Within the Omega 3 family resides, conveniently enough three fatty acids. They are alpha-linolenic acid, EPA
(eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Alpha-linolenic acid (abbreviated ALA or LNA) is found primarily in plants such as hemp, candle nut, and flaxseed (the best natural source of ALA). EPA and DHA are found primarily in cold-water fish.
Still awake? Glad to hear it. How about we break up the tedium with a story!
A Tale of Terror:
Once upon a time your doctor told you to cut down on the fat. You decide that this well-educated individual is wise and hastily go about removing ALL fat from your diet. This is no easy task but somehow you manage.
Time passes. Your losing weight. You feel good about yourself. Time passes. Your thinning (your hair that is). You start to feel bad about yourself. You scratch your head - in wonder? No. Your scalp itches. The scratching only aggravates the headache you have. Maybe the headache is why you feel tired & restless. Your confused. You look yourself over in the mirror one day and don't recognize the person staring back. Who is this swollen-jointed, flaking, peeling person with bruises all over? It's the person who eliminated the fat - ALL THE FAT - from his/her diet. You've only just begun to suffer! Muah-ha-ha-ha! (On the plus side, you won't need a scary Halloween costume!)
True, I won't be winning the Nobel Prize for Literature but I think the point comes across. Some fats are
essential. Fatty acids have widespread applications in the human body from the membranes of cells to the
development of the fetal brain.
How about some specifics?
ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) is the granddaddy of the Omega 3 family. This is the one that starts it all and is the only one that's technically "essential". The body can utilize ALA to produce EPA and DHA but cannot produce ALA on its own. We must obtain it from our diet. ALA deficiencies have been linked to growth retardation, weakness, vision problems, motor incoordination, edema, dry skin, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure."
In a healthy individual, ALA "produces smooth, velvety skin, increases stamina, speeds healing, increases vitality, and brings a feeling of calmness. (ALA) reduces inflammation, water retention, platelet stickiness, and blood pressure. It reduces the pain and swelling of arthritis, and completely reverses premenstrual syndrome in some cases. Here's the catch: ALA "can unfold its important functions only as part of a complete program that contains ALL 50 essential factors"(2) (see below for details).
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), as mentioned, is produced from ALA. Though it isn't technically "essential", if you're not getting enough ALA then you're definitely not getting enough EPA. Found abundantly in cold-climate fish, EPA (I'm going to take a deep breath for this one) "is the parent substance from which the body makes series 3 prostaglandins that decrease inflammation, water retention, and blood pressure by inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory, water-retaining, artery-constricting series 2 prostaglandins."(2) (Whew! Prostaglandins, by the way, help to regulate the entire body. But that's another article for another time.)
In addition, studies have shown that Attention Deficit Disorder can be affected by EPA. If that isn't enough,
researchers are looking into the effects EPA & DHA have on cancer cells. "Omega 3 fatty acids seem to promote the self-destruction of cancer cells, increasing their rate of die-off and thereby slowing overall tumor growth."(3) While not a cure, it's certainly opening eyes to treatment possibilities. Finally, after all of the above,EPA still has time to be converted into DHA.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is only slightly important in the human body (yes, that was facetious). Have you ever been called fat-headed? Those who have been have probably taken it as an insult. Take it as a compliment. Your brain is fat (over half of it). DHA is the primary fatty acid in the brain. It's plays a structural role (much like protein in muscles) in the brain and retina and is present in the adrenals and testes. (Here's a thought: If you exercise your brain, are you only making it fatter?)
Again, like EPA it is found abundantly in cold-water fish. DHA has a hand in just about everything ALA and EPA do in addition to its own goings-on. As volumes have been written on DHA, let us just focus on what one book had to say:
"According to researcher Peter Weber, of the University of Munich, Germany, Omega 3 fats (especially DHA) do, in part, the following:
- Reduce levels of circulating triglycerides (see below for additional results)
- Reduce levels of the platelet-clumping protein, fibrinogen
- Reduce insulin resistance (or increase insulin sensitivity)
- Reduce the expression of adhesion molecules
- Relax arterial walls (by reducing constriction)
- Prevent the formation of pro-atherosclerosis and pro-inflammation factors such as: thromboxane,
leukotrienes, platelet activating factor, platelet-derived growth factor, IL-1 and TNF (cytokines)."(1)
These only focus on cardiovascular issues. DHA has been seen to play a role in elements from brain development & mental disorders to dyslexia & Zellweger's syndrome.
