Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are essential for health. However, animal sources vs. plant sources are way different from one another. Choose wisely.
If Your “Omegas” are Unbalanced, So is Your Health
The right fatty acids are crucial for your health. Some work well, others don’t.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou, if you know better, you can do better.
Knowing what’s best about omega fatty acids lays the foundation for doing better. It’s your choice whether to use that knowledge for your own benefit..
This article gives you that knowledge. Pretty exciting, huh?
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
First things first.
Two kinds of omega fatty acids are essential – omega-3s and omega-6s. Being “essential” means we must get both types in our diet since our bodies are incapable of making them.
Unfortunately, in modern times the intake of omega-6s has greatly exceeded what we need. The biologically beneficial ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s should ideally be around 2:1. The actual average is closer to 20:1.
This is a highly inflammatory ratio, fueled by the overconsumption processed vegetable oils rich in omega-6s. Maintaining that out of whack ratio is much worse for your health than you can imagine. And your doctor will probably never mention it to you.
In the immortal words of Gomer Pyle, USMC, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
Some vegetable oils are worse than others. I posted a brief article explaining why, and what to do about it, here: Vegetable Oils That Cause Inflammation. It’s a good read, although I’m probably biased since I wrote it.
Based on that article, one of the strategies for correcting the omega-6:omega-3 ratio is cutting back on vegetable oils.
However, this strategy must go hand-in-hand with boosting your intake of omega-3s.
And, since not all omega-3s equal, choosing the RIGHT omega-3s is crucial.
So let’s get right down to it and open the book on omega-3 fatty acids.
What Exactly are Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Fatty acids are characterized by their length (number of carbons in their chain), whether they’re unsaturated (have one or more double bonds), how many double bonds, if any, and their position and orientation when present.
Organic chemists like me get all excited about chemical nomenclature, so I’ll do my best not to get carried away with it.
Just some simple basics about fatty acids – promise.
Fatty acids can be short chain (1-5 carbons), medium chain (6-12 carbons), or long chain (13-22 carbons). Some are even longer.
Each group has a role in your health. The focus of this article is fatty acids 18-22 carbons long – thus, ‘long’ chain.
“Omega” in the name refers to where the first double bond occurs relative to the end of the molecule.
It’s best to show you rather than get all wordy about what that means.
The double bond in omega-3s is at the third bond position in the chain, whereas in omega-6s it’s at the sixth position.
In case you’re wondering, other omegas are also known. Omega-9s and omega-7s also provide health benefits, although these fatty acids aren’t classified as essential since our bodies can make them.
Even though these differences may seem to be minor chemical gobbledygook, they’re hugely significant in your biology. (Is hugely a word? I hope so.)
At least now you can impress your friends with your knowledge about what long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are.
Now, where do we get them, and what’s so danged important about them?
Sources of the Four Most Common Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The following are typical dietary sources for the top four.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid): 22 carbons, 6 double bonds. This is the most famous ‘health’ fatty acid of all. I’ll have much more to say about that a little later. It’s found in oily fish, krill oil, certain marine algae, and fish oil supplements.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid): 20 carbons, 5 double bonds. EPA is always paired with DHA in the same natural sources and therefore in supplements made from them.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid): 18 carbons, 3 double bonds. ALA is a plant-derived omega-3 found in green leafy veggies and several kinds of seeds. Commercially available seeds containing ALA include flax, chia, canola, walnut, and soybean. Much to the delight of vegans, it can be converted to DHA in our bodies. However, much to their chagrin, the conversion is very inefficient. We can convert only about 10% of ALA into DHA.
ETA (eicosatetraenoic acid: 20 carbons, 4 double bonds. Although ETA is a lesser-known omega-3 fatty acid, it has become more important as an anti-inflammatory supplement extracted from green-lipped mussels. In case you’re in the caviar crowd, you may also appreciate the abundance of ETA in roe. One particular benefit of ETA is its ability to limit your body’s production of arachidonic acid (ARA), an inflammatory omega-6, by redirecting it into becoming EPA.
