Best Sources Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids? Before we delve into that, it’s important to distinguish between 3 types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

Our bodies don’t produce ALA, so it’s essential to our diet. We can convert ALA into DHA and EPA but this is limited, so they’re required as well. In brief, we need all three. ALA is found in flaxseed oil (1:3) , canola oil (2:1), soybean oil (7:1), olive oil (3-13:1), butternuts, walnuts, edamame and chia seeds. EPA/DHA are found in oily fish (herring, sardines, mackerel, salmon, anchovies, trout and halibut). Surprisingly, EPA and DHA can also be found in meat and eggs but mainly when the animals were fed on grass rather than grain.

Although the previous post focussed on the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s, there are other benefits. They have been found to improve appetite, weight and quality of life in cancer patients. They stimulate blood circulation and decrease systolic blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart attack and help with varicose veins. Lastly, they improve brain function and help with depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, like most things in life, omega-3s should be taken in moderation…an excess of 3g of DHA/EPA per day could lead to an increased risk of bleeding, stroke, decreased blood sugar tolerance in diabetics and an increase in low density lipoproteins (LDL). Another concern is the presence of heavy metals and other fat soluble pollutants in fish…healthy eating is good but not simple! Fortunately the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

The suggested intake of ALA is 1.1g/day (women) – 1.6g/day (men) and for EPA/DHA it’s 2 servings of fish per week (more for those with risk of heart disease).

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Decrease Inflammation

Our diets have changed considerably over time. Today, diets in industrialised countries have a higher composition of saturated fat, trans fatty acids, omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a lower composition of omega-3 PUFA than ancestral diets. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is around 15:1 and it’s thought that an optimum ratio should be about 1-4:1.

What’s the significance of this? Well, omega-6 PUFA and omega-3 PUFA have opposing effects on our bodies. Put simply, omega-6 PUFA are pro-inflammatory whereas omega-3 PUFA are anti-inflammatory.  Omega-3 PUFA inhibit the metabolism of omega-6 PUFA into inflammatory cells. Inflammation is characterised by the cardinal signs: pain, redness, swelling, heat and loss of function. Although it’s a normal response to infection and injury…inappropriate inflammation can cause problems! Scientists have noticed that the change in our diets has coincided with an increase in inflammatory disease such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.

Clinical studies have reported beneficial effects of increased omega-3 PUFA consumption in people with rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. Less pain, fewer tender joints, a shorter duration of morning stiffness, a decreased use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and an improved physical performance has been observed in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It has also been suggested that omega-3 supplements may be beneficial to patients in intensive care or post surgery. The grandmother’s remedy of taking cod-liver oil for arthritis now seems to make sense!

I would recommend eating foods rich in omega-3 PUFA or taking supplements for any musculoskeletal condition with inflammation and pain. What foods are rich in omega-3? Make sure to check in next week for the answer…