Omega-3 fatty acids are a true superfood that can enhance your health, brainpower, and athletic performance.
Why do we call Omega-3’s a superfood?
We’ve come to this conclusion because there are truly very few naturally occurring supplements that can make such a dramatic impact in such a short period of time. Not only does the medical research substantiate this, but I have also seen the effects in myself.
Studies indicate that Omega-3 supplementation has very significant heath effects including improving cardiovascular health, cognitive (brain) function, immune support, bone health, and weight management. Additionally, the cell membranes of your organs incorporate certain fats such as Omega-3. As such, a lack of Omega-3 will lead to impaired cell function.
In addition to health benefits, athletes have long known about the recovery benefits of EPA (a type of Omega-3), which decreases inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Supplementing with EPA has thus become very popular amongst crossfit athletes. We’ll get to the benefits and types of Omega-3’s in more detail below.
Unfortunately, the North American diet is very low in Omega-3, and it is difficult to have adequate levels without making a concerted effort.
Let’s take a look at what Omega-3’s are, where we can find them, how much we should have, and how they can help us:
1. Omega 3’s are Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
Omega 3’s are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids. While saturated fats and trans fats negatively affect your health, polyunsaturated fats provide your body with many benefits such as lowering bad cholesterol levels, and maintaining normal body function.
No…. not all fats are bad!
There are three basic types of polyunstaturated fatty acids, also known as PUFA’s. These fatty acids include Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9. Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fall into the family of essential fatty acids meaning your body needs them, but cannot produce them on its own.
Breaking it down further, there are three types of Omega-3’s. The first is linolenic acid (ALA) commonly found in vegetarian food sources. Your body can take ALA and process it into the other two types of Omega-3’s. This processing however, takes many steps, and is inefficient.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic) and DHA (docosahexaenoic) are the 2 other forms, and perhaps the more important Omega-3’s. EPA and DHA are critical for normal brain development in the unborn fetus, as well as in newborns. They are also important for adult health and athletic performance.
It is far more efficient for the body to consume EPA and DHA directly than it is to process ALA.
While our diets lack sufficient Omega-3, we consume far too much Omega-6, the other essential PUFA. Though our body needs it, there is a proper amount that we should consume. Throughout the world, 45% of people consume 10-20 times the recommended amount of Omega-6.
Let’s discuss why:
2. Grass Fed Meat is High In Omega-3
You have all heard the phrase: “you are what you eat”. This certainly applies to Omega-3 and Omega-6.
Let me explain what we mean:
As stated earlier, throughout the world, and most commonly in North America, the population consumes too much Omega-6. Omega-6 is essential and important for forming molecules called eicosanoids. These are signaling molecules that lead to the formation of prostaglandins, the activation of white blood cells and platelets, the triggering of pain signaling, and more. An excess amount of these molecules can have negative health consequences though, which we will discuss momentarily.
The average North American diet has shifted over the last 50 years to consuming protein derived mostly from grain fed animal meats. Unfortunately, grains contain a high amount of Omega-6, and as such, typical animal muscle meats have become very high in Omega-6. This is detrimental to our overall health.
As an aside, we specifically talk about lean muscle meats because that is what most people in Westernized society typically eat. We’re talking about chicken breasts and Filet Mignon to further clarify. While these are delicious and lean, we have learned to avoid and discard animal organs like liver or kidney that come packed full of Omega-3.
Original Photo by Alex Krivec
In contrast to grains, grasses are high in Omega-3. Grass-fed animals therefore have much higher levels of Omega-3 in their meats. Grass-fed cows also produce milk that has a much higher content of Omega-3. This milk is also higher in certain vitamins and CLA. It is why we use milk from grass-fed cows for our New Zealand Whey Protein.
Unfortunately, grass-fed animal meats are very expensive. Few people in North America can afford to eat grass-fed beef and poultry exclusively.
So how much Omega-3 and Omega-6 should I consume?
