These essential nutrients generously found in fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils are of crucial importance for keeping in good health. Recent research has shown there is a link between low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids and chronic disease. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, inflammatory bowel disease, macular degeneration or loss of central vision, osteoporosis, depression, psoriasis and obesity are all forms of chronic disease linked to Omega-3 fatty acids deficiency and high inflammation levels in the body.
Is it important to have a good Omega-3 intake? Yes, it is. And here is why. Omega-3 (polyunsaturated) fatty acids are nutrients that our body needs in order to function, but cannot produce itself. Consequently, they should be provided by our diet. Our body uses fatty acids to create cell walls in the process of creating new cells, synthesize neurotransmitters, conduct electrical impulses from nerve cells to various muscles in our body, regulate digestion and even cholesterol levels, contribute to hormonal balance and many other vital functions.
To be more exact, Omega-3 fatty acids are the basis for the neural pathway through which the brain transmits messages to the world around us, triggers the release of hormones that help regulate mood, appetite, sleep, productivity and so on. Cells built by Omega-3 fatty acids are strong, flexible, durable and provide an excellent transmission path, meaning they do a great job in transmitting electrical impulses to tissues in muscles and organs. If our diet does not supply us with sufficient Omega-3, then our body will automatically substitute the missing essential nutrients with Omega-6, a poorer fatty acid found as well in vegetable oils, grains and meat.
Cells formed using Omega-6 have a different shape and conduct electrical impulses differently. While Omega-6 is good for us too, our body requires Omega-3 fatty acids just as much. Each nutrient has its well-defined role in the body. To put it simply, until you can find a welder to fix a metal chair leg, you might as well use duct tape you have lying around the house. As funny as it may sound, our body does the same in an attempt to ensure survival when it uses whatever it has to make things work. This is justifiable since present diets are rich in Omega-6, yet lack Omega-3, but it also means that we may not be in optimal health until we supply our body with the nutrients it actually needs.
Are Omega-3 fatty acids from plants better than Omega-3 from fish? Another very important point to consider is the difference between Omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources versus Omega-3 fatty acids from fish sources. Vegetarians, vegans, raw vegans, people with a particular sensitivity to fish in general all avoid seafood. The only solution then is to supply the body with Omega-3 from plant food sources. Ground flax seeds, linseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, kiwifruit all contain good amounts of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a simple form of Omega-3 which our body converts into EPA and DHA, two more complex and significantly healthier forms.
However, our body can only convert a certain amount of ALA Omega-3 fatty acids from plants into EPA and DHA and the truth is we don’t really get that much ALA from plant sources either to begin with. Fatty acids remark themselves through a long tail, called chain. The longer the tail, the more health benefits it brings. EPA and DHA are longer than ALA and, according to researchers, they are far healthier (see fish and seafood page).
Both marine food sources and supplements such as fish oil, rich in EPA and DHA, are said to reduce the risk of heart attack, help lower blood triglyceride levels, promote cognitive development, improve appetite, support weight gain and may even help improve ADHD symptoms and depression, when consumed in moderate amounts. Because our body lacks the ability to fully synthesize EPA and DHA from ALA, we cannot enjoy the same health benefits from consuming Omega-3 from plant sources alone.
Benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids:
1) A good intake helps clear plaque buildups on artery walls and thus prevents blood clots from forming and blocking the arteries leading to the brain and heart.
2) DHA and EPA, the forms with the longer tails, improve cholesterol levels by lowering triglyceride levels and raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
3) Omega-3 fatty acids appear to reduce joint pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
4) By improving nerve cell ability to transmit electrical impulses, Omega-3 fatty acids improve mental health. There is significant evidence that a moderate intake, coupled with a more natural diet, can prevent and delay mental degeneration.
5) Omega-3 fatty acids delay skin aging and improve various skin conditions as a result of being directly involved in cell formation.
6) There are also claims that a diet providing sufficient unsaturated fatty acids reduces inflammation at the level of the bowels and lungs, improving conditions such as asthma.
Last but not least, I would like to make a clear distinction between the three types of Omega-3 fatty acids.
ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) is the shortest type of Omega-3 fatty acids (it basically has a shorter tail). It is, by all means, healthy, but not the healthiest of the three. ALA is found in generous amounts in plant sources such as nuts and seeds (walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds etc.) and vegetable oils (linseed oil, rapeseed oil, soybean oil, olive oil, walnut oil).
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is found in numerous marine life sources such as salmon, sardines, cod liver, herring, mackerel, halibut and so on.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) sources are fish oil, seaweed and fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, etc. This type of Omega-3 fatty acid helps build the cells in the brain, retina, skin and male reproductive organs.
Although you rarely see a person eating fish on a regular basis, as part of a varied, natural diet develop chronic diseases, it is still wise not to overeat. You can make a tuna salad for lunch on Tuesday and enjoy a salmon sandwich for lunch on Thursday, maybe even make some tuna or mackerel pasta on Saturday. However, eating too much fish or undercooked seafood in general can have a not so beneficial effects on your health, even lead to heavy metal poisoning or intestinal parasites infection.
As with all things, moderation is the key: never eat too much of anything too often and you will be just fine. As far as Omega-3 food supplements are concerned, the FDA has approved fish oil supplements to be used in the prevention of heart disease. Nevertheless, not all brands are as healthy as they claim. Choose food supplements free of heavy metals (mercury) and ask for your doctor’s advice before you make any purchase or decision.