounces per week of other fish types…. and young children less than 2 ounces per week.
Possible Drug/Medication Interactions:
If you are currently being treated with any of the following medications, you should not use omega-3 fatty acid supplements, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), without consulting your health care provider.
Blood thinning medications — Omega-3 fatty acids may increase the effects of blood thinning medications, including aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), and clopedigrel (Plavix). Taking aspirin and omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful in some circumstances (such as in heart disease), but they should only be taken together under the supervision of a health care provider.
Diabetes medications — Taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements may increase fasting blood sugar levels. If you take medication to lower blood sugar such as glipizide (Glucotrol and Glucotrol XL), glyburide (Micronase or Diabeta), glucophage (Metformin), glimiperide (Amaryl), Januvia, Janumet, or insulin your doctor may need to increase your medication dose. These drugs include:
Cyclosporine — Cyclosporine is a medication given to people with organ transplants. Taking omega-3 fatty acids during cyclosporine (Sandimmune) therapy may reduce toxic side effects, such as high blood pressure and kidney damage, associated with this medication.
Etretinate and topical steroids — Adding omega-3 fatty acids (specifically EPA) to the drug therapy etretinate (Tegison) and topical corticosteroids may improve symptoms of psoriasis.
Cholesterol-lowering medications — Following dietary guidelines, including increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet and reducing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, may help a group of cholesterol lowering medications known as statins to work more effectively.