By Dr. Mercola
Time and again, I have emphasized that omega-3 fats are essential to your overall health. And I am not alone – other health experts stress the same, and decades of research have been devoted to discovering the many health benefits of omega-3. Omega-3 comes from both animal and plant sources, most notably from krill oil and fish oil. They have become a multibillion-dollar business, with Americans spending about 2.6 billion dollars on nutritional supplements and foods fortified with omega-3 fats.1
Get the lowdown on omega-3 – its different types and sources, the omega-3 and omega-6 balance you should strive to achieve, and how to know if you are getting the highest-quality omega-3 fats for the wealth of health gains.
Types of Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fats are acquired from both animal and plant sources, but there is a lot of confusion when it comes to what type you should take to get the best omega-3 benefits.
Marine animals such as fish and krill provide eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are mostly promoted for their protective effects on your heart. Flaxseed, chia, hemp, and a few other foods, on the other hand, offer alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). 2
You would want to choose an animal-based variety – most of the health benefits linked to omega-3 fats are linked to the animal-based EPA and DHA, not the plant-based ALA.
Furthermore, ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in your body at a very low ratio. What this means is that even if you consume large amounts of ALA, your body can only convert a relatively small amount into EPA and DHA, and only when there are sufficient enzymes.
Remember, though, that plant-based omega-3 fats are NOT inherently harmful or should be avoided. Ideally, what you want to do is include an animal-based form in your diet. For instance, you can combine flax and hemp in your diet with animal-based omega-3s.
A Rundown of Omega-3 Benefits
Omega-3 ranks among the most important essential nutrients out there today.3 In 2008, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition4, 5, 6 published three studies investigating the role of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids in elderly populations.
Low concentrations of EPA and DHA resulted in an increased risk of death from all causes, as well as accelerated cognitive decline. The studies also suggest that a higher intake of omega-3s may bring certain health benefits that short-term supplementation cannot give.
Here are other evidence of omega-3 benefits:
- Omega-3 benefits your heart health. An Italian study (GISSI)7 of 11,324 heart attack survivors found that patients supplementing with fish oils markedly reduced their risk of another heart attack, stroke, or death. In a separate study, 8 American medical researchers reported that men who consumed fish once or more every week had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from a sudden cardiac event than do men who eat fish less than once a month.
- Omega-3 normalizes and regulates your cholesterol triglyceride levels. Compared to a statin, both fish oil and krill oil are more efficient in doing this. According to a study comparing the efficiency of krill and fish oils in reducing triglyceride levels,9 both oils notably reduced the enzyme activity that causes the liver to metabolize fat, but krill had a more pronounced effects, reducing liver triglycerides significantly more.
Fasting triglyceride levels are a powerful indication of your ability to have healthy lipid profiles, which can be indicative of your heart health.
Studies have also shown that omega-3 fats are anti-arrhythmic (preventing or counteracting cardiac arrhythmia), anti-thrombotic (prevents thrombosis or a blood clot within a blood vessel), anti-atherosclerotic (preventing fatty deposits and fibrosis of the inner layer of your arteries), and anti-inflammatory (counteracting inflammation – the heat, pain, swelling, etc).
- DHA affects your child's learning and behavior. Do you want to maximize your child's intellectual potential? A study published in Plos One in June 201310 linked low levels of DHA with poorer reading, and memory and behavioral problems in healthy school-age children. In another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August 2013,11 children who consumed an omega-3 fat supplement as infants scored higher on rule learning, vocabulary, and intelligent testing at ages 3 to 5.
Previous research also found that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related behavior or learning disabilities are more likely to have low omega-3 fat levels.
Omega-3 has such great impact on your brain health – EPA and DHA keep the dopamine levels in your brain high, increase neuronal growth in the frontal cortex of your brain, and increase cerebral circulation.
- Omega-3 has been found to save the lives of children going through short bowel syndrome (SBS), which is uncommon but impacts thousands of people in the United States. SBS can occur from birth (when a portion of the intestine fails to develop) or due to an infectious inflammatory disease striking premature newborns. In adults, it can be caused by surgery for Crohn's disease or injury.
Alarmed by the situation, Dr. Mark Puder, surgeon at Children's Hospital Boston,12 said that they knew most of the children with SBS were going to die. Then the physicians noted that when the kids were given the nutritional supplement Omegaven (made of fish oil), they began to improve drastically.
The fish oil treatment was given to 112 children at the hospital, where more than 90 percent of the children with SBS are still alive. There has been striking results that the fish oil supplement is also made available at 70 hospitals worldwide.
Omega-3 benefits cover many areas of health, from mental and behavioral health to preventing premature death from disease, including the following:
|Coronary heart disease and stroke ||Essential fatty acid deficiency in infancy (retinal and brain development) ||General brain function, including memory and Parkinson's disease
|ADHD ||Autoimmune disorders, e.g. lupus and nephropathy ||Osteoporosis
|Crohn's disease ||Cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate ||Rheumatoid arthritis
You May Be Running Low on These Beneficial Fats
Most people fail to consume sufficient amounts of omega-3 fats, which makes omega-3 deficiency likely the sixth biggest killer of Americans. This deficiency can cause or contribute to serious mental and physical health problems, and may be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year.
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fats have been found to influence these two genes – omega-3 tends to reduce cancer cell growth, while highly processed and toxic omega-6 has been found to cause cancer growth.
Considering that omega-3 deficiency is a common underlying factor for cancer and heart disease, it is no longer surprising for statistics to show that this deficiency may be responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths every year.
