Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is the sixth biggest killer of Americans and more deadly than excess trans fat intake according to a PLoS Med, 2009 study.
Over the past 150 years, the western diet has changed so much that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids has changed from 1:1 to 1:25 (and even up to 1:40) creating an overwhelming deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids and an excess of omega-6 fatty acids.
This dietary imbalance may explain the rise of such diseases as asthma, autoimmunity, coronary heart disease, depression, neurodegenerative diseases and many forms of cancer, all of which are believed to stem from inflammation in the body. The imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may also contribute to obesity, dyslexia, hyperactivity, and even a tendency toward violence.
In 1850, we ate 40% omega-3 fats compared to 1970 where we ate 5% [Lancet].
The production of vegetable oils high in omega 6, such as sunflower, safflower and corn oils has soared, while animal feeds have switched from grass that contains omega-3 to grain resulting in higher levels of omega-6 in meat, eggs and dairy products.
Omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are essential nutrients and enter every cell membrane in the human body, lubricating cells, improving flexibility and communication between cells, and aiding cell metabolism and gene expression.
DHA is highly concentrated in the brain and the outer segments of retinal rods and cones (eyes). EPA and DHA have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and promote healthy blood flow, which is essential to optimal brain function.
Flaxseed oil, walnut oil and other nut or seed sources of omega-3 contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Unfortunately, the body does not convert ALA into DHA and EPA very well.
Omega-6 fatty acids include linoleic acid (safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean, canola), arachidonic acid (peanut oil, factory-farmed, non-organic meat, eggs and dairy products) and gamma-linolenic, GLA (borage oil, black current seed oil and evening primrose).
Omega-6 oils (corn, canola, soybean, sunflower, and safflower oils) are highly inflammatory. Cooking and heating these oils increase carcinogenic properties.
Higher dietary omega-6 to omega 3 ratios are associated with worsening inflammation causing body chemistry changes that increases the risk of heart disease and interferes with nerve tissue functioning. When you eat excessive amounts of omega-6s (as is the case with today’s American diet), this promotes inflammation, blood clotting, constricts blood vessels and raises blood pressure.
The key is to obtain a healthy balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids such as 2:1 – 1:1 ratio, which is optimal and ideal.
Do You Need More Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3s (EPA and DHA) are beneficial for the following conditions
- Skin problems: dry scaly skin, cracked heels, thick calluses, chicken skin on the back of arms, eczema, psoriasis, acne, sunburn
- Depression, anxiety, psychiatric disorders
- Poor immune function, autoimmune disorders
- Learning disabilities, ADHD
- Asthma, COPD and other respiratory problems
- Macular degeneration, poor vision, dry eyes
- Hair loss, thinning hair, dry dull hair, dandruff
- Soft, brittle nails
- Migraine headaches
- Weight loss resistance, obesity
- Concussions, traumatic brain injury
- Eating disorders
- Infertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding
- PMS, endometriosis, PCOS, hormone imbalances
- Achy joints, inflammation, arthritis
- Heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, high cholesterol
- Inflammatory bowel disorders
- Poor digestion and absorption. Antacids, antibiotics, NSAIDs and anti-inflammatory drugs, inadequate chewing, food sensitivities, infections (bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungal), gallbladder dysfunction, and alcohol consumption impair the absorption of fatty acids.
- Heavy alcohol use. DHA levels are reduced by heavy drinking and alcohol consumption
- Diabetics, especially those with high triglycerides
- Those who consume processed foods, non-organic foods and those who eat at restaurants often
- Vegans and vegetarians
Eating a plant-based diet can be healthy when it’s properly balanced with healthy fats and nutrients. However, the absence of all animal-based foods can take a toll over time causing several nutrient deficiencies such as carnitine, carnosine, taurine, vitamin B12 and omega-3 (DHA and EPA) that cannot be obtained from plants.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, EPA and DHA
Anxiety, Depression, Behavioral and Mood Disorders
- EPA and DHA deficiency is associated with learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders
- A 1999 study of those with bipolar depression reported that supplementing with 10 grams/day of omega-3 fatty acids for 4 months significantly improved symptoms and increased the duration of remission.
- There’s an inverse association between intake of omega-3 fatty acids and depression
- EPA reduces brain inflammation thereby increasing serotonin release from presynaptic neurons and DHA has an effect on the action of various serotonin receptors by making them more accessible to serotonin by increasing cell membrane fluidity in postsynaptic neurons. [FASEB Journal]
- Those with higher levels of EPA and DHA have better moods and mental stability.
