In the world of health & nutrition the words omega 3 are probably some of the most familiar, in the sense they aren't new age & I'm not reinventing the wheel when I tell you that they are of benefit.
However as with most things there is huge amounts of variation when it comes to omega 3 products, foods & influences on requirements, plus potentially a number bits & pieces you weren't quite as aware of as you once thought.
Additionally to the bounty of information I will now shower you with I also have the huge pleasure of sharing a truly one off offer with you - Bare Biology, the producers of exceptionally high quality, clinical strength fish oils (the ones I actually use in my clinic & myself) have agreed to provide a 20% discount code (something they have never, & potentially will never do again!) for you. Simply enter NATNOURISH on their website when purchasing to apply this.
But now to the why we want them at all...
So omega 3 fats are what we term essential fatty acids, they form our cell membranes & are the primary building blocks of our brain & nervous system. The 3 bit is actually just a reference to the chemical structure (it reflects the proximity of a double bond to a methyl group) & this is the same when we look at omega 6 (rather than 3 along, the bond is 6 along) & omega 9, where you've guessed it, the bond is 9 spaces along.
Now your omega 3, 6 & 9's are not just singular forms themselves, they refer to groups of these essential fatty acids with those structures, to avoid becoming entangled in multiple layers & chemistry lessons however we will now just concentrate on the omega 3 group.
Right if we begin at the end so to speak the omega 3 we want & need predominantly for our nervous system & those lovely communicative cell membranes are the 2 types we get from our small oily fish - these are known as EPA & DHA (they have exceptionally long real names but let's stick to acronyms for now). If we further break these down EPA is what I would term our 'functional' omega 3 form in that this is the 1 we apply as an anti-inflammatory & when we want to improve the workings of said neurological system & other elements of our body/health.
DHA on the other hand is the more structural form of omega 3 - it is the type we look to during pregnancy & early life, after traumatic brain injury, stroke & as we age as this is when we need to improve & bolster the framework of our nervous system. In terms of how they interact DHA can be converted to EPA but EPA does not change back to DHA. Within an animal omega 3 source we will see the presence of both forms, but EPA levels will be higher.
If we then skip to plant based sources of omega 3, these being flaxseed (milled or the oil, the milled being a far less rich source as you have all the fibre too), hemp oil/hulled seeds, chia & certain algae, we need to clarify ever so slightly as in terms of those forms I mention above we aren't looking at quite the same things.
Here we actually take a step back in the conversion train to a form known as ALA. Now ALA in itself is not without use - it is incredibly nourishing for the eyes & mucous membranes so those with dry eyes, blepharitis, dry mouths etc can find the inclusion of those plant based sources to be incredibly beneficial in lessening those symptoms. When talking of the other functional applications of omega 3 however we need to convert that ALA to DHA then to EPA so for those not including their dietary oily fish/who wouldn't take a fish oil supplement we need to be a little more forceful in how we ensure their levels remain optimal as their influx will naturally be lower. I will go into this in more detail in just a second.
And this is where I may ruffle some feathers because I know in the UK for example the national guidelines are for 1-2 portions of any oily fish a week. That is not nearly specific enough (or enough in general!) for me.
No my guidance is or 3-4 proteins of small oily fish - the SMASH-T varieties (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, herring & trout) a week, & that would be as a maintenance 'dose' in the absence of any other clinical indications that someone's omega 3 levels needed supporting.
We also can't talk about omega 3 without talking about its relationship to omega 6. These 2 essential fatty acid groups are both friends & enemies in the sense that they are in constant competition for who gets to make up the majority of our cell membranes. Again the omega 6 group has subdivisions but the overall balance of omega 6 to omega 3 would ideally be in a 1:1 ratio, this however is incredibly rare with the average person showing 1 more in the region of 20-25:1 omega 6:3. And this is where we begin to get concerned because high levels of omega 6 promote inflammation in the body, & inflammation is pretty much the root cause of all ill health states & the primary driver of chronic diseases.
