A colleague who has been taking Omega-3 EFAs (essential fatty acids) to relieve painful joints, has asked me to write something about these fatty acids because she feels a real benefit from taking them.
What are Omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential fatty acid: in other words they are essential for human health but the body can’t make them – you have to get them through food.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, other seafood including algae and krill, some plants, and nut oils. Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 plays a crucial role in brain function, as well as normal growth and development, particularly of babies in the womb.
There has been a lot of research into the benefits they have in reducing the risk of heart disease. It is recommended that individuals should eat oily fish such as mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, tuna and salmon at least 2 times a week.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function.
Symptoms of Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression and poor circulation.
It is important to have the proper ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most Omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. The typical Western diet tends to contain 14 – 25 times more Omega-6 fatty acids than _mega-3 fatty acids which suggests and imbalance in the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids.
The Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, has a healthier balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Many studies have shown that people who follow this diet are less likely to develop heart disease and other. The Mediterranean diet is based upon foods rich in Omega-3 , including whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil and garlic.
Conditions that may be helped by Omega-3
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Cognitive decline eg Alzheimers
- Skin disorders
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Macular Degeneration
As you can see the list is a long one and is not definitive. There have been many studies to support the use of Omega-3 in helping these conditions. However, it is important to note that not all the positive results have been replicated when research has been repeated and indeed, some individuals may not notice any effect whilst others report a significant difference in their symptoms.
Dietary Sources for those who eat fish
Fish, plant, and nut oils are the main dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids. EPA and DHA are found in cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and herring.
Dietary Sources for vegetarians
ALA is another fatty acid that the the body needs to convert into EPA and DHA. ALA is found in flaxseeds and their oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, pumpkin seeds and their oil, walnuts and walnut oil. The health effects of omega-3 acids come mostly from EPA and DHA but unfortunately many people do not make these conversions very effectively. There is an ongoing debate about how effective these vegetarian sources of omega-3 really are however, I would always suggest that you include these foods in the diet anyway because they have other health benefits. Some vegetarians may find it acceptable to eat sea algae which is also a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids.
Supplementing with Omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids can be taken as a supplement but it is important to check with a GP or health provider to find out if they are suitable for you. Some medications such as Warfarin, Heparin and Aspirin are contraindicated with Omega-3 because of the blood thinning effect. There are also some health conditions where supplementation needs to be monitored by a health professional. ALWAYS check with your GP if you are taking any medication.
Finally always check that your EFA supplement comes from a reputable source – some oily fish contain heavy metals such as mercury or other contaminants like dioxins an PCBs. A reputable company will always be able to provide information to the consumer on where they source their fish oils and whether they have been screened.
If you would like more information on whether EFAs or other supplements may be suitable for you, do get in touch with Pippa Mitchell, our Nutritional Therapist, on 01483 527945.