Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are the two main fatty acids you hear about in our diet. They are often referred to as EFAs (essential fatty acids). Essential, meaning you cannot survive without them but yet your body does not make them on its own. You must ingest them in food sources. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are healthy, unsaturated fats, but they are not created equal.
Omega-6 fats are thought to be pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 fats are known to be anti-inflammatory. While both are essential, a diet too high in omega-6 fats compared to omega-3 fats is promoting inflammation in the body, which is not something that we want to occur.
EFAs are found in the cell membranes of every cell in your body. They are vital for the development and maintenance of healthy brain, nerve, and eye cells, they support our immune systems and how well our blood is able to clot, and they are vital to a healthy reproductive system.
There are three main types of Omega-3s:
· Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
· Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
· Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
DHA and EPA are found in wild caught salmon, mackerel, sardines, grass fed beef, and pasture-raised eggs. ALA is an omega-3 found in plant sources that then needs to be converted into EPA and DHA. This means an additional step for your body to complete and one that you may or may not be doing effectively. Vegan omega-3 supplements are comprised of ALA, so keep in mind that if you are taking this source of Omega-3 then you may not be getting as much as you actually need, depending on how well your body is able to convert it.
The Standard American Diet tends to be very low in Omega-3s and very high in Omega-6s. This means our diet is promoting inflammation. The best way to ensure you are getting more Omega-3 fats in your diet is to eat less processed, pre-packaged foods, and start eating more whole foods that are cooked fresh.
Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids include:
· Wild caught salmon
· Grass fed beef
· Pasture raised eggs
· Chia seeds
· Hemp seeds
· Coconut oil
· Grass fed butter
Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential but should be consumed in a smaller quantity and can be pro-inflammatory when you ingest too much.
Foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids include:
· Nuts and seeds
· Sunflower oil
· Safflower oil
· Grapeseed oil
· Sesame seed oil
Health Benefits of Omega-3s
Omega-3s Decrease Inflammation
Omega-3s have been touted by health professionals all over the world for their anti-inflammatory properties. They have been shown to reduce the inflammatory response in the body by inhibiting the secretion of inflammatory markers such as prostaglandin.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are commonly used to treat pain. However, chronic use of NSAIDS has been associated with gastric ulcers, bleeding, heart attack, stroke, and kidney damage. This study shows that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is a safer yet still effective way to treat neck and back pain when compared to NSAIDS.
Side effects of NSAIDS include:
increased risk of stroke
Chronic inflammation is associated with the development and progression of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer. Don’t ignore inflammation in your body, treating it will drastically improve your quality of life.
Omega-3s and Heart Health
Omega-3s decrease serum levels of triglycerides, effectively lower blood cholesterol levels. They also help reduce inflammation in the arteries while improving arterial dilation, meaning your blood can flow through the arteries into the heart easier.
Studies are somewhat inconclusive as to how effective Omega-3s actually are on improving cardiovascular outcomes. However, the research all agrees that losing weight, getting regular exercise, and following a Mediterranean diet (which is rich in Omega-3s) are all effective at improving cardiovascular health.
Omega-3s for Hormone Balance
We’ve talked about how effective Omega-3s are when it comes to reducing inflammation. Hormone imbalance often has an inflammatory component to it and if you don’t address the inflammation, then it’s virtually impossible to effectively get your hormones where they need to be. This is in part because inflammation increases the activity of aromatase in your body.
Aromatase is an enzyme found in both men and women that is responsible for the conversion of testosterone into estrogen. If inflammation increases aromatase activity, then that means it’s increasing the amount of estrogen in your body while decreasing testosterone. This is problematic for both men and women. For men it can manifest as things like sexual dysfunction or decreased libido, loss of muscle mass, and increased abdominal fat. For women it can present as hair loss, decreased libido, weight gain, heavy periods, PMS, and lack of ovulation which can be a cause of infertility. You can read more about ovulation here.