There is a specific ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 that we should ingest. Nutritionists and scientists suggest that the ratio should be about 1:1. The typical American diet consumes a 10:1 to 15:1 ratio.Nutritionists suggest we consume Omega-3 and Omega-6 in a 1:1 ratio. The typical American consumes 10-15x more Omega-6, which is bad for health.Click To Tweet
3. Find Omega-3 in Leafy Greens, Nuts, Seeds, and Fish
As stated earlier, grass-fed meats are high in Omega-3. Grass-fed beef and poultry is becoming more and more popular, and thus more available. As it becomes more available, its pricing hopefully will decrease.
In addition to grass-fed meats, we can also get Omega-3 from various other food sources.
Green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, kale, spinach and broccoli are very high in ALA. Brussel sprouts are another excellent source. Other foods that are very high ALA include flax seed, chia seed, hemp and camelina oil.
Adding green vegetables to your diet is easy. Using flax, chia, hemp or camelina is another thing altogether. You can purchase these as seeds, or you can purchase their individual oils. I do not find using the oil to be the most flavorful option. Personally, I find it very easy to add ground flax seed to some yogurt mixed with protein powder for a healthy breakfast.
Remember, you must grind the flax seeds in order to digest them. They are also a very good source of fiber, and will help keep you regular. Chia seeds I find to have minimal flavor, but be sure to check the mirror after you eat them as they tend to get stuck between your teeth, and make their appearance known when you smile. Hey… just trying to help here.
Original Photo by Jenn Kosar
Walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews and hazelnuts are also excellent sources of ALA.
The classic source of EPA and DHA are fatty fish. Examples of these are wild salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, and sardines. Plankton and algae are also good sources, and happen to be vegan.
You can also use a highly concentrated Omega-3 supplement. These come from either fish oil, krill oil, algae oil, or plankton. Most clinical studies on the health benefits of Omega-3 have study participants using supplemental EPA and DHA.
4. Low Omega-3 & Excess Omega-6 Is Bad For You
As previously mentioned, you not only need adequate amounts of Omega-3, you also need appropriate (and probably lower) amounts of Omega-6.
Omega-6 excess will promote certain disease states that your physician can sometimes monitor with blood tests. Numerous inflammatory states, arthritis, joint and muscle pain are all often associated with excess Omega-6 and low Omega-3 levels.
It may also be part of the reason that your cholesterol is higher than ideal. You may think that your food choices are appropriate, but perhaps their high Omega-6 content may be negatively affecting your health. Depression and anxiety can be directly related to this as DHA is necessary for normal brain and cognitive balance.
With that said, let’s look at the benefits of Omega-3.
5. Omega-3 Benefits Cardiovascular Health
The heart and blood vessels make up your cardiovascular system. As you age, the lining of the blood vessels tends to thicken, and this can decrease the blood flow to the tissues. We know this as atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis can lead to aneurysms, heart attacks, gangrene of the feet, and strokes. Studies demonstrate that EPA and DHA supplementation can decrease the risk of heart attack, decrease peripheral vascular disease, and attenuate inflammation in the blood vessels. Omega-3’s are the precursors for resolvins and protectins that fight inflammation.
Omega-3 may also help decrease your cholesterol level that is also associated with atherosclerosis.
There are more aspects of cardiovascular health that adequate supplementation may positively affect as well. Studies show that Omega-3 can inhibit platelet aggregation, and thus prevent excess clotting. In addition, Omega-3 can increase the release of nitric oxide from the blood vessels that benefits the lining of these vessels. Further, Omega-3 can lower your resting blood pressure, which is beneficial to cardiovascular health.
6. Omega-3 Can Improve Brain Function & Mood
Studies find high quantities of DHA in both the brain and retina. DHA and EPA are critical for proper formation and repair of the nervous system, as well as being important in the normal metabolism of neurotransmitters.
