Omega 3s: Essential Fats You’re Missing
When Sonia first came to my office two years ago, she clearly needed help. Her symptoms were the all-too-familiar assortment of problems, ranging from aching joints and low-grade depression to memory issues and a stubborn 20 pounds that just would not go away. Her skin was so dry that it frequently cracked, leaving painful open sores on her fingertips and feet, along with itchy, dry spots on her legs.
As a college art professor, Sonia was surrounded by enthusiastic, optimistic students with unlimited energy, while she dragged through the day. “I barely have enough stamina to leave the house,” she confided. “I never feel good. I feel old and creaky, and I have no energy or interest in anything. All I want to do is crawl back in bed and watch television or sleep. Every doctor I see says there’s nothing wrong with me or gives me a prescription that makes me feel worse. I just don’t know how to get back to feeling good again.”
As we continued talking, I learned that, like many of my patients, Sonia had tried antidepressants, but they made her feel numb, so she stopped taking them. She tried one prescription pain-reliever for her sore joints, but it was removed from the market due to concerns about an increase in heart attacks and stroke. She switched to an over-the-counter product, but that caused stomach problems. “So now I have to choose between aching joints and a stomach that feels like I’m being stabbed. I’m only 56 – I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
I sympathized with Sonia, having seen so many patients like her. Too often people with multiple symptoms that have no obvious cause fall through the cracks of traditional medicine. Many doctors don’t have time to investigate mystery ailments, so these patients continue to suffer, bouncing from doctor to doctor, but finding little relief. Yet in many of these cases, I’ve found that there’s one simple solution that provides relief for a long list of symptoms – omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Sonia’s blood work and other tests came back in the normal range, except her inflammation levels were too high. But that was enough to convince me that, like so many other people, Sonia’s problems were caused by a deficiency of omega-3s.
Why Do Omega-3s Matter?
The benefits of omega-3s became apparent back in the 1970s, when a Danish researcher named Jorn Dyerberg discovered that Greenland natives had very low levels of heart disease, even though they ate a diet that consisted mainly of fat. Dyerberg’s explanation was that the omega-3 content of the fish and marine animals the Greenlanders consumed protected their hearts. Since Dyerberg’s discovery occurred in the midst of the “all fat is bad” madness, the message did not receive the attention it deserved until more recently.
Since that discovery, omega-3s have been widely studied, especially two key elements – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are abundant in fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, halibut, trout, tuna, and sea bass.
Omega-3s provide protection against a wide range of conditions involving our cardiovascular, emotional, immune and neurological systems, including:
- Inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis;
- High blood pressure;
- Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis);
- High triglycerides (blood fats);
- Heart arrhythmias;
- Issues with the immune system;
- Certain types of cancer;
- Insulin resistance (pre-diabetes);
- Asthma and allergies;
- Multiple sclerosis;
- Mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder;
- Blood clots;
- Memory and attention span issues.
What Are Omega-3s?
Typically, fat is categorized according to its chemical structure. You are probably familiar with names like monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, trans fats, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. These terms are noted on food labels, so many people are aware of them.
There is another way to classify fats, however, that is less well known, but equally important. Certain polyunsaturated fats are designated as omega-3s or omega-6s, according to their chemistry. (There is also a category known as omega-9s, but for now, let’s stick with the -3s and -6s.)
Omega-3s and -6s are considered essential fatty acids (EFAs), meaning your body cannot produce them and needs to obtain them from food or supplements. EFAs are involved in a long list of bodily functions, including heart and brain health, emotional, mental and nervous system functions, and the often-overlooked but very important processes of creating healthy new cells and repairing old ones. In fact, omega-3s are found in the membrane of every cell in your body.
Although omega-3s and -6s share some common features, omega-3s are far less common in our food supply, and that is not good. The key to improving your health with EFAs is getting a properly balanced intake of omega-3s and -6s, something too few people are doing. The ideal ratio for omega-3s and -6s should be roughly equal at 1:1, but the typical American consumes roughly a ratio of 1:20 or worse!
Where Have All the Omega-3s Gone?
How did today’s food supply become so skewed in the wrong direction? Part of the problem is that, thanks to our reliance on processed and prepared products, omega-6s are everywhere – including snack foods, chips, cookies, crackers, baked goods, frozen meals, and packaged foods. Meanwhile, healthy sources of omega-3s in the Standard American Diet (SAD) are few and far between. As a result, a number of health experts, myself included, believe that many of today’s most common illnesses are a result of a serious EFA imbalance.
The omega-3 deficiency is a fairly recent development. Back in the day, omega-3s were more plentiful in food than they are now. When livestock grazed in fields and chickens scratched for feed in barnyards, meat, dairy, and eggs were good sources of omega-3s, simply because animals ate plants with high omega-3 content. By contrast, today’s meat, dairy, and eggs are filled with omega-6s from the grains animals are fed.
Since meat, dairy, and eggs have long been a mainstay of the Standard American Diet, this means that the majority of people are consuming a diet that is destined to make them ill. Sadly, even people who eat very little meat or avoid it altogether are likely to be suffering from the same problem.
