What are omega fatty acids?
Fatty acids are types of dietary fats that are important for many aspects of your health. Omega-3s and omega-6s are not generally made in sufficient quantities by your body so must be consumed in the diet. This makes them “essential fatty acids.” Omega-9s can also be consumed in the diet, although your body can make ample amounts so they are not considered “essential.”
What are the claimed benefits?
Helps relieve arthritis symptoms
Supports brain health
Reduces risk of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Improves cardiovascular health
Supports liver health
Improves skin health
Regulates gene expression
Reduces cancer risk
Improves the health of diabetics
Improves bone density
What the science says
Yes! (with caveats)
Fatty acids are integral parts of the structure and function of each of your cells throughout your body. For example, your brain is largely made of fatty tissue and requires fat for protection from damage and to fire its neurons efficiently. If you do not have adequate amounts of the right types of fats, this can impact both your short term ability to think clearly, as well as your long-term cognitive health.
The anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to support the symptoms of arthritis in addition to cardiovascular health. They do so by regulating factors that improve vasodilation and the pliability of arteries (a good thing!) and by reducing platelet and plaque formation as well as stabilize existing plaque.
While all of these claims have some scientific evidence to support them, here’s the caveat. There seems to be a difference in whether a person gets their omega-3’s from foods or from supplements. Both foods and supplements can alter blood markers (i.e. optimize EPA, DHA, inflammatory markers, cholesterol and triglycerides), but it’s foods that are often the winner when it comes to measuring real outcomes such as decreasing the risk of heart attack and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s.
However, research is still mixed as omega-3 supplements have shown clear benefits for specific conditions. Diabetics often have fewer complications such as heart disease, neuropathy and diminished eyesight when they optimize their omega-3 labs, whether that is through foods or supplements or both.
Also, cause and effect vs correlation are important to distinguish. This is especially the case for research looking at bone mineral density and omega-3 relationships. Some studies conclude that omega-3’s are protective of bone health. However, those studies are looking at who has strong bones, compared to who has adequate omega-3’s in their blood. This is not necessarily causal. It is more likely the case that those who consume adequate seafood, vegetables, nuts and seeds that contain the right protein, vitamins and minerals to build strong bones, also happen to have as a result of this diet, adequate omega-3’s in their blood. This does not mean that taking an omega-3 supplement will result in stronger bones though - an important difference to note.
While omega-3s and omega-6s are both important for your health, the Standard American Diet (SAD), contains far too many omega-6s and far too few omega-3s. General consensus is that at least a 1:1 ratio of omega-6:3 in the diet is optimal, while the SAD or western diet is more typically at a 17:1 - yikes!
Many factors are at play, including:
The increase in processed and packaged foods typically means an increase in omega-6 rich oils in the diet.
Grain fed and confined animal meat production leads to meats higher in omega-6s, while grass fed and free range meats leads to meats higher in omega-3s.
Same goes for farmed vs wild-caught fish. While farmed fish fed a wild-matched diet can have even higher levels of EPA and DHA than wild fish, this is not typically the case. The diet is often altered and farmed fish can actually contain very little of these omega-3s.
Consumption of “exotic” foods such as sea vegetables, varied wild greens and purslane that are rich in omega-3s has decreased over the years and in Western cultures.
It is highly unlikely you will ever get inadequate omega-6s, particularly if you ever eat at restaurants or consume foods not prepared at home. Do not avoid omega-6 rich foods, but do lean more heavily on omega-3 rich foods whenever possible.
Two prevalent types of omega-3s are DHA and EPA. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is particularly important for brain and nervous system function and comes mostly from plant sources. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is particularly noted for its role in eye health and inflammation reduction and found mostly in marine animal sources. ALA (alpha linolenic acid) is another type of omega-3 but is inefficiently converted to EPA and DHA in your body.
Omega-3 rich foods:
Soybeans & tofu
Walnuts & walnut oil
Seaweed & algae
Cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts
Spinach, kale, collard greens
Grass fed beef
Pasture raised eggs
*Some fish may be especially high in mercury and other environmental contaminants, particularly large and predatory fish. Aim for lower mercury seafood most often. Visit The Natural Resources Defense Council - Smart Seafood Buying Guide or Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for healthy and environmentally sustainable seafood sources in your area or download the app.
Omega-6 rich foods (minimize oils, aim for whole foods):
Soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, and sesame oils
All nuts and seeds
Will a supplement benefit you?
Possibly, but it’s not a magic pill or a replacement for a healthy lifestyle.
If at your last blood draw you had a low omega-3 index or low EPA and DHA, correcting this deficiency is important. If in addition to low omega-3’s you have high levels of inflammation (HsCRP), high blood pressure, high triglycerides or low “good” HDL cholesterol an omega-3 supplement may be supportive in conjunction with a healthy diet rich in omega-3’s and a healthy lifestyle.
Lastly, if you currently have Coronary Artery Disease or have had a heart attack, have Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and/or anxiety, research is supportive of optimizing your omega-3 blood markers through supplements and diet to support disease and symptom management. Again, this is in conjunction with a healthy diet, exercise, stress management and other lifestyle measures - not a magic pill.
Still curious to try a supplement?
Since supplements are poorly regulated by the FDA and fish is notoriously contaminated with mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and other environmental toxins, making sure you get a quality supplement is of utmost importance. Also, many fish oil supplements contain very little actual EPA and DHA, the important omega-3’s that you’re aiming to increase. Work with your Apeiron Life Client Advocate to ensure you are getting both a medical-grade quality product and the right potency of these omega-3 fats.
Essential Fatty Acids - Linus Pauling Institute