Omega 3's - What Exactly Do They Do & How To Get More Into Your Diet.
Fats get a bad press when we talk about the diet, but they are, of course, vital for health. As one of the key building blocks for our bodies, they are necessary components of cells, are the starting point for many biochemical reactions within the body and are a source of energy. However some fats are more important than others and some are even essential as they cannot be made by the body. These are the omega-3 and omega-6 families of fats. Both have specific roles in the body and a balance between the two is imperative for optimal health. An ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 4:1, however the typical 21st century western diet provides a ratio of anywhere from 12:1 to 25:1! Simply put, we aren’t consuming enough omega-3 from our diet. Signs and symptoms of a deficiency or imbalance in the diet include, but are not limited to:
Dry, rough , scaly, itchy skin
Raised red bumps on the back of arms (Keratinosis pilaris)
Dry eyes and vision problems
Poor hair condition and loss of hair
Skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis
Impaired memory, learning, mood, behaviour
Frequent infections and poor wound healing
For the purpose of this article we are going to focus on omega-3. These essentials fats are a type of long, chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFA’s as they are commonly known. The two most important omega-3’s are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) which are found in oily fish. They can also be metabolised from a ‘parent’ essential fat known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which is found in flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, canola and hemp.
However in order for EPA and DHA to be synthesized from ALA a number of steps needs to occur via enzymes (desaturase and elongase) and this conversion is notoriously inefficient. It is estimated that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is as little as 8% and 4% respectively. The conversion is inhibited by a number of factors including nutrient deficiencies such as magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6; intake of refined sugars and alcohol, insulin resistance and stress hormones.
The importance of omega-3 in the body:
Omega-3’s benefit many areas of health and they have been shown to support cardiovascular, joint, eye and mental health, amongst others. Yet they also play important roles in influencing inflammation and hormones.
Inflammation is the body’s initial healing response and is necessary for survival. Classic signs of inflammation are redness, swelling, pain and heat. But the process becomes damaging if it turns chronic for weeks, months or indefinitely and this is now thought to be the root of almost all chronic diseases, including those that do not exhibit the classic inflammatory symptoms. However omega-3’s can positively influence this inflammatory response via the production of eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are signalling molecules that can be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory depending on the pathway they are synthesized via. The dietary omega-6:3 ratio regulates cell membrane PUFA composition and the types of eicosanoids produced. Simply put, the omega-6 pathway can be pro- or anti-inflammatory while the omega-3 pathway is strongly anti-inflammatory. Unfortunately much of our consumption of omega-6 is consumed from rancid oils present in processed and fried foods, as opposed to wholefoods such as sunflower and sesame, which drive the pro-inflammatory pathway. We therefore need to ensure we are consuming less of these pro-inflammatory omega-6 PUFAs and increasing our intake of anti-inflammatory omega-3’s. Read on to find out how we can do this.
Omega-3’s can also positively influence our hormones, especially our steroid or sex hormones. Omega-3 fatty acids help to keep cell membranes healthy by ensuring they are kept flexible and stable which is necessary for healthy hormone receptors. Hormone receptors are the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ of the cells, receiving messages from substances in the bloodstream and then telling the cells what to do. If our cells are rigid, from an imbalance of omega-6:3 fatty acids, then these messages struggle to get through.
In addition, omega-3’s, especially EPA, may help increase the beneficial 2-hydroxy oestrogen metabolite and reduce the harmful 16-α-hydroxy oestrogen metabolite, thereby reducing cancer risk.
Increasing dietary omega-3
Oily fish – oily fish are the best source of the omega-3’s EPA and DHA. To know which oily choose you should choose remember SMASH:
S – Salmon
M – Mackerel
A – Anchovies
S – Sardines
H – Herring
Buy wild – studies have shown that wild compared to farmed oily fish have higher levels of omega-3 as farmed fish can be fed omega-6 rich ‘food’ which disrupts the natural balance of omega-3:6.
Increase intake of ALA – whilst the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is poor, it is still important to consume these foods. Sources include flaxseed, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, canola and help.
Choose organic and grass fed meat and poultry – these contain higher proportions of essential fatty acids and a lower omega-6:3 ratio than meat and poultry from intensively farmed livestock.
Aim for 2-3 servings of fish each week, of which 1 serving should be oily.
How to get more from plant based ALA:
You can also increase your consumption of nutrient co-factors that support the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA:
Magnesium – green leafy vegetables including spinach and Swiss chard, squash, pumpkin seeds, broccoli.