Omega 3 fatty acids were around for a long time before people knew what they were or how they worked in the body. Children were daily given tablespoons of cod liver oil by parents who only knew “It’s good for you, swallow it.” And then, in the 1970’s, according to the story, there was a group of researchers studying an Inuit tribe in Greenland. They found that the Inuit ate a diet high in whale and seal blubber and had virtually no cardiovascular disease. In fact, they all collectively had lower heart rates, blood pressure, triglycerides and atherosclerosis. Since that time, there have been numerous studies that support these findings as well as indicating that omega 3 fatty acids are essentially necessary for brain and eye development and heart health .
What exactly are omega 3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are what are known as essential unsaturated fatty acids. What this means:
1) They are essential in that that they are fundamental to our physiology but the human body does not naturally synthesize the omega 3 fatty acid molecule. We need to take them from external sources.
2) An unsaturated fatty acid is one in which there is at least one double bond (involving carbon bonds, C=C, with 4 electrons instead of the commonplace two. Fatty acids are called monounsaturated if they have only one double bond and polyunsaturated if they have more than one double bond. In contrast, saturated fat molecules have hydrogen atoms that “hook up” with the carbons and have no double bonds at all.
3) The “3” designation is because the double bond starts after the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain.
4) There are three kind of omega 3 fatty acids. Their scientific names are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are found mostly in fish whereas ALA is found mostly in plants. EPA and DHA are the fatty acids that have the health benefits. ALA has to be converted to these other two fatty acids to be beneficial.
What are some benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids?
To name a few, omega 3 fatty acids have been known to treat or alleviate:
• Cardiovascular disease
• High blood pressure
• Rheumatoid arthritis
• Bipolar Disorder
• High triglyceride levels
How do Omega 3 fatty acids work?
Our bodies are made up of cells. Each cell has a membrane (or wall) that is made up of fatty acids. A membrane of a cell must have:
1) The integrity to keep hold of required water and nutrients.
2) The fluidity to allow nutrients in and flush wastes out.
It is believed that consuming foods and supplements high in omega 3 fatty acids reinforce or even enhance desirable cell membrane characteristics such as resistance to inflammation and insulin sensitivity.
How will supplementing with Omega 3 fatty acids help me in my workouts?
You will be able to recover more quickly because there will tend to be less inflammation in the body parts you use in your work-outs. You will have better heart health. Your body will be more insulin sensitive so that the blood glucose from the carbohydrates in your post workout meal will more efficiently be stored in your muscles in the form of glycogen.
How much omega 3 foods should I consume to get a healthy amount?
The average Greenland Inuit routinely consumes about 14 grams of EPA and DHA every day but that is because it makes up most of their diet. The average person doesn’t need that much. Two weekly servings of non fried fish such as salmon should be enough to maintain healthy levels of omega 3 fatty acids. Other kinds of fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids are herring, sardines, mackerel, and tuna. If you don’t care for eating fish, taking fish oil supplements is the next best option. If you are supplementing with fish oil then 1 to 2 grams of fish oil a day should be enough.
(There is no need to eat whale and seal blubber).
I’m a vegetarian. Are there any other sources of omega 3 fatty acids besides fish?
Flax seeds are probably the best known. One thing must be understood about flax seeds and that is that they are high in the omega 3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA) which is usually found in plants. They don’t contain much EPA or DHA. This means that after eating the flax seeds, the body must convert the short chain ALA into EPA. The EPA is then turned into DHA. The conversion percentage of ALA to EPA is not very high. Women have a higher conversion rate because the hormone estrogen helps facilitate this. It is recommended that if you get your omega 3 supplementation from only ALA sources, you should consume more of them. Other sources of ALA are walnuts, butter nuts, hazel nuts, pecans, soy beans, lingonberries, and black raspberries.
Are there any negative aspects to Omega 3 Fatty Acids?
There are media scares from time to time with regards to the possibility of fish such as tuna or supplements like cod liver oil having toxic levels mercury. The toxic form of mercury is called methyl mercury. Mercury starts out originating from either natural sources or from man-made manufacturing operations. It precipitates (through various means) into large bodies of water where it is converted by bacteria into its toxic form called methyl mercury. The bacteria along with the methyl mercury are eaten by very small sea creatures such as plankton which in turn are eaten by bigger fish which are then eaten by even bigger fish such as tuna. Health experts recommend that pregnant women, women of child bearing age, and small children stay away from eating predatory fish such as shark, swordfish and tuna. At the very most they should eat one meal of this type of fish a week. It has been suggested, however, that omega 3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil are probably safe because heavy metals tend to selectively bind with the flesh of the fish rather than concentrate in the oil. For middle aged and elderly the benefits of fish oil far outweigh any possible risks. Go for it!
Also, high dosages of fish oil are not recommended to those taking blood thinners because they may “increase bleeding time; decrease platelet aggregation, blood viscosity, and fibrinogen; and increase erythrocyte deformability, thus decreasing the tendency to thrombus formation.”  In other words, taking a lot of fish oil will keep you from getting a blood clot but you should not consume too much if you are taking a drug such as warfarin to thin your blood.
Type II diabetics should consult first with their doctor before supplementing with fish oil as there have been some studies showing there may be a possibility of adverse metabolic effects probably due to variable interaction with insulin causing a possible decreased glucose tolerance. Other trials, however, have shown no cause for such concern.
It has been known for decades that omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for the prevention of cardiovascular disease by increasing insulin sensitivity and alleviating cell inflammation systemically. They are essential in the sense that our bodies need them and we can only get them from external sources. Fish such as salmon is an excellent source as are fish oil supplements and flax seeds. Although there has been some talk about toxic levels of mercury in fish, it is usually unfounded. As with most supplements, moderation is important and this is no less true than for foods and supplements containing omega 3 fatty acids.