Note that 3 out of 4 omega-3s on the list come from the sea. Their importance and the way they work point directly to what our ancestral diet was before agriculture. I outlined why that’s the case, with some research confirming it, in an earlier post, here: Will the Real Paleo Diet Please Stand Up?
Once again, highly recommended reading. (Is my bias showing?)
Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Your Health
This is a doozy of a list, so pick and choose which benefits you want most – there are soooo many.
Take a quick glance and see whether any of them apply to you. After that, I’ll tell you what you should know about choosing the best omega-3s for your health. (There may be some surprises for you.)
- Lowering triglyceride levels. This benefit is backed by the American Heart Association. Even those foot draggers at the FDA have approved omega-3 supplements for lowering triglyceride levels.
- Regulating cholesterol. Specifically, omega-3s help raise levels of HDL cholesterol – the so-called “good” kind of cholesterol.
- Reducing hypertension. This benefit is recognized by advocates of the DASH Diet for controlling high blood pressure.
- Preventing arterial plaque buildup. Omega-3s help keep arteries clear of plaque leading to hardening and narrowing of the arteries.
- Reducing symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Multiple studies have shown omega-3 supplements to help against several cardiovascular risk factors known as metabolic syndrome. These include abdominal fat, high blood glucose, high triglycerides, hypertension, and low levels of HDL cholesterol.
- Preventing blood clots. Omega-3s help keep blood platelets from over-clumping. Blood clots can otherwise lead to stroke.
- Putting the brakes on mental decline. DHA is the most important fatty acid for energy metabolism in your brain. Getting the right form, in the right amounts, is the bees knees for brain health. The list of studies showing its value for your brain includes:
- Depression and anxiety
- Bipolar disorder
- Behavioral/personality disorders
- Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias
- Reducing inflammation. Chronic inflammation is at the root of all modern diseases. Reducing its effects Should be the first step in addressing any kind of disorder. Omega-3s help diminish system-wide inflammation. They simulate the effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) without the dangerous side effects of those drugs.
- Managing autoimmune disorders. Multiple studies show how omega-3s help with autoimmune conditions leading to, for example, type 1 diabetes, rheumaoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, leaky gut syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and many others.
- Lowering the risk of cancer. Trends in large population correlate omega-2 intake with lower incidences of certain cancers. For example, people consuming long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA have less of a risk of developing colorectal cancer. Lab studies have also discovered the potential effectiveness of omega-3s against hormonal cancers – i.e., breast and prostate.
- Strengthening bones and joints. Omega-3s help increase calcium absorption for strengthening bones and improving bone collagen structure.
- Improving sleep quality. Low levels of omega-3s are linked to reduced production of melatonin, the ‘sleep’ hormone. They can even help improve symptoms of sleep deprivation such as poor memory and reduced learning capacity.
- Rearing young ‘uns. DHA and EPA are the most important fatty acids for the development of young brains and eyes. DHA is so valuable that mother’s milk provides it. It’s the only known source of human-made DHA. It’s so important that infant formulas are typically fortified with it (although it’s not the same form as ‘native’ DHA – more on that later).
- Reducing menstrual pain. Fish oil supplements during PMS in adolescents actually works better than ibuprofen for reducing menstrual pain.
- Keeping eyes healthy. The retina rivals the brain for how much DHA it contains. This makes DHA one of the most valuable long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for eye health. It’s particularly important for lowering the risk of age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in seniors.
- Supporting healthy skin. Helping build collagen in skin, as it does in bones, strengthens skin tissues. Better collagen structure helps skin look beautiful from the inside out.
Comments About Omega-3 Research Studies
As will all health research, we have experimental studies and observational studies.
Observational studies look at existing patterns and correlate them with a target outcome. For example, the anti-cancer benefit cited earlier rests on observing the DHA/EPA intake in a population and correlating it with the incidence of colorectal cancer. As a correlation, it can never confirm cause-and-effect, just imply it.
