The Omega-3 Difference

These Crucial Fatty Acids Boost Overall Well-Being.


April 2014

By Karen Tenelli

When it comes to staying healthy, you should look for ways to get the biggest bang for your buck. Exercise falls into this good-for-everything category. So does stress relief.

And so does omega-3.

Found in marine animals as well as certain plants, the omega-3 fatty acids—particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), as well as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—have been found to play a role in numerous bodily processes, making them a crucial nutritional path to optimal wellness.

Good All Over

There are two main reasons why omega-3 fats are so useful.

The first involves cell membranes; those that function poorly keep cells from fully serving their purpose. On the other hand, “when you have healthy cell membranes, the cells are able to communicate more consistently with each other,” says Keri Marshall, MS, ND, a naturopathic
doctor who practices in Bethesda, Maryland. “Every cell membrane is made of lipids. They are highly dependent on what type of fat we consume on a regular basis. There are also
more nutrients flowing into the cell and waste flowing out, so you have a healthier cell overall.”

Omega-3 fats help make cell membranes flexible, elastic and resilient.

Omega-3s also fight inflammation, an immune system response that’s helpful in the short term but is harmful when it continues too long. “If you look at our chronic diseases—Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease—what you find is low-grade inflammation,” says Holly Lucille, ND, RN, who practices in West Hollywood, California, and is the host of the TV series “Myth Defying with Dr. Holly” (Veria Living).

“Omega-3s decrease the production of inflammatory prostaglandins,” says Keri Glassman, RD, CDN, president of Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life, a nutrition practice based in New York City, and author of The New You and Improved Diet (Rodale). “And studies show that omega-3s reduce levels of cortisol, which is a hormone secreted due to the stress of a busy lifestyle that can contribute to inflammation.”

Selecting an Omega-3 Supplement

DHA and EPA are available in marine-based supplements. The best-known is fish oil; the use of molecular distillation helps ensure purity levels that can meet the demanding specifications of California’s Proposition 65. Some formulations include ingredients such as garlic, magnesium, selenium and vitamins B6 and E to further support cardiovascular and brain health.

The newest source of DHA and EPA is krill oil, taken from a tiny crustacean that lives in the cold waters off Antarctica. However, krill oil is fragile and easily damaged by exposure to oxygen. That’s why high-quality krill supplements are processed using nitrogen as a barrier between the oil and the air, which reduces the risk of oxidation, bolstered by the protective properties of rosemary extract. Krill also provides astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant and inflammation fighter that has shown an ability to reduce lactic acid buildup in hard-working muscles, including cardiac muscle, and may help protect brain cells against the effects of aging.

Flax seeds are a rich source of ALA. They also contain flax lignans, compounds that help reduce painful periods by promoting better hormone balance in women and may support cardiovascular health in both genders. Flax lignans may be combined with rosemary as a complementary antioxidant and specially formulated probiotic blends for enhanced absorption.

One reason chronic inflammation is so common is that the ratio between omega-6 fats, which are often found in processed foods, and omega-3s has become skewed. Glassman explains that our ancient ancestors ate both types in an optimal 1:1 ratio; now it’s more than 10:1. Besides increased consumption of packaged and fast foods, “much of the meat we eat nowadays is grain-fed,” Glassman says. “Grass-fed animals have much better omega-6 to omega-3 ratios.”

“Omega-6s aren’t bad themselves, but when they get out of balance they are very inflammatory. In our increasingly busy and stressful lives we tend to grab for those packaged foods,” says Lucille.
All of this helps explain why eating more omega-3s from sources such as fatty fish (and through supplementation) is so crucial for health. “Omega-3s don’t just target one area of the body,” says Glassman. “They improve your heart health and brain functioning, which in turn allows the rest of your body to function optimally.”

Heart of the Matter

The effects of omega-3 fatty acids on the cardiovascular system have been extensively studied. “There are many well-controlled studies that show fish oils are beneficial for heart disease,” says Marshall. In one study, people with the highest levels of omega-3s in their blood saw their risk of death fall 27%, mostly due to a drop in cardiovascular mortality (Annals of Internal Medicine 4/2/13). As a result, the American Heart Asso­ciation has made the following statement: “Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the hearts of healthy people, and those at high risk of—or who have—cardiovascular disease.”

Omega-3s perform several heart-healthy roles. Some studies have found that fish oil can help ward off disturbances in heart rate, or arrhythmia (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 5/13). Omega-3s have shown an ability to improve lipid levels, including reductions in triglycerides (Atherosclerosis Supplements 8/13). Decreases in arterial stiffness and blood clotting times have also been found.

Obesity has been closely linked with cardiovascular woes, and it appears that omega-3 fats can help fight excess weight. After reviewing a number of studies, one Australian team found that omega-3s showed several potential benefits including appetite suppression, increased lean tissue development and reduced fat deposition (Nutrients 12/9/10).

Omega-3 on the Brain

Omega-3 fats help the head as well as the heart. “I like to think of omega-3s as ‘brain boosters,’” says Glass­man. “This means improved memory, reduced stress and better mood.”

Researchers around the world agree. Italian scientists found that omega-3 reduced depression symptoms in older people (Nutrition Journal 10/10/12). According to a study team in Sweden, omega-3 supplementation “significantly improved cognitive functions” in healthy volunteers (Nutrition Journal 11/22/12). American researchers saw a link between the consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and reduced levels of beta-amyloid, a protein linked to Alzheimer’s (Neurology 6/5/12). And low DHA levels have been associated with vascular cognitive impairment, the other major cause of dementia, and smaller brain volumes (Neurology 2/28/12).

Better Vision and Other Benefits

Another part of the body for which omega-3 seems to have a special affinity is the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that translates images into electric signals and sends them along to the brain. DHA accounts for between 50% and 60% of the fatty acids in rod outer segments (ROS), key components in the retinal cells responsible for low-light vision, where it is thought to fight inflammation, cellular death and abnormal blood vessel formation (Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism 9/11/11). This helps explain why higher omega-3 levels have been linked to a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness.

Scientists keep finding other ways that omega-3 fats may enhance well-being. Fish oil has reduced allergic reactions in children and reduced pressure sores in critically ill hospital patients.

Researchers believe omega-3s may be helpful in dealing with non-alcoholic liver disease and psoriasis, and that these fats also play roles in maintaining bone and kidney health.

Omega-3 may even help ease aches. “I’m a crossfit athlete. I have increased my intake of omega-3 based on my pain and it has made a huge difference,” says Lucille.

Getting to the gym and learning to chill? That’s great—but don’t forget to add omega-3 to your wellness checklist.

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