Omega-3 is a type of polyunsaturated fat that is deemed essential as the body can’t make it and we must get it from food. Foods high in Omega-3 include fish, nuts, flaxseed oil, flax seeds and chia seeds.
There are three main omega-3s: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which come mainly from fish and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in plants and in grass-fed animals. From a nutrition standpoint, the typical North American diet doesn’t provide enough EPA and DHA for good health. Most people need to increase their intake. A diet too low in omega-3s, and too high in omega-6s (found in vegetable oils & commercially prepared foods), has been linked to many diseases.
There is an extensive amount of human research supporting EPA and DHA’s health benefits. DHA is found in the brain, retina, and heart. It’s especially important for infants and children as they grow and develop. EPA is involved in the body’s inflammatory processes and may help prevent or alleviate diseases resulting from chronic inflammation. Omega-3's are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and inflammation, which play a role in the development of atherosclerosis.
The beneifts of EPA and DHA derived from fish oil cannot be directly applied to the plant derived ALA form of omega-3 with the exception of skin health. Although our liver can convert ALA into EPA and DHA with the help of various enzymes, it is not efficient as only a very small amount (some studies show 5%) of ALA is converted into DHA and EPA and many factors can affect this conversion process. Vegans and those following a plant-based lifestyle should ensure they consume adequate amounts of plant sourced omega-3 while avoiding an excess of omega-6 and MCT oil as there is some evidence that the over consumption of MCT oil (which is a man made product) may lower levels of essential EPA and DHA in the body. Additionally, vegans can supplement with an algae derived form of DHA which provides 300mg per capsule.
Many people avoid relying on eating fish to get their omega-3 due to the fish farming industry and practises in foreign countries. Cold, deep water fish yield the highest amounts (like salmon, mackerel and anchovies) but many fish and fish oils now contain contaminants like: PCBs, Dioxins and Furans, Lead, Mercury, Cadmium and Inorganic Arsenic. As a result, supplementation is often the best way to go to get the therapeutic benefits.
When you're looking for a fish oil supplement be sure to look for IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards) certification on the label. This means that the product has been tested to the highest quality, safety, and purity standards in the world and that the manufacturer has showcased the full testing results online for the world to see.