Omega-3's get lots of attention these days, due to the wave of scientific studies and supplement products constantly coming out, that espouse their brain, nerve and heart health benefits!
Whilst there is much truth to these claims, these benefits are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why you should be adding omega 3 rich foods into your daily diet.
Here, we reveal exactly what Omega-3's are, the three distinct types, how they work in the body, the best sources for your overall health and why you should think twice before consuming fish oil supplements as your source of Omega 3's.
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Made up of chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that your body needs and uses to efficiently perform a variety of important natural functions.
They form part of the membranes of cells, as well as provide vital fuel for your body to use as energy.
The word ‘essential’ is often used to describe Omega 3 Fatty Acids, meaning your body cannot make it on it's own, so you need to get it from foods in your diet.
There are THREE main types of Omega 3's:
1) Alpha-linolec Acid (ALA) - The most common dietary omega-3, originating mainly from plant sources which we recommend most;
2) Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) - Sometimes called ‘marine omega-3s’ these are found in seafood, including fatty fish and algae;
3) Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) - Also from the same sources as EPA, and can also sometimes be found in grass-fed animal products.
With most scientific studies and consumer attention focusing on the marine-driven EPA and DHA fatty acids, especially in products like ‘fish oil’ and other supplement type products, it’s important to keep in mind that plant-sourced ALA is actually the parent molecule from which your body will produce EPA and DHA.
In other words, it can be argued that the omega-3s derived from dead fish are not optimal because the plant-primary nutrition is what our body's cells most easily recognise.
Additionally, the problem is that many marine sources are farmed and can also be highly tainted with toxins such as heavy metals like mercury, which you really want to avoid.
Symptoms of Deficiency
Some common signs of not getting enough Omega-3s include:
- Constant Hunger
- Regular Fatigue
- Poor Circulation
- Tenderness or fluids around the joints
- Heart problems
- Mental Fog
- Mood Swings & Depression
- Dark Circled or Puffy Eyes
- Skin Rashes (Hives, Eczema or Psoriasis
- Dry Skin
Best Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
ALA, the precursor to the other two sources of Omega 3, is a component that is in rich abundance within the following whole food sources.
Nuts and seeds:
- Sesame Seeds
- Flax Seed Oil
- Hemp Oil
- Evening Primrose Oil
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Other good sources:
- Dark leafy greens e.g. spinach
- Firm Tofu
- Wild Rice
- Red Lentils
- Organic Soy Beans
What are the health benefits?
Omega-3 fatty acids have been the subject of many studies by scientific researchers and have been shown to have a wide range of health benefits, including the following:
Today's science confirms what has been known for thousands of years.
The 'good' oils known as Omega 3's that are derived from various plant sources, are powerful for reducing inflammation throughout the body - everything from sore joints to skin problems, high blood pressure and even obesity.
This is thanks to their ability to help inhibit inflammatory molecules like "eicosanoids" and "cytokines".
With inflammation being a precursor and contributor to most dis-ease, increasing the amount of Omega-3s into your diet, is one way to help address this issue and improve your overall health.
These essential fats play a role in also preventing 'bad' cholesterol from clogging the arteries, which is crucial for healthy heart and cardiovascular function.
Boost Brain Health
Omega-3 fatty acids increase blood supply to the brain.
The oil acts as pure precursor that the brain converts to neurotransmitters for cognitive enhancement.
Omega-3's are vital for brain cells to produce the billions of connections that enable the brain to function, so by increasing Omega 3 consumption, it can lead to improved mood, cognitive abilities and peak performance.
Interestingly, when it comes to raw nuts, ancient cultures observed that walnuts, almonds and pecans, all resemble the structural components of the brain and concluded that nature signalled them as "brain food".
For example, if you look closely at a walnut, you'll notice the husk, the hard shell looks like the cranial cap. Then in the meat of the nut itself, you see the convoluted folds that look like the surface of the neocortex of the brain.
You can also see the left and right hemispheres; the upper cerebrums and the lower cerebellums. It really is fascinating when you look at this and you begin to see whole foods, like walnuts, through a different set of eyes and you realise that mother nature puts them there for us.
Just as the ancients observed, studies today confirm that walnuts are pure brain food. The omega 3 fatty acids in the walnut carry the flesh of the nut as a precursor into the brain chemistry, and the brain then converts it into over three dozen known neurotransmitters for cognitive or memory enhancement.
All of the nuts and whole foods already mentioned are very powerful for brain health, but there is definitely something very special about the walnut.
Support Heart Health
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are widely known to be very beneficial for the cardiovascular system.
They belong to the group of fats known as ‘polyunsaturated’ fats that can lower total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Researchers theorise that omega-3 fatty acids foster good circulation due in part to their alpha-linolenic acid content.
The presence of omega-3 fatty acids makes blood platelets less likely to clump together and form clots that lead to heart attacks. They also improve the ratio of good HDL to bad LDL cholesterol.
Other ways they can benefit the heart include their ability to:
- Lower blood pressure
- Prevent erratic heart rhythms
- Make blood less likely to clot inside arteries (causes of most heart attacks)
Other Health Benefits
It’s also widely known that Omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial for helping to avoid the following ailments and dis-eases:
- Inflammatory skin conditions
- Autoimmune diseases
- Eye degeneration
- Metabolic syndrome
- Bone & joint problems
- Headaches & Migraines
What about fish oil?
Since people are becoming more conscious of the importance of Omega 3's, one of the biggest categories in the supplement industry has become the promotion and sale of fish oil products.
The first problem with fish oil is the question of sustainability and ethics when it comes to how fish are farmed and raised to make these products.
Secondly, many fish oil supplements are likely to contain mercury, heavy metals and other contaminants that you definitely do not want in your body. Fish oil is also known to cause adverse reactions in many people, that include acid reflux, nausea and heartburn.
Another risk with fish oil supplements is that they can oxidise easily as an unsaturated fat. This means that they can go rancid when exposed to heat and therefore be inflammatory in the body. In fact, due to transportation, storage and merchandising, many fish oil products are already oxidised before they even reach the retail store or before the consumer even opens the bottle.
Finally, the molecular shape of omega 3 fatty acids affects how bio-available they are to be utilised by the body. In addition to the general toxicity concerns around fish oil, there are also questions with regard to how bioavailable and recognisable fish oil is as a nutrient to your cells as compared to natural, plant-based sources.
The Main Takeaway
Omega 3 fatty acids are a vital source of essential fats that your heart, brain, nerves and bodily functions depend on to help you stay healthy and thrive.
The easiest way to ensure you're getting enough Omega 3 into your diet, is simply to ensure that you're enough high quality raw nuts, seeds, cold-pressed oils, avocados and leafy greens into your diet.
If you believe you're not getting enough Omega 3's in your diet and feel that you need to supplement with this important nutrient, our recommendation is that you stick with plant sources, such as Flax Seed Oil or Udos Oil, but as always, it's best to get your nutrients from your food as much as you can by focussing on the foods we've shared with you here.
Tolman Self Care.