Most of us have heard about Omega 3s by now. But what are they? And why are they important?
Omega-3s and omega-6s are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (FAs)(chemical structure containing double bonds) which means we cannot synthesize them in the body and we must obtain them from the diet.
Most of us consume high amounts of omega-6 FAs from vegetable oils found in processed foods. Omega-3 consumption on the other hand is typically low, and the one we will focus on today.
Research shows that adequate omega-3 consumption supports cardiovascular and brain health while diminishing joint pain and preventing dementia. For optimal health, it is important to get a balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3s which is estimated to be between 1:1 and 2.3:1 respectively. Excess omega-6 FA can cause inflammation and block absorption of omega-3s as well.
There are two types of omega 3s- those containing short chain and long chain fatty acid tails. Eicosapentanaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are long chain omega-3s found exclusively in marine organisms such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, and algae.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short-chain omega-3 found high in plant-based sources such as chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds.
While it is possible for the body to synthesize EPA and DHA from ALA, the conversion is relatively limited. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA. DHA is probably the most important of the different types of omega-3s due to its important role in brain health.
A common misconception, especially amongst vegans and vegetarians, is that we can meet our bodies needs for EPA and DHA strictly from plant sources of ALA.
While it is always best to get your nutrition from whole foods, additional supplementation could be beneficial. When choosing a high quality omega-3, look for brands such as orthomolecular which ensures good manufacturing practice (GMP) and molecular distillery methods to remove mercury and heavy metals from fish oil.
Be on the look out for cheap brands selling you oxidized omega-3s and opt for triglyceride bound capsules. If you are vegan or vegetarian, consider a good algal based DHA omega supplement. In addition, ask a naturopathic or functional medicine practitioner about running an omega-3/6 lab test to see where your ratios fall.