Experimental studies are designed to evaluate a protocol for its effects on the outcome. Most health studies start out by examining outcomes in cell cultures, then in lab animals, then finally in human subjects. Studies looking at the effects of omega-3s on hypertension are examples using human subjects.
The most difficult element of either type of study is controlling for variables. This is a huge challenge with observational studies, not so much with experimental studies.
The population study of colorectal cancer had to choose the ‘sample’ people to be as close to the same in many characteristics as possible – age, weight, smoking status, prescription drug use, etc., etc. It just doesn’t do to compare 20-something-year-olds who have never smoked with 60-somethings who have. You get the picture.
The most important variable to control in such a study is the ‘treatment’ – in this case amounts and sources of omega-3s. This is where data interpretations can get a little dicey. Frankly, it’s where a lot of scientific fails. Fatty acid studies are no different.
Controlling variables in experimental studies is a bit simpler because the treatment is chosen ahead of time. E.g., how much of what kind of fatty acid and for how long.
The reason I’m delving into this ‘dirty laundry’ about research is this: Reporting in public media is way too uncritical to know whether headlines are true or even slightly believable. Public media are all about getting attention, not necessarily providing critical analyses of the benefits of fatty acids. Or anything else health related, for that matter.
If you want to see what I mean, pay attention to the next headline you see in your local newspaper about nutritional supplements (IF you still read hard-copy newspapers like I do). Five will get you ten that it will be a negative report. This type of reporting is especially egregious regarding vitamins, fish oils, antioxidants – you name it.
Now, unfortunately, the media do cite poor research for their reporting. Every single time I’ve dug into a headline for the study backing its claims, I’ve uncovered really shoddy research. Did you know, for example, that one of the most important antioxidant pigment from veggies, beta-carotene, causes lung cancer? Did you know that taking vitamin E supplements not only does no good, it can be dangerous?
These same issues apply to reports about long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
This is where I’m especially disappointed in my fellow scientists. It’s due to a monumental failure to consider natural vs. processed sources of fatty acids.
In my view, this is the single most important factor responsible for the unevenness of fatty acid research. Yes, some of it is shoddy. And the worst of the studies seem to hit the headlines more often. (Gee, do you think Big Pharma might have a hand in ‘guiding’ these reports into the media?)
The Most Important Research Failures
I’m going to focus on perhaps the most famous of the omega-3s, DHA.
Scientists routinely fail to acknowledge how it actually works. They treat it as if it’s a dietary source of energy – i.e., calories.
First off, calories are absolutely irrelevant for keeping track of food energy. That simple-minded concept annoys me so much I posted an article about it here: Stop Calorie Counting – Food Is Not About Calories. Take a look at it when you get a chance. (Bonus: the article has a link in it to my book expanding on the topic – at no charge.)
What’s even more disconcerting to me is the failure to understand that DHA isn’t digested for energy in the first place.
The actual function of DHA is it’s role in cell membranes. For that role it gets embedded in membranes for the purpose of controlling electrical current flowing between the inside and outside of the cell.
In other words, DHA is a cell membrane battery. It regulates membrane voltage.
Just thinking about this function explains a lot about why DHA is so valuable in your two most ‘electrified’ organs – i.e., your brain and your heart. It’s no coincidence that their energies are so powerful as to provide diagnostics for these two organs. You know them as EKGs (electrocardiograms) and EEGs (electroencephalograms).
Finally, perhaps the biggest drawback to research on the health benefits of DHA is the variable forms used in different studies.
I hinted about this issue earlier when I mentioned the ‘right’ form made in mother’s milk.
It’s the natural form we benefit from the most.
And it’s also the form we find in seafood, not in supplements.
…and What to Do About Them
What kinds of different ‘forms’ are there?
Since DHA is a long-chain fatty acid with lots of double bonds, it’s inherently unstable as a free fatty acid. It must be stabilized somehow so it won’t go rancid. (Look, some fish smell bad enough already, right?)
