All You Need to know about omega-3 fats

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What are Omega-3 fats?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential building blocks for our bodies. Two types are from fish oils; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and a third form comes from flax seed oil, which I will discuss later. As our bodies cannot manufacture Omega-3 ‘s, we need to get them from our food.   You may come across another umbrella label for these essential fatty acids – PUFA, which stands for polyunsaturated fatty acids.

What are Omega-6’s?

Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential building blocks for humans, and are another form of PUFA. Fats, oils, meat, poultry, cereals, nuts, seeds and vegetables are the main sources of omega-6 in our diets. Our diets now include far too much omega-6, this problem has happened by stealth due to tremendous increases in the amount of soya and palm oil which is now added to ready-made foods of all kinds.

Why do I need to eat omega-3’s?

We need to eat food containing omega-3 oils because our bodies are not able to make them, and you can’t maintain good health without these building blocks; this is why they are called essential fatty acids. PUFA is important to the structure of the membranes of the cells in our bodies and is involved in the regulation of our blood pressure, inflammation and blood clotting.

Humans are designed to eat Omega-6’s and Omega-3’s in a ratio of 1:1 in our diets; that is, eating them in equal amounts. In the last few decades this ratio has shifted to 20:1 or even higher of Omega-6’s:Omega-3’s. Clearly our digestive system, tissues and cells are not designed to work with this overload of omega-6 oils. We are now eating far too many sources of Omega 6 and nowhere near the amount of oily fish that we used to eat, as you can see from this dramatically altered ratio. This is one of the reasons for the increase in chronic health problems and weight gain in the population. Omega-3’s are involved in many aspects of maintaining our health, reducing inflammation and keeping illnesses at bay. Inflammation is a characteristic of many illnesses, and it is an issue that will need consideration in chronic or long-term health conditions.

A few examples of health problems where low omega-3 fatty acid levels may be implicated include: psoriasis, eczema, dry skin, poor wound healing, irritability, depression, joint health issues, arthritis, strokes, asthma, allergies (such as hay fever), diabetes, digestive disorders including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, MS and atherosclerosis to name but a few. Omega-3s are also important for brain, nerve and bone health and are implicated in reducing obesity.

What should I be eating and how do I get enough?

You won’t be surprised after reading this far to learn that you probably need to eat more oily fish! Guidelines usually advise us to eat one or two portions each week; I tell my patients to eat at least three portions of oily fish each week. You can eat oily fish at any meal time, or as a cheap nutritious snack from a tin. There are plenty of fish to choose from. Here is a list of those that spring to mind:

  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Pilchards
  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Herring
  • Kippers
  • Eel
  • Whitebait
  • Tuna – fresh, not tinned
  • Anchovies
  • Swordfish

A Hidden Sea of Oil

Do also consider everything else that you are eating that comes out of a packet, whether it is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ food; there are hidden omega-6 oils, usually in the form of refined soya, palm or sunflower oil, in the most unexpected places. Eating these plays a huge part in shifting that ratio of omega oils towards omega-6 oils instead of omega-3’s. Cooking habits have changed dramatically towards the use of plant oils, they are cheap and have largely replaced animal fats in home cooking since the 1980’s. Not to mention the soya beans and other crops that are now fed to beef cattle, entering our food chain indirectly. Food writer Bee Wilson describes this as, ‘a hidden sea of oil.’

Can I take supplements, if so how much should I take?

Good quality fish oil supplements are an excellent source of EPA and DHA. If you don’t like fish then you do need to take a good quality supplement to make sure that you are meeting your body’s requirements for these particular building blocks (as well as reducing your intake of hidden omega-6 oils). Read the small print on the supplement label to work out how much fish oil you need to take; the average adult needs a combined total of 1000 – 1500mg of EPA and DHA daily.

If you have a health problem or are taking prescribed medication – then you should consult a Medical Herbalist, Naturopath or Nutritionist for advice about an appropriate therapeutic dose as part of the consultation process. If you are taking any blood-thinning medication you should seek out the advice and supervision of an appropriate healthcare professional before taking fish oils.