- Those with severe pyrrole disorder get worse on fish oil, and instead thrive on a higher intake of omega-6 fatty acids. – Dr. William Walsh
“Omega-3s reduce symptoms of depression by 50%.” – Joseph Hibbeln, MD a psychiatrist at the National Institutes for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. He also reported that violence in a British prison dropped by 37% after omega-3 oils and vitamins were added to the prisoners’ diets.
Inflammation and Oxidation
- Good quality omega-3s downregulate inflammation and prostaglandins
- Individuals with high C-reactive protein (CRP-hs), a marker of low-grade sustained inflammation benefit significantly from omega-3 supplementation. Elevated CRP is inversely associated with omega-3 deficiency
- Fish oils enhance the activities and expression of antioxidant enzymes: catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and superoxide dismutase
Heart Health, Stroke, Pulmonary and Cardiovascular
- Omega-3s prevent irregular heartbeat, reduce arterial stiffness and fatty plaque inside the artery walls, improve endothelial function, decrease LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol, and lower triglycerides significantly reducing risk of sudden cardiac death.
- Fish oil reduces atherosclerotic plaque, makes the cell walls more pliable and lessens intracellular inflammation.
- Blood pressure improves, both systolic and diastolic blood pressures go down
- Decreases abnormally high levels of fibrinogen (an independent cardiovascular risk factor) and prevent platelets from sticking together abnormally
- A study published in the journal Translational Stroke Research has determined that potent, anti-inflammatory compounds in fish oil and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids help to limit or prevent brain damage following a stroke.
- DHA present in fish oil provides protection for the delicate brain tissue that can become permanently damaged by blood clots or atherosclerosis.
- Men with the highest levels of DHA have 34% lower risk of developing heart disease, and older adults with the highest omega-3 levels have a 70% lower risk of a fatal heart attack. [Nutrition Journal]
- 1½ tablespoons of fish oil twice daily inhibits blood clotting and is much safer than the drug, Warafin according to Jonathan Wright, M.D.
- Prevents bacterial respiratory infections in those with COPD
Brain Function, Memory and Healthy Aging
- Low intake of omega-3 increases the risk of developing dementia and reduces hippocampal cell size
- Faster healing and recovery for those that have suffered traumatic brain injuries and concussions
- DHA improves memory by 3 years in older adults, and may reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease providing protection or delay for the onset of symptoms for those with APOE4 gene.
- The fish oils have been shown to reverse neurocognitive decline during aging, promote clearer thinking, and protect the brain from developing Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
Pregnancy, Pre- and Postnatal
- Healthy development for infants, omega-3s boost baby’s brain power and increase the child’s IQ
- DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in breast milk, a big reason mother’s milk is best for a newborn. Breast milk supplies the full range of EFAs needed for proper development of a child’s nervous system, brain and retina.
- Sadly, American women have the lowest levels of DHA in the world, and pregnancy depletes stores even more! The only lower percentage is among vegans.
- Maternal supplementation of DHA during gestation has neuroprotective effects against prenatal stress-induced brain dysfunction, hyperoxic injury and hypoxic ischemic injury.
- Prenatal omega-3s play an important role in reversing methylation patterns thereby highlighting its contribution in neuroprotection and cognition
- Pre-natal deficiency of omega 3 fatty acids increases the odds of diabetes in adulthood.
- An infant requires five-times more omega-3 fatty acids than an adult.
- Pregnant women who take omega-3s are less likely to experience postpartum depression and less likely to have babies with allergies. [Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, December 2003]
Love Your Liver
- Omega-3s protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins such as Tylenol
- A 2017 study in the journal PLOS One reported that supplementation with DHA was shown to stop the progression of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH, liver inflammation, oxidative stress and fibrosis) into more serious and life-threatening health problems such as cirrhosis or liver cancer.
- Improved microbiome biodiversity and composition of the gut
- Omega-3s provide protection from viruses, yeasts and other pathogens
- Significantly reduces the relapse rate in those with Crohn’s disease
- Helpful for constipation, colon health and inflammatory bowel conditions.
- Ulcerative colitis: supplementation with 15/g day of fish oil for 3 months significantly reduces disease activity compared with placebo
- EPA and DHA are beneficial for bone metabolism, calcium buildup in the bones, and an increased rate of bone formation, suggesting a stimulatory effect on osteoblastic (bone building) activity and protection against osteoporosis
Happy, Healthy Hormones
- Omega-3s reduce PMS symptoms and lessen menopause symptoms
- A study published the journal Menopause that showed that omega-3 fish oils can significantly reduce the frequency of hot flashes.
