Intro to Omega-3s

by Wellness Manager Anne Fletcher, July 2020

What is an Omega fatty acid?

Omega-3, -6, and 9s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), meaning in their chemical structure they are not “saturated” with hydrogen, leading to double bonds between the carbon atoms in the fatty acid chain.  The number in the name refers to the location of the double bond.  When talking about a healthy diet, we are most interested in the omega-3s and 6s.  Several of these are “essential”- meaning your body cannot make them and thus they need to come from diet or supplementation.  Some essential omega-3s include EPA, DHA, and ALA, and an essential omega-6 is linoleic acid.  These fatty acids play a wide range of roles in the healthy functioning of our bodies such as being the building blocks of cell membranes and hormones, including hormones that regulate our heartbeat.

Why take an Omega-3?

If omega-3s and omega-6s are essential, why would you just need an omega-3?  Fatty acid balance is important for optimal health.  The essential omega-6, linoleic acid, is found in a lot of food that is very common in our modern diets- especially vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.  In times past, we would have been getting much of our omega-3s from the fats of wild-caught ocean creatures such as fatty fish or even whale blubber.  However, in our modern world most domestic animals- including farmed fish- are fed diets primarily of grain which is instead high in omega-6, and these fatty acids are passed on into our food, adding to an already imbalanced fatty acid intake.  The imbalance between omega-3s and omega-6s leads to chronic inflammation, which in turn is associated with negative consequences such as pain and DNA damage.  Eating a diet with foods high in omega-3s, such as flaxseed, chia seed, walnuts, grass-fed animal products, fatty wild fish can help bring back balance, and so can supplementing with a high-quality omega-3.  The body’s demand for some specific omega-3 is also higher for people growing or nursing a baby, brain trauma, or injury to the cardiovascular system from chronic inflammation, and some of these omega-3s are only found in ocean-sourced fatty acids, like in fish oil.

What is the difference between fish oils and plant-based omega-3s?

Two of the most important- and most commonly deficient- omega-3s for Americans are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).  These are essential fatty acids, meaning your body cannot make them from other fatty acids and they need to be part of your diet.  EPA is associated with emotional well-being, cardiovascular health, and reduced inflammation.  DHA is also associated with these things and is particularly important for neurological health- up to 1/3 of the weight of your brain and a significant portion of your eyes is made of DHA.  You can understand then why DHA is so important for fetal development, growing children, mother’s who’s own DHA stores are being drained by nourishing a growing child, and anyone with neurological trauma.  These omega-3s are also commonly recommended as a way to balance cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. The only source for significant levels of these two fatty acids is ocean-sourced oils.  Fish oils are your most cost-effective and concentrated source for these fatty acids, but recently we have discovered ways to extract oil from algae that is high in DHA and EPA for a vegetarian alternative; of course, algae from the lower in the food chain is where the oils in ocean fish originate.

Flax oil or flaxseed is a popular omega-3 supplement that contains the essential omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).  ALA acts as an antioxidant in the body and can protect vulnerable tissues like your brain from metabolic damage. It used to be the common understanding that ALA could be converted into DHA and EPA in your body.  Unfortunately, more recent research has shown that the conversion rate is under 2%, meaning you still need to get preformed EPA and DHA from your diet from ocean sourced oils.  

What is the difference between Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil (and what is this about fermented cod liver oil?)

Both fish oil (extracted from the bodies of cold-water ocean fish) and cod liver oil are significant sources of the essential omega-3s DHA and EPA required for neurological, emotional, and cardiovascular well-being.  Cod liver oil- like most animal livers- is naturally high in the fat-soluble vitamins A and D.  Preformed vitamin A is not particularly common in our food; in fact, widespread deficiencies led to default fortification with vitamin A of many processed grain products that continues today.  Vitamin D is another common and widespread deficiency that has many health consequences.  Traditionally, cod liver oil was given to children to support healthy development of their bones, immune system, eyes, and more because of these valuable naturally occurring vitamins.  

Unfortunately, we have inherited a toxic planet and a toxic ocean.  Most ocean fish is contaminated with heavy metals and other persistent pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs (even from fish in the artic).  For this reason, the vast majority of both fish oil and cod liver oil is purified using a technique called molecular distillation (more on this later) to reach standards to prevent the toxic effects of these pollutants.  If you are reaching for a cod liver supplement for the vitamins, be aware that this purification process removes much of the naturally occurring vitamins (but usually not all).  Frequently, these vitamins are added back to the final product.

And what about fermented cod liver oil?  This product- made from fermenting the whole livers before extracting the oil- is a traditional preservation method that has gained traction as being superior to non-fermented CLO.  However, there is controversy over the scientific evidence.  In fact, the organization touting fermentation, the Weston A. Price Foundation, had an internal upheaval over this issue that resulted with a scientist board member resigning.  The doctor believed fermentation created oxidative damage of the fragile fatty acids resulting in adverse health effects.  The converse argument is that the high level of processing of most cod liver oils creates a product not known in our ancestral diet.  The co-op does not carry any fermented cod liver oil products at this time because of the lack of transparency with sourcing, methods, and evidence provided by the companies available to us.

What to look for in an omega-3 supplement

When comparing omega-3 supplements, look on the supplement facts to find the levels of EPA and DHA.  Recommendations for maintenance in adults range from 250mg -1000mg per day of combined EPA and DHA; remember, your dietary intake of omega-6s, lifestyle, and more contribute to your needs.  People working with particular health conditions such as cardiovascular concerns or brain injuries may need to take more.  Also, be sure to look at the dosage size on the bottle to make sure you have all the information to compare.  

If you’ve shopped for fish oils, you know that there is a huge range of prices.  Some products are made from virgin fish oil (from salmon) that has not been processed.  This has the advantage of being the most food-like, but it is also more expensive for the amount of omega-3s you are getting.  The most common way of purification and concentration of omega-3s is called molecular distillation.  Not all of the fatty acids are DHA, EPA, or even omega-3s, so molecular distillation allows for the desirable fatty acids to be concentrated, making it easier to take a highly potent supplement.  First, the fish oil is treated to slice the fatty acids off of the triglyceride backbone.  Then the fatty acids are distilled using heat to concentrate the desirable omega-3s.  Most products stop here with what is known as the ethyl ester form of the fatty acids.  In our digestive system, our body must cleave the fatty acids from the triglyceride to absorb them, but interestingly most evidence shows that we absorb less of the ethyl ester form of the omega-3s.  Thus, some companies go through another process to reattach the omega-3 fatty acids to re-make a triglyceride.  These may say “superior triglyceride form” on the bottle, and will likely have better absorbability and a higher price tag.  

What about evening primrose or borage oil?

Evening primrose, borage, and black currant seed oils are all known for their high GLA (gamma linolenic acid) content.  GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid which, though it can be produced in the liver, is frequently inhibited by suboptimal liver function.  GLA is a hormone precursor that is most noted for its positive effects on pain and inflammation, especially associated irritated skin conditions and hormonally related discomforts of PMS or menopause.  Organ meats like liver also contain a significant amount of GLA.

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