Mother Nature’s strategy is to esterify it to glycerol, as shown here.
The number 2 position on the glycerol molecule (labeled ‘sn-2’) is where she puts it. That’s by far the most effective form of stabilized DHA for human health.
Extracting that molecule from its natural source – fish, krill, algae – breaks the ester bond. Depending on further steps in the process, the DHA will be ‘re-stabilized’ by esterifying it to another molecule, or to glycerol itself (with a 1 out of 3 chance of it attaching at sn-2).
This means the odds of getting the most effective form of DHA, as in whole foods, are either zero or (at best) 33%.
My fellow scientists, bless their little pea-pickin’ hearts, strive to control dosages in experimental studies. They do so by using quantifiable amounts of DHA in supplements. However, processed DHA extracts – ARE NOT THE SAME AS NATURAL SOURCES OF DHA.
All that chemical arm-waving simply leads to my main recommendation:
Get your DHA from whole foods, not supplements.
If You Have to Take Supplements
Yeah, I know it’s hard to get enough of the real thing from whole foods. On top of that, I’ve lost track of how many people have told me they can hardly stand the taste of fish. Their choice.
Regardless, you may find yourself in need of omega-3 supplements at some point. The sea is the ONLY source for the most effective supplements.
If you lean toward plant-based oils, you can easily find algal DHA/EPA supplements on Amazon and many other places. They’re pretty good. Here’s one by Amandean.
Personally I’d rather have something made with krill oil. Here’s one that looks pretty good, and it also contains a great algal carotenoid (astaxanthin): Antarctic Krill Oil.
Both look to have pretty low dosages per serving. Nevertheless, they’d be great for daily maintenance.
If you’re looking for something offering therapeutic dosages, you’ll have to up your daily intake considerably.
When I ran a retail nutriton store, I always recommended fish oil products from a company called Nordic Naturals. In my opinion, they have the best fish oil supplements on the market. This one at Amazon fits the bill: Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, Lemon Flavor.
It baffles me why companies flavor their softgels. You won’t taste them unless you chew them instead of swalloging them intact.
In fact, chewing a softgel now and then is the only way to check for rancidity.
If you prefer liquid fish oil supplements, Nordic Naturals also has those. For example, Nordic Naturals Omega-3, Lemon Flavor – 16 oz.
One general recommendation about what NOT to buy is bulk containers from places like Costco or other buyer’s clubs. I know they’re cheaper, so if you must get them, keep them refrigerataed and check them for rancidity often.
By the way, those links to products on Amazon may not go to the lowest prices for those products. You can often hunt around and find better deals. However, those are my affiliate links, so Jeff Bezos, bless his Midas-touch heart, might send a few sheckels my way if you buy through them.
Comments or Questions?
I’d love to hear from you. This and every other post here provides a comment section at the end of the post, exactly for that purpose.
So, by all means, leave me your thoughts.
I would be especially grateful if you point out any flaws in my logic, factual errors, or ordinary typos. (I’ll give you a little ‘huzzah’ in my heart.)
Then I’ll respond as soon as I can.
Just in case you thought I might be blowin’ smoke with all the aforementioned ‘claims’ about the health benefits of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, here’s a small (!) collection of references in support of them.
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Abdullah M, Jowett B, Whittaker PJ, Patterson L. The effectiveness of omega-3 supplementation in reducing ADHD associated symptoms in children as measured by the Conners’ rating scales: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Psychiatr Res. 2019 Mar;110:64-73. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2018.12.002. Epub 2018 Dec 12. PMID: 30594823. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30594823/
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Hoare S, Lithander F, van der Mei I, Ponsonby AL, Lucas R; Ausimmune Investigator Group. Higher intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is associated with a decreased risk of a first clinical diagnosis of central nervous system demyelination: Results from the Ausimmune Study. Mult Scler. 2016 Jun;22(7):884-92. doi: 10.1177/1352458515604380. Epub 2015 Sep 11. PMID: 26362904. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26362904/
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