August 15, 2013

Are Omega-3s Really Necessary?

Update: America’s health craze for fish oil is wiping out the world’s rarest shark (qz.com)

“Don’t even get started on the fact that the companies are supressing studies that show they’re collapsing the forage fish population by over-harvesting the bait fish, there-by collapsing the whole natural infrastructure of the oceans from the bottom up.” … “Personally, I’m more concerned over the lack of oversight of the fish oil supplements. There have been repeated lawsuits over the fact that the oil is often rancid and full of PCBs — something you don’t notice with it in capsule form.

Flax seed and avocados are much more trust worthy.” …”

Just buy whole flax seeds and mix them into food, or preferably, blend them into your shakes. They last forever like this.

Also, although flax seeds contain ALA omega-3 which your body is less efficient at using than EPA or DHA, it’s 7 times more concentrated than most fish sources.”


Could there be one nutrient that supports heart, mood, joints and intestinal health? Well, yes, but few people get enough of it.

Studies show that:

  • Lack of this nutrient has been linked to lower IQ’s in children (1).
  • Consuming enough of it may increase brain size, especially in the area of the brain responsible for happiness (2).
  • It supports memory and cognitive health (3).
  • This nutrient makes up 8% of the brain and is the building block for 100 billion neurons (4).
  • It supports mental health (5).
  • It supports intestinal health (6).
  • It supports heart health (7).
  • It supports joint health (8).

Most Americans Are Deficient in Two Important Omega-3 Fatty Acids

In some of my recent health reports I have been citing research about how we manage stress by making 95 percent of the body’s mood-balancing hormone serotonin, along with other neurotransmitters, in the lining of the gut. I am fascinated by the correlation between digestion and mood and cognitive health. Since it all starts in your digestion, let’s evaluate your digestive strength.

If you experience any of the following, your digestion may be weak:

  • gas, bloating, or belching
  • sluggish bowel function
  • occasional upset stomach
  • occasional heartburn
  • extra belly or hip fat
  • cellulite
  • inability to tolerate wheat, dairy or fatty foods
  • tired after a meal
  • have changed your diet to avoid hard-to-digest foods such as gluten and dairy

Poor digestive health may compromise the breakdown of good essential fatty acids from foods that are needed to nourish the mucus membranes of the intestinal tract (1-8). Essential fatty acids support the health of the skin on both the inside and outside of the body. Poor skin health and the absence of a healthy complexion may be an indication of a lack of good skin health on the inside of the body. Perhaps most importantly is the skin that lines the gut.
A poor digestive system may also affect the absorption of certain good omega-3-fatty acids that support cognitive function, memory, mood and ability to handle stress (1-4).

Seasonal Omega-3s

Each winter, nature attempts to rebuild reserves of proteins and good fats to support heart, joint and mental health.

In the winter, the amount of dietary omega-3 fatty acids available is naturally increased. This is illustrated by omega-3-rich Arctic fish migrating south each winter, bringing them to fisherman off the mainland. Most cultures originated as seafaring and depended on essential nutrients from the sea including omega-3 fatty acids and iodine. As cultures migrated inland, problems of deficiency arose.

Known Benefits of Fish Oil

Research in favor of fish oil supplementation continues to mount.

  1. The benefits of ingesting omega-3s from fish in support of cardiovascular health, mood stability, coping with stress, blood sugar and weight issues as well as longevity – to name just a few – are well documented:
  2. Going far beyond supporting the cardiovascular system and mental health, omega-3s may support longevity and healthy aging by 85% (11, 12).
  3. Stress elevates the production of adrenal hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which can accelerate aging. Omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit excessive stimulation of adrenal stress hormone production (13).
  4. Omega-3s are essential components of brain cell membranes and may support serotonin nerve cell transmission (14). People with mood and cognitive concerns may have low levels of omega-3s in the brain (15).

People with the highest levels of omega-3s may have as much as a 46% lower risk of blood sugar, heart and weight concerns (16).

Don’t Leave Home without These Essential Fats

There are two major kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The most abundant source of both EPA and DHA is in oily, cold water fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines that eat algae, unlike farmed fish which are primarily fed grain and corn.

Unfortunately, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids can only provide significant amounts of omega-3s in the form of Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA), which must be converted by the body into EPA and DHA. This is not a very efficient process because only 5-20 percent of dietary ALA gets converted to EPA and DHA. If you are taking flax or hemp seeds as your main source of omega-3 fatty acids, be aware that your body has to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. In the case of a deficiency, the body may not be converting fast enough to rebuild the necessary levels of omega-3s.

While the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is inefficient, there are vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids available—mostly derived from algae. While these are exciting alternatives to fish oils, they do lack research. The body of research on high quality fish oils is so extensive and compelling; it is hard not to consider supplementation with molecularly distilled, mercury-free fish oils.

Top 5 Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3s

The following vegetarian sources of omega-3s contain ALA, a known precursor to DHA and EPA. Research about the conversion rate of ALA to DHA and EPA remains controversial.

