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 helps to support the cardiovascular and immune systems.
Additionally, the cell membranes of your organs incorporate certain fats such as Omega-3. As such, Omega-3 also helps to promote overall healthy, functioning cells within the organs.
In addition to it's health benefits, athletes have also long known about the recovery benefits of EPA (a type of Omega-3).
Supplementing with EPA has become especially popular amongst CrossFit athletes, who have found that it helps attenuate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). We’ll get to the benefits and types of Omega-3’s in more detail below.
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 bodily functions.
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 a number of steps and is ultimately pretty 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 when it comes to 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 (1) lead to the formation of prostaglandins, (2) help to activate white blood cells and platelets, (3) and aid in the triggering of pain signaling, amongst other things. 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.
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's one of the main reasons we use milk from grass-fed cows for our Grass-Fed Ultra 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 You consume?
[clickToTweet tweet="Nutritionists suggest we consume Omega-6 and Omega-3 in a 1:1 ratio. The typical American consumes 10-15x more Omega-6, which can lead to imbalances in the body. #nutrition #health #EatGrassFed" quote="Nutritionists suggest we consume Omega-3 and Omega-6 in a 1:1 ratio. The typical American consumes 10-15x more Omega-6, which can lead to imbalances in the body." theme="style3"]
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 also expected to become more affordable.
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 flaxseed, 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 oil to be the most flavorful option. Personally, I find it very easy to add ground flaxseed 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 can help keep your levels balanced. 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.
Walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, and hazelnuts are also excellent sources of ALA.
The most common sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish. Examples of these include wild salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, and sardines. Plankton and algae are also good sources of EPA and DHA and happen to be viable vegan options as well.
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 can detrimentally affect that state of both your body and mind. Things like joint and muscle pain are 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.
With that said, let’s look at the benefits of Omega-3.
5. Omega-3 Supports 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.
A variety of health-related issues may arise if the blood flow to organs is compromised. Fortunately, studies have found that EPA and DHA supplementation can help to support healthy heart and blood vessel function in people of all ages.
Omega-3 may also help support healthy levels of cholesterol.
There are more aspects of cardiovascular health that adequate supplementation may positively affect as well. Studies show that Omega-3 helps to support normal and appropriate levels of fat in the bloodstream. Further, Omega-3 can help to support a low resting blood pressure, which is beneficial to cardiovascular health.
6. Omega-3 Supports Healthy Brain Function
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 that EPA and DHA are important for maintaining a tranquil state of mind. Supplementing with Omega-3 may help to promote feelings of calm and relaxation in both the mind and body.
7. Omega-3 Supports Bone Health
Studies involving older individuals done by Mangano et al helped to demonstrate that Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in bone health.
The trials ultimately showed that supplementation with Omega-3 may be associated with greater overall bone health in older populations.
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 direct correlation with overall bone health.
8. Omega-3 Supports 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 May Support Healthy 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 seem to substantiate the fact that EPA and DHA help to improve recovery.
Doses ranging anywhere from 0.5 to 4 grams per day were observed to significantly lower exercise-induced inflammation over a period of 3 weeks. Further, studies also show that omega-3 supplementation can decrease DOMS and improve the rate of recovery.
high in EPA and DHA for a healthy brain, heart, nervous system, & immune systemLearn More
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. Too much Omega-3 can cause clotting issues, which can, in turn, lead to excess bleeding -- in the Plastic Surgery field, we usually recommend stopping it a week or two before surgery.
Studies regarding Omega-3's 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.
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 can lead to imbalances in the body, which can have all sorts of negative effects. 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.