What You Need To Know About Essential Fatty Acids
best omega-3 supplement for your particular needs can be challenging if you don't know what to look for.
As with virtually anything so popular, there are the good, the bad, and the downright ugly when it comes to omega-3 products. So, how do you discern the best from the rest? This article will offer some insights on omega-3 as well as tips to narrow down your search and hopefully zero in on the right supplements for you.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (healthy fats). They come in three forms essential for maintaining good health:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
While vegans and vegetarians often opt for ALA, they may not be getting the full benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. ALA, while still beneficial, has less potent health benefits than DHA and EPA.
Moreover, ALA must be converted into DHA and EPA for the human body to utilize them. Unfortunately, the human body is terribly inefficient in processing this and a lot of it goes to waste. Vegans and vegetarians may be better off taking algae-based supplements.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Today, we know that omega-3 fatty acids are essential to a number of bodily functions, such as:
- Muscle growth and maintenance: Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have a positive effect on muscle mass.
- Fertility: The fatty acids are essential to both male and female fertility. They may help facilitate pregnancy in women with infertility problems by increasing uterine blood flow. Studies also indicate that DHA may help promote male fertility. Not surprising, as semen consists of a significant portion of DHA.
- Cardiovascular health: Essential fatty acids may reduce risk of heart disease while promoting lower blood pressure and triglycerides (blood fats). Omega-3s may help reduce plaque that can clog your blood vessels and lead to heart disease and atherosclerosis.
- Blood clotting: The fatty acids have blood-thinning properties, which may be beneficial in preventing coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke.
- Brain activity and development: A significant portion of the human brain consists of DHA. Studies indicate that omega-3, particularly DHA, may help improve cognitive function. Reduced DHA has been linked to impairments in cognitive and behavioral performance.
- Inhibiting breast cancer: There is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective at inhibiting certain types of breast cancer.
- Anti-inflammatory: Inflammation is a major cause of various illnesses (see video below) including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and even heart attacks, among others. Inflammation is often caused by an unhealthy diet as well as a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids. This is why balancing omega-3 and omega-6 (through increasing omega-3 intake) is so important. Not only that but, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties.
Video: The Omega Balance: Getting Smart about Inflammation
Obtaining Omega-3: Eating Fish vs. Taking Supplements
While eating fish regularly is recommended as it provides other important nutrients beside omega-3, for many people it is not always feasible. It can be expensive and it comes with some risk.
Fresh wild fish, while costly for most people, may also expose you to toxins such as mercury, lead, and dioxins. Toxic fat-soluble compounds containing arsenic have been found in fish. Farmed fish, while offering less nutritional value, may expose you to pesticides and antibiotics.
For most people, supplements are perhaps the only viable option. They offer DHA and EPA fatty acids in concentrated doses, without exposing you to unsafe levels of contaminants. This is presuming you get a good quality supplement, as they are not all made the same way.
Choosing the Right Supplement
It is not difficult to choose the right omega-3 supplement if you know what to look for. Here are some tips on what to look for:
- DHA and EPA: These are the two most important compounds in omega-3. While animal sources contain these, plant sources do not. Therefore vegetarians and vegans may have to take products made from sea algae. Read the product label to ensure optimal levels of these two fatty acids.
- Purity: Look for a product that has been purified to remove toxins, through low-heat processing methods that do not negatively impact the active compounds. Currently, the best method known is molecular distillation.
- Naturally preserved: Vitamin E is a natural anti-oxidant and preservative that is added to fish oil to prevent oxidation and rancidity. Krill oil naturally contains vitamin E and therefore needs no addition.
Click Here to view top-rated omega-3 supplements.
Krill Oil or Fish Oil
While there are a number of krill based products available today, there has been no significant evidence to indicate that krill oil provides a better or more balanced quality of omega-3 fatty acids. Most research on essential fatty acids has been done using fish oil.
Krill oil has less EPA and DHA than fish oil, but some health experts say it is more readily absorbed given that it is bound in phospholipids. However, some experts disagree with this assertion. The claim that krill are more sustainable has been challenged as well. As krill oil gets more popular, over-harvesting is becoming a real concern.
So, should you take krill or fish oil? This is a personal choice. Some users claim that krill oil does not cause fishy aftertaste, heartburn, or burps. But it also costs significantly more, and you still need a good quality product. If you experience no problem after taking fish oil, it may be better to stick with this.
Side Effects and Safety Concerns
Omega-3 supplements can be taken safely by most people. However, there are some cases in which you should not take them without consulting a doctor. One such case is if you are pregnant or nursing.
You should also consult a healthcare provider If you’re actively taking blood thinners or medications for high blood pressure.
Of course, if you are allergic to fish you may want to stay away from fish oil. Likewise, if you are allergic to seafood or shellfish you should avoid krill oil.
Mild gastrointestinal discomfort including bloating, belching and diarrhea have been reported. Choosing a good quality omega-3 supplement can make a great difference as some products contain rancid oils or low quality additives. Also, some people find switch from fish oil to krill oil to be helpful.
Finding the best omega-3 supplement, whether krill oil or fish oil, can often be the difference between beneficial and negative effects.
Dosage: How Much Should You Take?
Currently, there is no Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for EPA or DHA. Dosage can differ according to individual needs. However, most health nutrition professionals recommend that adults consume a minimum of 220 mg of EPA and 1000mg of DHA.
If you do elect to use these fatty acids as a therapeutic measure, work closely with your physician. According to the American Heart Association, supplemental omega-3 may be used to treat the following:
- Elevated Triglycerides (2000-4000 mg per day of EPA and DHA combined)
- Heart Disease (1000 mg per day of EPA and DHA combined)
- The American Psychiatric Association has also supported the therapeutic use of omega-3s to treat psychological disorders and imbalances, such as:
- Mood, Impulse-Control, and Psychotic Disorders (1000 mg per day of EPA and DHA combined)
- Mood Disorders (1000-3000 mg per day of EPA and DHA combined)
Remember that not all omega-3 supplements are created equal, and some may even cause harm. This is why you should choose the best supplements with high DHA and EPA levels. To find out more please click here. The author is chief editor of Vitamins and Health Supplements website.
 WebMD: What to Know About omega-3s and Fish
 FAO: The role of poultry in human nutrition (PDF)
 Science Daily: Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acids Have Positive Effect On Muscle Mass
 NCBI: Women and omega-3 Fatty acids
 ACES: Illinois scientists link dietary DHA to male fertility
 Rochester: Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease
 Journal of Nutrition: Dietary (n-3) Fatty Acids and Brain Development
 Fox Chase Cancer Center
 Yahoo Health: Inflammation: The Root Cause of All Disease?
 Stanford: Surprising Facts About Food, Health, and the Environment
 UCSD: Choosing an Omega-3 Supplement (PDF)
 University of Washington: The Health Benefits of Krill Oil versus Fish Oil (PDF)
 New York Times: Team Tracks a Food Supply at the End of the World
 NCCAM: Omega-3 Supplements: An Introduction
 SFGate: Recommended Amounts of DHA & EPA Daily
 Mayo Clinic: Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid
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