You may have heard that fish are good for you. Perhaps you even heard that seafood is ‘brain’ food. Maybe you know that we need more Omega-3 than Omega-6. You may also be familiar with the concept that Omega-3s are an important building block to the human body. But do you know why?
Most Crucial Omega-3’s
Omega-3s and Omega-6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). These are long chains of carbon atoms that have what is called a ‘carboxyl group’ at one end and a methyl group at the other end. When there are two or more double bonds of carbons in the fatty acid chain, this is a ‘polyunsaturated’ one. Those without these double bonds are saturated or monounsaturated instead. The Omega-3 PUFA has a carbon-carbon double bond that is found at the 3rd carbon from the methyl side of the chain. Most research has focused on 3 Omega-3s: ALA is alpha-linolenic acid, which is the parent of two more. These 2 crucial Omega-3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
When taking omega-3 supplements or fish oil pills, you will likely see the percentage of EPA and DHA listed out in the supplemental facts. EPA has 20 carbons and DHA has 22 carbons. The human body is unable to produce Omega-3s like DhA and EPA; therefore, these are considered ‘essential’ and should be consumed (with diet or supplements).
There are a variety of very important health benefits for these PUFAs.
EPA can be used to prevent heart disease, depression, and side effects related to chemotherapy, diabetes, and surgical recovery. DHA is commonly used by those with high cholesterol and can be taken to help boost memory, cognition, and certain eye disorders.
Both EPA and DHA prevent blood clotting, reduce triglyceride levels, and reduce pain and swelling.
Health Benefits of Omega-3
As previously mentioned omega-3 fatty acids are often recommended to those with risk of heart disease to lower triglyceride (a type of fat found in the blood) levels.
Omega-3s are also highly anti-inflammatory and can assist in relieving inflammatory conditions and diseases, especially when taken with other anti-inflammatories.
Omega-3s act in the body in the same way that NSAIDs do. They can reduce pro-inflammatory signaling from the COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes that signal inflammation and pain responses. Omega-3s have proven to be a safer and less risky alternative to NSAIDs which often have serious side effects when taken long-term such as stomach ulcers, stroke, and heart attacks.
Omega-3s are competitive with Omega-6s for the pathway that is involved in damaging inflammation. When Omega-3 wins this competition, then the pathway is diverted to a more healing and less damaging direction. Omega-3s can promote systemic anti-inflammatory pathways. Basically, the Omega-3 provides a different (better) building block for the COX enzyme and better products are made; these are generally less inflammatory.
It takes longer for the anti-inflammatory effects of PUFAs to be felt. NSAIDs block an enzyme activity and this is often felt immediately. PUFAs must populate the cell membrane until they reach a number that can provide adequate competition for the COX enzyme. Only then will the anti-inflammatory products be made rather than the damaging and painful proinflammatory ones. Many people lack patience for this delay, but as PUFAs have none of the side-effects of NSAIDs, it is generally worth the wait.
Once in the system and taken on a regular basis, Omega-3s provide great baseline control of inflammation and help to prevent chronic low-grade inflammation. This makes NSAIDs even more useful for the treatment of acute injury or trauma when that short-term enzyme blocking effect is needed.
Omega-3 Food Sources
Omega-3 fatty acids can naturally be obtained through oily fish such as anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, tuna, and many more. Ideally, you should aim to eat non-fried oily fish at least twice a week. Non-fish sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, soybean, and chia seeds. One of the best sources is plants found in the sea, such as green or brown algae; this is what the smaller fish eat that makes them ‘brain food’ for us.
If you find it difficult to eat these omega-3 sources regularly, omega-3 supplementation may be the best route for you.
As always, if you are concerned about your nutrition and are thinking about supplementing, we recommend speaking with your physician before adding any supplements to your daily routine!