The Scoop on Omega-3

By Rachel Oppitz, ND

Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid, meaning that the human body is unable to produce this type of fat on its own.  Every cell needs this long-chain essential fatty acid in order to rebuild, to produce new cells and to produce hormone-like substances called prostaglandins that serve as chemical messengers and regulators of various body processes (such as maintaining core body temperature).  Essential fatty acids support immune function, improve skin and hair, reduce blood pressure, protect organs, aid in preventing arthritis, reduce inflammation in general, store and transport fat-soluble vitamins, reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, and reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.  They are also integral in optimal brain development and functioning.

The omega-3 group of essential fatty acids includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and docosahexanoic acid (DHA).  DHA and EPA are found abundantly in fish that live in cold, deep water (salmon, halibut, mackerel, herring, sardines) and in fish oil.  ALA is most concentrated in flaxseed, however, ALA is not utilized in the human body and the conversion rate into DHA/EPA is around 10% and very inefficient. 

Since the 1850s, omega-3 consumption has decreased to 1/6 the level that was then found in our food supply, while omega-6 consumption has more than doubled in that time.  This change in ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 essential fatty acids in our food supply is now reflected in the composition of our tissue fats and in our health.  To make up the omega-3 fatty acid deficit, the quickest way is to take 1 teaspoon-1 Tablespoon of high omega-3 fish oil daily for several months.  The antioxidant vitamin E should be consumed concurrently to prevent oxidation of these fatty acids.  Once the deficit is reversed, the optimal daily ratio should be 1:1 omega 3:omega 6.  Some studies suggest that EPA offers the most benefits against inflammation, while DHA works best for nerves and is also the most protective for the cardiovascular system.

Fish oil provides eicosapentanenoic acid (EPA) and docosahesaenoic acid (DHA), two functional omeaga-3 fats that are essential to human nutrition.  Although these essential fatty acids (EFAs) must be obtained through diet, most Americans under-consume them while over-consuming omega-6 fatty acids, the other family of essential fats, which are more commonly found in the current standard American diet. Omega-3 EFAs differ from omega-6 EFAs in biological activity and dietary availability.  The plant-based omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in flax seeds, canola oil, and walnuts, is considered less potent, and human conversion to more functional EPA is relatively inefficient.

EPA and DHA are directly associated with the modulation of immune and inflammatory response.  EPA and DHA from fish oil are raw materials from which the body makes eicosanoids, which are short-lived, potent, locally acting, rapidly degraded cellular mediators that produce a broad range of biological effects on a multitude of tissues. 

Proposed mechanisms of fish oil on immune response include:

Intracellular signaling pathways
Transcription factor activity
Cytokine production
Adhesion molecule expression
Alteration of gene expression
Oxidative influences

In addition to vitamin E mentioned above, other nutrients required for essential fatty acids to perform all of their physiological functions include B3, B6, C, and A, and the minerals magnesium and zinc.  A good multivitamin/mineral supplement will supply enough of these nutrients.

Here are the ratios of  Omega-6 to Omega-3 in common items (the lower this ratio, the better):

Omega 6:Omega 3 <4:1
Fruits, vegetables, potato, wild game, wild fish, grass-fed animals

Omega 6:Omega 3 7:1

Omega 6:Omega 3 >20:1
Grain, peanuts, seeds

Omega 6:Omega 3 >70:1 to 100:1
Potato chips with corn, sunflower, cottonseed, or safflower oil