- 2 grams of omega-3/day has been shown to increase libido up to 30%
- Fatty acids act directly on the central nervous system, influencing food intake and the sensitivity of the hormones involved in blood sugar control (insulin) and appetite suppression (leptin).
Hair, Eyes, Skin and Nails
- Clearer skin, stronger nails, shinier hair and better vision
- EFA deficiency is involved in most serious skin problems such as eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, acne and hair loss. Both EPA and DHA help clear inflamed skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis.
- Fish oil in large doses (up to 20-30 ml/day) reduces the severity of psoriasis
- DHA is a large part of the retina of the eye, critical for good eye function and prevention of age-related macular degeneration
Metabolism, Fat Loss and Weight Loss Resistance
- Omega-3s regulate appetite, reduce binging, lessen cravings for sugar, carbs and alcohol, provide greater satiation and less hunger
- Increased lean tissue potentially boosting metabolic rate and indirectly assisting with body fat reduction
- Fish oils enhance muscle strength and increase neuromuscular function and capacity
- Transforms fat-storage cells into fat-burning cells, which may reduce weight gain in middle-aged individuals.
- Fish oil activates receptors in the digestive tract, fires the sympathetic nervous system, and induces storage cells to metabolize fat.
- Shown to affect body composition and to reduce the accumulation of body fat. British Journal of Nutrition. 2012
- Omega-3s stimulate muscle protein synthesis in older adults and may be useful for the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia and dynapenia.
- Reduced risk of breast and colon cancers, and inhibits tumor growth
- DHA found in fish has been shown to reduce the size of tumors and enhance the positive effects of the chemotherapy drug, cisplatin while limiting its harmful side effects.
- DHA reduces the accumulation of white blood cells, systemic inflammation and oxidative stress – all of which have been linked with tumor growth.
- Symptomatic improvement in several autoimmune diseases: improves Lupus, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and MS symptoms, and relieves joint pain in those suffering with rheumatoid arthritis (10-12 g/day)
The best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids: fatty fish (mackerel, wild salmon, tuna, cod, halibut, herring, anchovies and sardines), grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised meats, and eggs from chickens that are cage-free and pasture-raised on natural feeds rather than grains (especially corn).
Supplemental sources of omega-3 fatty acids: high-quality fish oil, krill oil, and vegan-friendly algae oil
Since our body doesn’t make EPA and DHA, we must rely on food sources and supplementation. The most effective way to ensure that you are consuming the recommended amount of omega-3s is to take a high-quality, fish oil supplement.
How much omega-3 to consider?
- Maintain wellness, healthy aging: 2-3 grams daily
- Treat obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease: 5-6 grams daily
- Treat chronic pain: 7-8 grams daily
- Neurological disease and autoimmune disease: greater than 10 grams daily
The optimal fatty acid ratio/blend may differ from person to person depending on individual differences in absorption, biochemistry, genetics, age, health conditions and metabolism.
Neuroscientist, psychiatrist and brain imaging expert, Dr. Daniel Amen recommends up to 3 grams of fish oil per day for most people and at least 2,000 IUs of vitamin D to boost brain power, mood and improve mental wellness.
Quality matters when it comes to the fish oil that you purchase. Not all fish oil is created equal. Many common store shelf brands contain harmful environmental contaminants such as PCBs, heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium), pesticide residues, inflammatory genetically-modified soybean oil and other rancid oils. When supplementing with omega-3 fish oil, it’s important to know what type of fish was used and how it was concentrated.
Fish oil is best taken after mealtime. If you consistently burp after taking fish oil, your body is not emulsifying the oils indicating digestive issues, gallbladder dysfunction or it’s a poor quality fish oil.
The scientific evidence on the importance of omega-3s is strong and necessary for healthy aging, normal growth and development, prevention and treatment of depression, diabetes, cognitive disorders, traumatic brain injuries, cardiovascular disease, skin problems, cancer, obesity and many other health conditions.
Include an omega-3 supplement to your arsenal and lower your risk of disease and death, and look, think, feel and function better than ever
★ Always consult with your health care provider, clinician or cardiologist before supplementing with fish oil if you take blood thinners, have a fish or shellfish allergy or a bleeding disorder.
Read more about the benefits of omega-3s in my books, The Power of 4 and Fat Loss Revolution.