A small nod again to my plant based friends as even healthful foods contain omega 6 (nuts & seeds are a rich source) & what we see is the conversion of ALA to DHA & EPA is blocked by the presence of too much omega 6, so not only are we saying their overall omega 3 influx is lower, but they may then also have a slowed efficacy of conversion to those active forms because of the integral inclusion of some of these omega 6 foods into their diets.
And this is a general concern as in addition to nuts & seeds omega 6 food sources are far more numerous in our current diets overall so what we would tend to see is a generally huge omega 6 intake with a pretty paltry omega 3 1 to counterbalance it.
CLINICAL INDICATIONS & APPLICATIONS
As I eluded to in the previous section inflammation is a big concern when it comes to our health. In its natural state our inflammatory response should be short lived - we cut ourselves, the edges swell, a scab forms, we don't bleed to death. Or we trip & sprain our ankle, again it swells to immobilise the joint & that space is flooded with immune cells that get to work in healing up those tugged on connective tissues. But again it is short lived, we don't have a stiff & swollen ankle forever.
When we see internal consistent inflammation however this is not a short lived acute response, it is a chronic, low grade simmer, happening in the background causing little bits of damage to our blood vessels, to our tissues, making our cell membranes less communicative & raising our blood pressure & sugar levels....the list of things insidious inflammation leads to is exceptionally long.
When we look to other things however, say mood imbalance, brain fog, anxiety, depression, neurodegneration & chronic pain, these are all indications of an inflammatory mechanism gone awry too, & as I mention above our omega fats are integral to nervous function so when these are out of balance no wonder it is reflected in our neurological & cognitive functioning.
In terms of how omega 3 fits into this picture this is when the diet versus supplement question really comes into play as in my opinion any symptomatic presentation like those I list above would be a 'straight to supplement' scenario, at least in the short term, because we have specific & undeniable signs that there is imbalance there. Unless someone is taking blood thinning medication or has an issue with clotting (also around surgery or traumatic injury) I would be looking at 2-4g of pure omega 3 a day, with at least 1-2g of active EPA (& this is where you must look at the labels becuase what is claimed on the front may not be what is truly in the product when you break things down.)
When we look at the longevity of this need that would be down to the individual. As a general rule studies suggest that it takes ~3 months to out compete the more inflammatory omegas for those prime cell membrane slots, so at this point I may drop someone down in their supplemental dose whilst consistently increasing their dietary intake, or if that would appear to be insufficient in light of other elements of their specific situation - a family history of heart disease or arthritis perhaps, or maybe a tendency towards high stress & iffy blood sugar response, then I would tailor my suggestions accordingly. I myself am a prime example as eat in a way that would be considered exceptionally anti-inflammatory already, include anywhere from 4-6 portions of those oily fish a week + my hemp & chia, but I am also very physically active & have a family history of hypercholesterolemia so I choose to continue to supplement daily with the Bare Biology Lionheart oil or capsules as I know it pre-empts any creaky joints &/or those cardiovascular concerns from ever being realised.
If we look at specific therapeutic studies as well we can conclusively see the benefits of omega 3 supplementation - numerous examples of high strength EPA proving themselves more effective than anti-depressants & placebo in alleviating serious mood disorders can now be found, & when applied post stroke high strength DHA improved recovery rates significantly, & many times aided in the return to full or at least vastly improved functionality where semi-paralysis had originally been seen in patients.
In my opinion omega 3 is something the average Joe doesn't get enough of, & again if I were to make an overly sweeping statement I would say fish oil supplementation is something I always see my clients benefit from.
Saying this however there is also plenty to be said for really going gung ho on your dietary intake, I would never suggest supplements replace the foundation of a solid, nutrient dense diet, but with our modern lifestyles the way that they are I would be inclined to lean towards a little top up every now & again.
I hope this has proved an interesting read, & of course any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to be in touch +44 (0) 7738711183 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
And a final reminder again of that code if you need it - NATNOURISH on the Bare Biology website at the checkout.
With healthy wishes,