EPA is also very important for brain function and may show its effect in mood and behavior. Studies indicate both EPA and DHA can improve attention deficit disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia and aggression. Moreover, several studies show the benefit of Omega-3 supplementation on anxiety and depression.
In my own practice, I find it amazing that approximately 70% of my patients are on an anti-depressant or anxiolytic. Could it be that this high rate of anxiety and depression relates to our food supply? Clearly, everyone doesn’t have a paxil or klonopin deficiency, though everyone seems to be on them.
I myself suffered from anxiety until I started on Omega-3 supplementation. It is now just part of my normal health conscious nutrition plan.
7. Omega-3 Supports Bone Health
Studies in older individuals done by Mangano et al demonstrate that Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in bone health. The trials show that supplementation associates with a higher bone mineral density in the lumbar spine.
Original Photo by Nino Liverani
Additionally, EPA and DHA may modulate osteoblast and osteoclast activity in the bone. Osteoblasts function in new bone formation, and osteoclasts breakdown old bone. Modulating their effect has a role in bone mineral density, which has a correlation with fractures, repair, and bone health.
8. Omega-3 Assists Immune Function
Your body is constantly under attack by foreign invaders. These include viruses, bacteria, and rogue mutated cells. The immune system is the main guard in protection from these agents.
The immune system is basically made up of two class of cells: the B-lymphocytes and the T-lymphocytes. Signaling molecules that are part of the inflammation cascade assist both of these cell types.
In addition to modulating the effects of inflammation, EPA and DHA may also enhance the function of B-lymphocytes. The B-cells produce antibodies, and EPA and DHA can amplify this function. Omega-3 studies also show a positive effect on the function of CD4+ T-cells, which are known as helper T-cells within the immune system.
9. Omega-3 Helps with Weight Management
Omega-3 may even help with weight management. People taking a relatively low dose (1.3 grams per day) reported feeling significantly fuller for several hours following a meal. However, we have yet to confirm this in studies using higher doses.
Several other studies found that supplementation with Omega-3 can increase the metabolic rate. This can cause you to burn more calories. Also, studies recognize that Omega-3 supplementation induces fat breakdown. Again, not every study confirms this so do not base an entire fat loss plan around Omega-3 supplementation, though it may be helpful.
10. Omega-3 Promotes Athletic Performance
Athletes have been using EPA and DHA for years to help with recovery from intense exercise. Scientific studies certainly substantiate the fact that EPA and DHA improves recovery.
Doses ranging between half to 4 grams per day over a period of 3 weeks demonstrated significantly lower exercise induced inflammation. Further, studies show supplementation can decrease DOMS and improve the rate of recovery.
Can Omega-3 make you perform better?
There are studies that support this, and in fact some even show that the supplement can lower the resting heart rate.
11. Omega-3 Works Best with a Proper Dose
So what is the correct dose for this superfood supplement?
The range varies significantly with some physicians recommending doses as low as 1 gram a day and others as high as 4 grams per day. Excess Omega-3 can lead to excess bleeding stemming from clotting issues, and in Plastic Surgery we usually recommend stopping it a week or two before surgery.
Studies regarding Omega-3 effects on anxiety and depression use doses in the 3-4 gram per day range. I personally take 3 grams a day and recommend it to all my patients who are on antidepressants and anxiolytics.
I personally take three grams a day.
Athlete studies show that 1-2 grams have a positive effect, though if you read crossfit blogs, athletes are using much higher doses.
Omega-3 supplementation offers many benefits that can help everyone from the Average Joe to an elite athlete. Unfortunately, most North Americans have low Omega-3 levels coupled with dangerously high Omega-6 levels. This out-of-whack Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio has led to the rise of many disease states. We need to be conscious of our diet, and even consider further Omega-3 supplementation. Whether you are a vegetarian taking plant based Omega-3, or a carnivore taking fish based Omega-3 supplements, you will see benefits from making it part of your normal routine.
Omega-3 truly is an amazing superfood.