By the way, these fatty acids we've been discussing are polyunsaturates. (I think I heard the sound of recognition across the cyber-way!) A million points to the person(s) who said, "Hey, that's what my doctor or health care professional said is good for me. He/She told me to stay away from those saturates and go with the unsaturates/polyunsaturates!" Do yourself a favor - find out what a "trans fatty acid" is and how they make it. You may change your eating habits forever.
Evolution - Survival of the fittest!
Here's something interesting: The Omega 3 family is found most abundantly in plants and animals in cold-climate conditions. These polyunsaturates have a tendency to repel each other. That means they won't congeal or aggregate the way their sticky, saturated cousins will. Hmmm, a trick of evolution to help wildlife in extreme-cold conditions?! I wonder! Moreover, the PUFA's (polyunsaturated fatty acids) have the ability to cause the saturates to become less sticky. A possible benefit for those consuming the here-to-fore mentioned molecules is that of lowering cholesterol levels.
WHAT?!!! Eating fat can help lower fat?
That's a bit of a stretch but not wholly wrong. Most health-conscious people are familiar with the dreaded
triglyceride. If your triglyceride serum levels are high so is your chance for the formation of heart disease. In steps DHA. William S. Harris, "director of lipo-protein research at the Mid America Heart Institute . . . found that a modest daily dietary intake of 3.5 to 4 grams of long-chain DHA-rich Omega 3 PUFA's (polyunsaturated fatty acids) resulted in a 25 to 28 percent reduction in triglyceride levels. Patients with severe hyper-triglyceridemia experienced a 25 percent reduction in triglycerides (and a 14 percent increase in HDL, "good", cholesterol) with only two grams of DHA-rich PUFA's per day, which is equivalent to about one to two meals of tuna, salmon, mackerel, and herring."(1) In addition, EPA and DHA contained in fish oils inhibit the development of atherosclerosis.(5)
Fish Oil or Flaxseed Oil: The Debate Rages On!
As I'm sitting here writing this article and going over the research, I begin to assess my own health. Should I be supplementing my diet? If so, with which one: flax or fish? Well, given the information, I know that ALA can be converted into EPA and EPA can be converted into DHA. Applying logic to the scenario I would think that taking flaxseed oil would be enough because it has ALA. But what if my body doesn't (or can't) convert enough ALA into EPA and DHA. Science is always discovering these little truths that play so much into the big picture.
The National Institutes for Health recently discovered that only a small amount of ALA is actually converted and this level is far below the RDA. So taking flaxseed oil (ALA) alone may not be a solution for you. You may end up needing to take fish oil as well. This question is best left up to your doctor, whom you should consult before beginning any supplementation regimen.
The only thing that is for certain (at least so far) is that the human body is delicate and delicately balanced. Everything is inter-connected somehow. Supplementation with one thing can cause a deficiency in another thing and so on. That's where the experts come in (you know, that doctor with whom you should consult).
Until next time, be careful, be safe, be smart, & be healthy.
The Essential Factors
"Research has discovered about 50 essential factors (of which about 45 are nutrients) that must come from our
environment. They include:
- essential nutrients: 20 or 21 minerals; 13 vitamins; 8 amino acids (10 for children, 11 for premature infants); and 2 essential fatty acids;
- a source of energy (most commonly starch or glucose);
- oxygen; and
- Gormley, James. DHA: A Good Fat, Essential for Life. New York: Kensington Books, 1999.
- Erasumus, Udo. Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill. British Columbia, CA: Alive Books, 1993.
- Simopoulos AP, Robinson J. The Omega Plan. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
- Rudin, DO, Felix, Clara. Omega 3 Oils. New York: Avery Publishing Group, 1996.
- International Health News:
Health Benefits of Fish Oils. http://www.oilofpisces.com/generalhealtheffects.html