Omega 3s are a type of polyunsaturated essential fatty acid (EFA) – essential in that the body cannot synthesise them itself. So of course, we must obtain omega 3s through our diet whether that be through wholefoods or supplementation.
Omega 3s are a very important nutrient in that they are necessary for a plethora of body functions such as providing integrity for cell membranes such as our brain cells, foetal development, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease and are highly involved in anti-inflammatory processes.
There are 3 main types of omega 3s, or sometimes abbreviated to n-3 for short. These are a-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega 3s can be sourced from both terrestrial and marine sources. ALA is found in plant foods such as flaxseeds, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and green leafy vegetables. However, ALA has to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body for use. EPA and DHA are sourced from mostly cold-water fish – sardines, salmon, mackerel, tuna - which have a higher body fat percentage. EPA and DHA can also be found in algae, which is a source that should be considered for those following a plant-based diet.
How Much Omega 3 Daily?
Let’s face it, not everyone is mad about seafood and fish. But we all know the health benefits they can provide. In adults, the recommendations for EPA and DHA per/day range from 160mg/day for men and 90mg/day women. In children, values range from 40-125mg/day depending on life stage and gender. However, not everyone is reaching these daily targets.
This is due to the shift in the balance of omega 3s in human diets since the progression of following a Western diet. In a standard Western diet, there is generally a higher ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids which is proposed to be the cause of increased chronic disease.
To reach your daily intake of omega 3s aim for including a source of oily fish, flaxseeds or other plant types to boost intakes. Another convenient way that omega 3s can be included within the diet is through fish or algae oil or capsule supplements. Look for fish and omega 3 supplements that have been sourced ethically or ‘wild caught’ to ensure optimal health benefits.
Omega 3 vs Omega 6
Both omega 3 and omega 6 are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Although one is definitely more beneficial than the other for our health.
A good example of sources of omega 6 fatty acids is seed oils. These include sunflower, grape seed, safflower, palm, corn and soybean oil to name a few, which are typically riddled throughout a typical Western diet of processed food. It can also be found in meats; however, this is not as much of a concern as the increasing intake of seed oils within the diet. Moderation, moderation, moderation.
The issue with an imbalanced amount of omega 3 to omega 6 is that omega 3s are responsible for promoting anti-inflammatory eicosanoids (signalling molecules) whereas omega 6, such as arachidonic acid, promotes inflammatory eicosanoids. Higher amounts of inflammatory eicosanoids are cause for disease such as cancer and heart disease, which in turn can be prevented through a higher consumption of omega 3 FAs.
What Can Omega 3s Help With?
ADHD: Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a common cognitive disorder mostly diagnosed in young children however can also be diagnosed later in life. Omega 3s are a non-pharmacological approach to treatment where studies have shown that supplementation improves ADHD symptoms in diagnosed and developing children.
Cardiovascular health: Omega 3s are well known for their heart protective qualities. These include reducing high blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and reducing the risk of all-cause mortality in coronary heart disease. Doses normally range from 1-4g/day depending on circumstance.
Fertility: As omega 3s are fats they are also a source of cholesterol, the precursor to steroid hormones which are paramount for fertility. Animal studies have found that adequate omega 3 intakes and supplementation may prolong female reproductive lifespan and positively impacts steroidogenesis, folliculogenesis and oocyte maturation, which are just big words for healthy fertility!
Skin: Fish oils are widely used in increasing skin health and ameliorating skin disorders like dermatitis and eczema. This is due to the relationship between omega 3s providing protection to the skin through anti-inflammatory mechanisms which reduce photo-aging and increase skin cell integrity.
Signs You May be Deficient
There are some signs your body can give you that may indicate an Omega 3 deficiency:
- Major depressive disorder and associated disorders
- Dry, rough, scaly skin
- Poor cognition
- Poor memory
If you suspect you may be deficient in EPA and DHA and know you don’t consume enough omega 3 rich foods now is the time to start. Give yourself some grace and aim for 2-3 serves of fish per week to start with. Consider talking to a healthcare professional about supplementation and increasing your intakes if you are concerned.
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