Special attention should also be given to the fact that most women have major deficiencies of omega-3. A 1991 study at the Mayo Clinic focused on 19 "normal" pregnant women consuming "normal diets," and it showed that all were deficient in omega-3 fats. Another study compared Inuit (Eskimo) women to Canadian women, and it revealed omega-3 deficiency in the milk of the Canadian nursing moms.
Animal cells cannot form omega-3, so a fetus must obtain all of its omega-3 fatty acids from its mother's diet. A mother's dietary intake and plasma concentrations of DHA directly influence the DHA level of the developing fetus, impacting the child's brain and eye health.
So remember that if you are pregnant, your baby is dependent on the omega-3 from your diet via breast milk. It is then crucial that you maintain adequate omega-3 supply.
The Omega-3-Omega-6 Balance You Should Maintain in Your Body
Omega-3 and omega-6 are two types of fat that are essential for human health. However, the typical American consumes far too many omega-6 fats in her diet while consuming very low omega-3 levels.
The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 1:1. Our forefathers evolved over millions of years on this ratio. Today, however, our ratio averages from 20:1 to 50:1 – this spells serous dangers to your well-being! In fact, mainstream media has finally reported that lack of omega-3 is among the most serious and pressing health issues plaguing our world.
Omega-6 is primarily sourced from corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils. These are overabundant in the typical diet, which accounts for excess omega-6 levels.
Omega-6 fats predominate the diet in the US, and this encourages the production of inflammation in your body. Many scientists believe that one reason there is a high incidence of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, and some cancer forms today is this profound omega-3-omega-6 imbalance.
Sources of Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats
Perhaps you are wondering what animal-based omega-3 options are available for you. Here are the primary ones:
- Fish – In a perfect world, fish can provide you all the omega-3s you need. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the fish supply is now heavily tainted with industrial toxins and pollutants, such as heavy metals, PCBs, and radioactive poisons. These toxins make eating fish no longer recommended.
About the only exception are wild-caught Alaskan salmon and very small fish like sardines. The highest concentrations of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish like tuna, sea bass, and marlin. You may need to be especially cautious canned tuna as well, as independent testing by the Mercury Policy Project found that the average mercury concentration in canned tuna is far over the "safe limits" of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It is also important that you avoid farmed salmon, which contains only about half of the omega-3 levels of wild salmon. It may also harbor a range of contaminants, including environmental toxins, synthetic astaxanthin, and harmful metabolic byproducts and agrichemical residues of GMO corn- and soy-based feed they are given.
- Fish oil – Fish oil is among the primary ways that people enhance their intake of omega-3 fats. High-quality fish oils can certainly provide many health benefits. However, this oil is weak in antioxidants. This means that as you increase your omega-3 intake through fish oil consumption, you actually increase your need for added antioxidant protection.
This happens because fish oil is a bit perishable, and oxidation leads to the formation of harmful free radicals. Antioxidants are therefore necessary to ensure that the fish oil doesn't oxidize and become rancid in your body.
- Cod liver oil – I no longer recommend this because of the potential for problematic ratios of vitamins A and D.
- Krill oil – This is my preferred choice for animal-based omega-3 fats. Its antioxidant potency is 48 times higher than fish oil. It also contains astaxanthin, a marine-source flavonoid that creates a special bond with the EPA and DHA to allow direct metabolism of the antioxidants, making them more bioavailable.
Krill – or "okiami" as the Japanese call it – are small, shrimp-like creatures that are a cherished food source in Asia since the 19th century or earlier.
Krill harvesting is a completely sustainable and one of the most eco-friendly on the planet. Krill are the largest biomass in the world and can be found in all oceans. Antarctic krill, by far the most abundant, is under the management of an international organization of 25 countries known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
Antarctic krill biomass is using strict international precautionary catch limit regulations, reviewed regularly to assure sustainability. No shortage of krill has ever been forecasted by CCAMLR.
Fish oil and krill oil are the two major players in the realm of animal-based omega-3 fats. But I have plenty of reasons to believe that krill oil offers superior benefits. In fact, two studies illustrate this:
- A January 2011 study in Lipids13 found that the metabolic effects of the two oils are "essential similar," but krill oil is as effective as fish oil despite containing less EPA and DHA.
- Another data, still unpublished in that year, suggests that krill oil is absorbed up to 10 to 15 times as well as fish oil. Its molecular composition14 is said to account for this better absorbability.
This Mercola infographic will provide a summary of why I choose krill over fish oil.
Giving Omega-3 Fats to Your Child
From the time of your pregnancy through your child's later life, omega-3 fats DHA and EPA have a radically important role in her brain health and other functions. I recommend supplementing with krill oil before and during pregnancy, and while you breastfeed. Babies receive DHA through your breast milk, so continuing breastfeeding through the first year will give your child a great headstart for health and success.
As soon as your child can safely swallow a capsule, she can start taking a high-quality krill oil supplement, which should be kid-sized or about half the size of a regular capsule. The supplement should also be odor-free, making it easy and palatable for children to swallow.
Make sure that you and your children get the right type of omega-3 fats. Go for a pollution-free, eco-friendly, and highly sustainable source, like krill oil. The good news is that krill oil appears to work at a lower dose, and this results in major cost savings, making it more affordable than fish oil.
I always emphasize making healthy, wholesome food choices to get all the nutrients you need. In this case, supplementing your diet with a high-quality source of omega-3 fats, such as real krill oil, is a surefire way to help optimize your health.