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Omega-3’s: Why do we need them?

Omega-3, also known as linolenic acid, is an essential fatty acid that we must get through our diet.  It’s a type of polyunsaturated fat that our body cannot produce so we have to get it from food we eat.  Omega-6, linoleic acid, is also an essential fatty acid, but most people get a lot of this type of fatty acid through the “standard diet”.  The goal for overall health is to obtain a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

There are three forms of omega-3 fatty acids:  ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexanoic acid).  ALA is found in plants and can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body.  DHA and EPA are naturally found egg yolks, some plant and nut oils, and in cold water fish and shellfish.

Some overall health benefits of omega-3’s are:

  1. reduces inflammation
  2. reduces blood clotting
  3. dilates blood vessels
  4. important for eye and brain development (especially important for a growing fetus in the late stages of pregnancy)
  5. acts to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  6. may help preserve brain function
  7. helps decrease risk factors for disease
  8. may help reduce the risk of mental illness and ADHD, although more research is needed to confirm mental health benefits

Getting the proper amount of omega-3’s in the diet can help athletic performance and recovery.  Reducing inflammation and helping with blood flow are important benefits for athletes and active people.

Omega-6 fatty acids tend to be pro-inflammatory.  These are mostly found in vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean oil).  We do need omega-6 fatty acids in our diet, but we need to maintain the right balance.  Most Americans get too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3.  Balancing these two fatty acids is necessary for supporting normal circulation and other biological processes.

While there is not a dietary reference intake (DRI) for the ideal amount of EPA and DHA, the Institute of Medicine has established an adequate intake for ALA (the precursor to EPA + DHA).  The Institute of Medicine recommends 1.1 grams per day of ALA to be the minimum amount for normal growth and neural development.  It has been recommended that we get 1.25 grams of EPA+DHA per day, which is found in about 2-3 serving of fatty fish per week.

Can we get all the needed omega-3 fatty acids from only eating plant based sources?  ALA (found in plants), being the precursor, needs to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body.  According to this study, “the conversion appears to be unreliable and restricted” and “the conversion from ALA to DHA is severely restricted”.

Being plant based, I was always curious if I was getting the proper amount of omega-3’s in my diet.  Earlier in the year, my doctor advised that I take a fish oil supplement.  I was hesitant, but started taking it daily in hopes of decreasing my CRP level .  C-reactive protein (CRP) levels rise in response to inflammation.  After three months (along with some other changes) I was able to get my CRP down to a healthy level.

It’s always best to get your nutrients from food, but sometimes supplementation is needed.  When taking a fish oil supplement, quality is very important.  Some other tips on taking fish oil are:  keep it refrigerated as it could oxidize if left out in the heat;  take it with food to avoid “fish burps” or you can freeze it; most benefits happen over weeks not immediately;  fish oil can increase brain activity, so a stimulatory effect may be felt after supplementation; fish oil may reduce blood clotting, so take caution if you are on a blood-thinning medication. (Examine.com)

Also available is an algae supplement, which is a vegetarian alternative.

Some food sources of omega-3’s are:

  • salmon
  • anchovies
  • sardines
  • walnuts
  • chia seeds
  • flax seeds
Omega-3's: Why Do We Need Them? Click To Tweet

Getting omega-3’s in your diet, as well as lowering omega-6, has many important health benefits.  As you can see, there are several ways to get those essential fatty acids.  Whether from fatty fish or flax seeds or if you choose to take a supplement.  It’s essential to do research or talk to your doctor or dietician to find the best option for your overall health.

How do you get your omega-3’s?

Have you ever taken a fish oil or algae supplement?