Omega-3s can Improve Symptoms of PCOS
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is strongly associated with inflammation. Women with PCOS are more likely to have elevated serum levels of CRP (an inflammatory protein), elevated white blood cells, and signs of oxidative stress. All of these can be found during times of inflammation.
Common symptoms of PCOS include elevated testosterone, acne, insulin resistance, and irregular menstrual cycles.
We discussed above how inflammation plays a role in hormone imbalances and menstrual irregularities. Omega-3s can reduce inflammation to help with managing PCOS symptoms. This study shows that adding Omega-3s into your PCOS treatment protocol can help improve insulin resistance as well as elevated cholesterol.
Omega-3s for Menstrual Cramps
Painful menstrual cramps, also known as dysmenorrhea, have been associated with higher blood levels of chemicals called Prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone like compounds that are found throughout our bodies. Their main role is to stimulate inflammation in areas that are injured by constricting blood flow. When prostaglandins are released as a woman begins to shed her endometrial lining, blood flow is constricted to the uterus causing the uterus to contract. The more prostaglandins that are released, the more the uterus contracts and the more painful the cramping will be.
There’s been a direct correlation between the levels of fatty acids in the body and the production of inflammatory Prostaglandins. Reducing inflammatory omega-6s in your body and increasing your omega-3 consumption can reduce the intensity of menstrual cramps and decrease the amount of ibuprofen needed to manage pain.
Omega-3s and Postpartum Depression and Anxiety
Postpartum depression and anxiety can develop during pregnancy, soon after birth or up to a year after giving birth. Up to 15% of women experience postpartum depression, and up to 25% of women experience postpartum anxiety.
Because Omega-3 fatty acids play such a critical role in the function of the central nervous system, it is being studied for efficacy in cases of depression and anxiety. We do know that omega-3 supplementation is associated with better pregnancy outcomes overall though, so the benefits of supplementation are clear as you can read in the next section.
Better Pregnancy Outcomes Associated with Omega-3 Intake
DHA is an essential building block for fetal growth and development. The fetal brain begins developing around week 5 of pregnancy and continues to develop through the remainder of the pregnancy. Adequate ingestion of DHA during pregnancy has been shown to help support eye development, brain development, and nervous system development for your growing baby.
Adequate DHA consumption during pregnancy has also been correlated with longer pregnancy duration, lower preterm births, and healthy birth weight.
The recommendation for DHA supplementation during pregnancy is 200mg daily, although this is on the lower end and there have been studies recommending higher dosages.
How to choose a quality Omega-3 supplement?
There are so many different options for supplements out there, and that can make it difficult to know how to choose good quality products. First off, you want to look at the transparency of the brand. If they aren’t willing to share information about their sources of fish that are going into their products, then it’s probably not a brand you should feel good about ingesting.
Taste also matters. Quality fish oil supplements won’t have the fishy smell and aftertaste that people have come to associate fish oil supplements with. The ingredients shouldn’t include any dyes or artificial sweeteners. Some of the big name fish oil supplements that I see people using from the grocery store have dyes and additives that are unnecessary, making these products lower in quality.
Quality fish oil is made from smaller fish because they have lower levels of mercury, which should always be a concern when it comes to fish products. You also want a company that filters for heavy metals, solvents, and pesticides.
You can check out my online dispensary and order a quality fish oil supplement here.
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Mohebi-Nejad, A., Bikdeli, B. Omega-3 Supplements and Cardiovascular Diseases. Tanaffos. 2014
Martinez-Gonzalez, M. Gea, A. Ruiz-Canela, M. The Meditteranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health. Circ Res. 2019.
Capellino, S. Straub, R. Cutolo, M. Aromatase and regulation of the estrogen-to-androgen ratio in synovial tissue inflammation: common pathways in both sexes. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014.
Yang, K. Zeng, L. Bao, T. Ge, J. Effectiveness of Omega-3 fatty acid for polycystic ovary syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Reprod Biol Endocrinol. 2018.
Rahbar, N. Asgharzadeh, N. Ghorbani, R. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on the intensity of primary dysmenorrhea. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2012.
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