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Why the Fish? 5 Ways Omega-3 Can Benefit Your Health

By Natalie Collier, MScN, August 1, 2019

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SOOO many reasons to invest in your fish oil. Technically the human body can make most essential fats except for two essential fatty acids: a-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid and Linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid. But most Americans don’t even have to try to hit their Linoleic acid or a-linolenic acid quotas. As it turns out, the Modern Western Diet known in the US as the Standard American Diet (SAD diet for short) is naturally rich in Omega-6 fatty acids. Linoleic acid is found in common vegetable oils such as safflower oil, corn oil and sunflower oil. Healthier sources of Linoleic acid include nuts and seeds. The essential Omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the only Omega-3 that CANNOT under any circumstance be synthesized by the human body. But good news, ALA is also super easy to obtain from diet. ALA is found in plant-based foods such as flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, peanuts and walnuts and mainstays in the SAD diet such as soy products and canola oil.

In Modern Western society, Omega-3s are where individuals fall short, but it has almost nothing to do with the-always-available Omega-3 ALA (mentioned above) but instead the hard-to-get Omega-3s known as EPA and DHA. Think about it this way if dietary Omega-3s were potential dating partners ALA would be the always-available and EPA and DHA would be playing hard-to-get. 

  1. alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)- always available
  2. eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)- plays hard to get
  3. docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)- plays hard to get 

So, here's the deal: the human body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA on its own by elongase and desaturase enzymes. Hold up, plant-based folks! Are you thinking you can supplement with hempseed oil, flaxseed oil or pumpkin seed oil and hope that your essential fatty acid metabolism takes care of the rest? Research suggests that only a small amount of EPA and DHA can be synthesized in the body from this process. Many studies agree on estimates of about 5% conversion to EPA and less than 1% conversion to DHA. Therefore, it is essential to eat a diet high in EPA and DHA or fill in the gaps with a fish oil supplement. Here is the pathway displaying how EPA and DHA are produced by ALA in the diet but again, the body is not efficient at making this conversion.   

OMEGA-3 pathway

Alpha-Linolenic Acid: from plant-based foods (flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and/or pumpkin seed oil)

converts to

Stearidonic Acid

converts to

Eicosatetraenoic Acid

converts to

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

found directly in the following foods: (liver oil, fish oil, fatty fish, pasture-raised egg yolk)

converts to

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

found directly in the following foods: (fish oil, pasture-raised egg yolk, pasture-raised organ meats, human milk and plankton) 

Symptoms of low EPA and DHA in the diet might include dry skin, dry eyes, soft brittle nails, rough patches on the skin, joint pain, anxiety, depression and inflammation in the body.

5 Ways EPA & DHA can benefit your health

  1. Reduce Inflammation: Studies have shown Omega-3 EFAs EPA and DHA can be as effective as ibuprofen for reducing arthritic pain.
  2. Calm the brain. Fish oil can be helpful for anxiety symptoms. In a cross-sectional analysis a higher intake of EPA and DHA were inversely associated with anxiety disorders.
  3. Address depression: Fish oil has been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of depression when compared with a placebo. Best outcomes used in combination with other antidepressant therapy.
  4. Adjunct for anyone with autoimmune diseases. Several placebo-controlled trials of fish oil in chronic inflammatory diseases show fish oil has a significant benefit. Results of fish oil supplementation have shown decreased disease activity and lowered need for anti-inflammatory drugs.
  5. Helpful for weight loss. Fish oil has been shown to be helpful for weight reduction when used in combination with other therapies for weight loss. 

How to get your EPA & DHA: What about the best food sources of EPA and DHA? I bet you guessed it; FISH!!! Think mackerel, salmon, seabass, sardines, anchovies, trout, shrimp, etc. Other food sources of EPA & DHA include pasture-raised egg yolks, plankton and organ meats. Historically speaking humans consumed diets with ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 of 1-to-1 or 2-to-1. The modern SAD diet has estimated ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 as high as 15-to-1 to 25-to-1. Unless you are consistently eating a diet rich in EPA and DHA foods, supplement with a professional-grade fish oil. If you are vegan or vegetarian try a high quality marine algae oil supplement containing a combination of EPA and DHA. If you need assistance locating a quality source, contact a Wellnicity Clinical Nutritionist today!