Which supplements are good quality?

You are not going to find high-quality fish oil on the high street or in the supermarket. There is a reason why some fish oil supplements are so cheap – they contain fish oils which have not tested for or removed any toxins, such as cadmium, mercury and lead from the fish oil prior to packaging it up for sale.  Some brands contain very low levels of EPA and DHA as you will see when checking the small print on the label. As a good general rule, if it is cheap fish oil then it won’t have been properly extracted. Medical Herbalists and nutritionists should be able to provide you with guidance on suitable quality brands to use.

I am a vegan/vegetarian, what do I do?

Without consuming fish or fish oils it is not possible to easily achieve the required levels of EPA and DHA that your body requires. Flax seed, flax seed oil, walnuts and walnut oil are good plant-based sources of the third form of Omega-3’s which I mentioned, called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). According to recent research the body can convert around 8% of ALA consumed into EPA, and 0-4% into DHA. You can see the problem we face here in physically getting enough into your system to convert it at the levels required, it just isn’t feasible. Add human variation too and we have an even lower conversion rate of efficiency, not all of us are able to convert ALA to DHA at all. If our bodies are able to make that conversion the body is slow to achieve it. Research says that it takes about six weeks to make a very small amount of DHA.

Vegetarian supplements made from marine algae do exist, their environmental sustainability is a matter beyond the scope of this article. Looking at the EPA and DHA content of these supplements it would be an expensive undertaking to use this source long-term and for any therapeutic effect, though not as expensive as using krill oil.

What about krill oil?

Krill is a very small shellfish harvested for its oils from Antarctica, where it is the food of whales. This is a source of EPA and DHA, but not a terribly rich one. In fact, you need to be pretty rich to consume krill oil at an appropriate level to give you all the EPA and DHA you need! A good quality brand selling 1000mg capsules of krill oil states that it contains 150mg of EPA and 90mg of DHA. Using my calculation above you would need to take five to seven capsules of the krill each day for normal use; the krill oil would cost ten times the price of the fish oil per daily dose, beyond the budgetary constrictions of many.  Bear in mind that considerably more might be needed if prescribed for a health condition; you would simply not be able to physically ingest it at these prescribed high therapeutic levels.

A few useful tips

  • Don’t stock up on fish oils, they do not have a long shelf-life. Check the ‘sell by’ date before you buy any.
  • Very occasionally I’ve bought a high-quality brand, opened the tub and had a strong whiff of fish. This should not be the case, they may have been exposed to heat or a manufacturing problem, return them.
  • If you can’t bare that fishy flavour there are some excellent brands around that are flavoured with different fruits such as lemon, berry and orange.
  • Some patients find that they get a fishy flavoured burp after taking their fish oils, this can be avoided by taking the capsules during a meal.
  • Unlike some supplements there is no best time of day to take your fish oils, so whatever works best for you is fine, though I would take them during the day, not at night.

The ‘Just for Tummies’ range Omega 3 capsules contain 400mg of EPA and 200mg DHA per 1000mg gel capsule. The oils are from a sustainable source of anchovies, fished in the deep Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Peru. Any contaminants in the fish oil are carefully removed using esterification processes, followed by molecular distillation to give a high-quality oil. You can purchase it here.

Omega-3 fish oils supplement by Just for Tummies
The Just For Tummies Omega-3 capsules

The Author

Lizzie Foulon BSc MCPP is a practising Medical Herbalist and teacher, with a degree in Phytotherapy (the scientific study of herbal medicine) along with extensive training in aromatic medicine and nutrition. She trained in the UK, USA and France.

Lizzie works in private practice in Solihull, Stow-on-the-Wold and Cheddar. Her specialisms are gut health and cancer support. Lizzie works in partnership with her patients, to support and treat them as a whole, improving their well-being and vitality, while treating and supporting their health problems

You can find out more about her here.