To make matters worse, common cooking oils, like safflower, corn, sunflower, cottonseed, canola, and soy oils are high in omega-6s. If you read food labels, you know that these oils are found in nearly all prepared and processed foods. As a result, omega-6s are overwhelming the food supply today.
Why is a ratio favoring omega-6s bad? Because when there are far more omega-6s in the body, the beneficial omega-3s are blocked and can’t do what they’re supposed to do. Even worse, the omega-6s produce inflammation-generating molecules known as eicosanoids. Not only do eicosanoids from omega-6s increase inflammation, but they also thicken the blood and constrict blood vessels, making your heart work harder than it should. Meanwhile, omega-3 eicosanoids perform the opposite functions – reducing inflammation, thinning the blood, and dilating blood vessels – but only if they aren’t overwhelmed by omega-6s. This is one reason why balanced intake of omega-3s and -6s is so important.
Balancing all those omega-6s with more omega-3s benefits your brain, too. The pro-inflammatory omega-6 eicosanoids that make your heart labor so hard aren’t doing your brain any favors either. There are two primary fatty acids in the brain – arachidonic acid (AA) and the omega-3 known as DHA or docosahexaenoic acid.
Typically, the AA is metabolized into several other substances, including eicosanoids. When there is an insufficient supply of omega-3s to neutralize the eicosanoids, levels of DHA drop, leaving your brain vulnerable to inflammation. This is exactly what occurs in patients with neurodegenerative diseases –excessive brain inflammation from too many eicosanoids and too little DHA. Correcting the situation is fairly simple, though – just increase intake of EFAs, and DHA in particular to reduce inflammation.
What Does the Research Say?
There are literally thousands of studies involving omega-3s. Here’s a sampling of some impressive findings from recent research.
- A major new study of more than 70,000 older individuals (age 50 and above) found that those who had the highest intake of omega-3s were less likely to die from cancer, as well as any other cause;
- DHA, one of the primary ingredients in omega-3s, was found to have more far-reaching impact throughout the body than was previously realized. Researchers at Oregon State University found that not only did DHA reduce the likelihood of developing fatty liver disease, but also benefited vitamin, amino acid, and carbohydrate metabolism.
- In a major review of studies involving more than 16,000 individuals, researchers found that omega-3s did not affect the number of heart-related events, but the nutrients did make those events less lethal, reducing the number of deaths related to heart issues as well as from all causes;
- In a study of nearly 500 older individuals with ARCD (age-related cognitive decline, a condition that’s more pronounced than normal aging but not as serious as dementia), supplementing with DHA for six months produced improvements in learning, memory, and even heart health!
- Finally, a small study found that cutting back on intake of omega-6s without increasing omega-3 consumption resulted in higher levels of beneficial omega-3s in just four weeks. Logic tells us that cutting back on omega-6s while increasing omega-3s would help you achieve a healthy balance of these nutrients even more quickly.
A Simple Way To Balance Your EFAs
I wish it were possible to simply recommend eating a few portions of fish each week to make certain your omega-3 needs are being met. Unfortunately, there are three problems with that approach. One, today’s fish supply is so tainted by toxins, heavy metals, and pollution that consuming fish even once a week could actually be harmful to your health. Two, overfishing has created supply problems that could affect availability. And three, the best heart- and brain-protecting results from omega-3s are obtained from a higher ratio of DHA to EPA (fish oil’s two essential elements) than you would get by eating fish alone. All things considered, supplements are clearly preferable to consuming fish these days.
Often, patients who have tried a fish oil product in the past only remember that it caused digestive problems, and tended to “repeat” on them, leaving behind a bad taste, literally and figuratively. As I described this solution to Sonia, I could see that she was not very enthusiastic. In fact, Sonia was adamant about one thing: she didn’t want to take supplements. “Please don’t send me home with a bag full of vitamins,” she said. “My friends are always telling me to take this or that, but I don’t like taking a lot of pills. They just end up sitting in the cupboard until they’ve expired. Anyway, I eat really well, so that’s not the problem.”
If I had a nickel for every patient who’s said they eat well and didn’t need supplements, I’d be on a yacht in the Mediterranean right now. Thanks to Big Food’s clever marketing tactics, most Americans are sadly misinformed about nutrition. The truth is, even a diet consisting of the best food choices available today could be seriously lacking in omega-3s.
I explained this to Sonia, and emphasized the importance of taking the right supplements at the recommendation of a physician like me, who specializes in integrative health. And since there was just one supplement that I wanted Sonia to try, she reluctantly agreed. I reminded her that she had to take the omega-3s consistently for at least a month to see results, and then I kept my fingers crossed that she would actually follow through.
Thankfully, Sonia did take the omega-3s. About five weeks after our first visit, she called to let me know that she was feeling much better. “My joint pain is gone,” she said proudly. “And so are the dry skin and brain fog. I’m starting to feel like my old self again. I even signed up for a cooking class I’ve been wanting to take, but I was just too down in the dumps to go out before I started taking omega-3 oil.”
A year later, Sonia’s physical revealed that her inflammation levels were now in the healthy range, and she’d lost the 20 pounds she had been struggling with for years. Like so many of my patients, Sonia was living proof that something as simple as balancing your intake of omega-3s can have dramatic results on your health.