It seems that ALA has a conversion rate of only about 5-20 percent, depending on state of health and other factors. However, it’s worth mentioning that vegetarians seem to have overall good cardiovascular health, perhaps for other reasons indicating that the benefits vegetarians are getting may be due to the EPA/DHA pathways.

  • Walnuts
  • Flax seeds and flax seed oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Purslane

As we keep our eye on this field of constantly evolving research, we’ll hopefully understand more about the differences in various omega-3 fatty acids and omega-3-rich foods, their mechanisms and unique therapeutic roles.

No More Fish Taste

The first problem with fish oils is that we do not digest them well. Many people avoid them because of a lingering or burping fish oil taste, which is partly due to poor fat metabolism. This is a topic I have discussed in several of my past health reports. Enteric coated fish oils have been an attempt to solve this problem, but historically they are made of toxic substances like phthalates, which help the capsule bypass the stomach and release the contents into the small intestine.

Today, highly concentrated EPA and DHA fish oil supplements are available that are enteric coated with Shellac, a food-grade natural resin. This means they are not broken down prematurely on their way through the digestive tract by the stomach or bile from the gallbladder. This means that the high quality EPA and DHA oils are allowed to reach the skin of the intestinal wall directly (6). Here, they support the health of the intestinal wall, as well as absorb the EPA and DHA directly into the blood stream where they can be delivered more directly to the brain, heart and skin throughout the body.

Fish oils that are not enteric coated are mostly broken down by the stomach acid and bile, which may compromise this process of supporting the intestinal mucosa and delivering the EPA and DHA directly into the bloodstream.

Vegetarian? Read This

While healthy vegetarians have better conversion rates of plant based ALA into EPA and DHA, many vegetarians become deficient in protein and good fats. This may affect blood sugar, mood, energy and endurance levels.

If you are deficient in EPA and DHA, you may be experiencing digestive concerns along with mood and joint issues. The vegetable sources of omega-3s may not be potent enough to support the villi and protect the brain, heart and joints. More research needs to be done on vegetarian sources of EPA and DHA.

No Heavy Metals

All fish oils have to be tested due to the heavy metal toxicity in our oceans. Eating fish used to be a great source of omega-3s, but today, we must limit the amount of fish we eat and be careful that the source of the fish is heavy-metal free. This is a challenge because, if it comes from the ocean, there is no testing performed and no way to know where that fish fed and on what. Fish farms have other issues like antibiotic and chemical exposure and unnatural food.

Optimal fish oils are sourced from the Arctic deep sea, such as wild-caught sardines and anchovies, and are molecularly distilled to remove all heavy metals, rancid fats, bacteria, molds and yeast. Every batch should be individually tested and certified.

Krill Is Not a Great Source of EPA and DHA

Various claims have been made that krill is a superior source of omega-3 fatty acids because it contains a naturally occurring antioxidant called astaxanthin that prevents contamination. Numerous subsequent studies have actually found that astaxanthin has not been demonstrated as an effective protectant, demonstrated by krill often being contaminated by pollution (9, 10). In addition, claims made on krill’s benefits are about EPA and DHA in general, but do not measure the EPA and DHA in krill itself, meaning they are based on the assumption that krill contains as much or more EPA and DHA than fish.

Interestingly, krill actually has very little EPA and DHA compared to fish oil. That is not to say that krill oil does not offer health benefits, just that the health benefits of krill are different than fish and seem to be due to a different mechanism than EPA and DHA.

>>>To find out more, read my article on krill vs. fish oil.

How Much Is Needed to Support The Gut, Heart and Brain?

Most experts agree that a minimum of 1800-2500mg of EPA and DHA (combined) is needed to achieve a daily therapeutic dose.

Read your supplement labels carefully to make sure there is enough DHA and EPA in each serving. Many fish oil supplements use non-specific fish oils as a filler that actually have very little EPA or DHA.

1. Lancet. 2007 Feb; 17 (9561) 578-85
2. Neurosci Lett. 2007 June; 29 (3) 209-12
3. Nat Clin Pract Neurol. 2009 Mar; 5(3):140-52
4. J Lipid Res. 1965 Oct; 6(4):537-44
5. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2008 Mar; 42(3):192-8
6. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009; (1):CD006320
7. Am J Prev Med. 2005 Mar; 29(4):335p-46
8. Inflamm Res. 2001. Feb; 50(2):102-106
9. Environ Pollut. Mar 2006, 140 (2): 371-382
10. Envision Sci Tech. Aug. 2007, 41 (15): 5237-524
11. BMJ. 2008; 337:a2931.
12. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2008 Jun; 64(6):627-34
13. Diabetes metab. 2003 Jun; 29(3):289-95
14. Neuropharmacology. 2011June 29.
15. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jul 1; 62(1):17-24
16. J Nutr. 2010 Oct; 140(10):1846-54
1, 2. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorder, 2010;11:136
3. J. Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Feb;26(1):39-48
4. BMJ. 2008;337:a2931.
5. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2008 Jun;64(6):627-34
6. Diabetes metab. 2003 Jun;29(3):289-95
7. Neuropharmacology. 2011 June 29.
8. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jul 1;62(1):17-24
9. J Nutr. 2010 Oct;140(10):1846-54

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Ed: Sara Crolick



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