Omega 3: health benefits and why your body needs it
Most people have heard of omega-3 fatty acid supplements yet, in my clinical experience, not many people take them on a regular basis. However, most of us should be taking this supplement on an ongoing basis for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it is an essential nutrient, meaning our body doesn’t make it so we have to consume it through our diet. It predominantly comes from oily fish, which we generally don’t eat enough of. Even if we increase our fish intake, we risk consuming damagingly high levels of pollutants such as mercury, PCBs and heavy metals.
It is also found in vegetarian sources such chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts and hemp seeds. However, these need to be converted, via a chain of reactions in the body, into the useful forms of EPA and DHA. This conversion process in not very efficient, only converting roughly 10% of the amount consumed.
Equally it is not just the total amount but the balance between our omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids that is key for optimal function and health. Omega-6s are generally inflammatory and omega-3s are generally anti-inflammatory. Therefore low amounts of omega-3 compared to 6 can contribute to a chronic inflammatory state or inflammatory diseases, which include everything from asthma and eczema to cardiovascular disease. Humans probably evolved on a 1:1 ratio of omega 3:6 in our diets. After the agricultural and industrial revolutions, this has dramatically switched in favour of omega-6 and is now closer to 16:1. Our diets and farming methods have changed - meats that were once wild, eating nuts and berries to produce omega-3 are now farmed and have switched feeds to grains which stimulate production of omega-6.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a powerhouse of health benefits as they work on many different pathways including:
- Immunity – Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and therefore guard against chronic low-level inflammation. This kind of inflammation is one of the most harmful things to our long term health and is thought to be implicated in the development of many diseases including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, asthma, autoimmune diseases, eczema and psoriasis.
- Cholesterol – Omega-3s increase your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, also protecting the cardiovascular system as well as providing protection from Type II diabetes.
- Brain health – Cell membranes (the walls) are made up of fats. If the fatty membranes surrounding brain cells are relatively fluid, as they are with lots of omega-3s, then messages from neurochemicals such as serotonin can be transmitted more easily. Equally, studies show that a diet low in omega-3s is associated with increased risk of age-related cognitive decline or dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
- Metabolism – Omega 3s can increase metabolism by increasing levels of enzymes that boost the body’s calorie-burning ability.
When choosing a supplement, it is important to know how they vary in their quality. Supplements from fish are at risk from contamination from higher levels of pollutants and cod liver oil has a high vitamin A content which can also cause toxicity in excessive quantities if your intake of vitamin A is already high. Fats are difficult to digest, so many omega 3 supplements are difficult to absorb into the body, this is called poor bioavailability.
The omega-3 in VITL Nutrition Packs comes from krill oil. Krill are a tiny crustacean that live in the clean, deep Antarctic waters. They are a primary source of EPA and DHA, the kind of Omega-3s our bodies need. EPA is key for the immune system, while DHA has been found to work best for brain health. When taking a supplement, the bioavailability – the ability for the body to digest and absorb it – is key to its effectiveness. Krill oil contains a highly bioavailable form of EPA/DHA because they are in a phospholipid form – liposomes or little packages that deliver the fatty acids directly to your body's cells. Due to the higher bioavailability, the levels of EPA/DHA don’t need to be so high to get the amount you need.
These marine phospholipids found in krill oil are also antioxidants, not only keeping the supplement fresh and stable but also used by the body to help protect against free radical damage.