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. The primary animal sources are krill oil and fish oil. The primary plant sources are flaxseed, chia and hemp. 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
Types of Omega-3 Fats
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).
You would want to choose an animal-based variety – most of the cellular 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. In 2008, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition2, 3, 4 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:
1. Omega-3 benefits your heart health. An Italian study (GISSI)5 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, 6 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.
2. 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,7 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).
3. 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 20138 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 2013,9 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.
4. 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,10 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
Autoimmune disorders, e.g. lupus and nephropathy
Cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate
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. 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 which include mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium, 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 of 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 and other protections 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. Krill oil not only contains the important and necessary DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids, but they are bound to phospholipids (see a discussion on this later). Additionally, krill oil's 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 can be completely sustainable and one of the most eco-friendly on the planet (look for products with sustainability and harvesting management certifications). 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 Lipids11 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 composition12 is said to account for this better absorbability.
This Mercola infographic will provide a summary of why I choose krill over fish oil. But if you keep reading below, you'll find out more about the advantages of this omega-3 supplement.
Another Major Benefit: Krill Oil's Omega-3s Are Bound to Phospholipids
Maximizing the benefits you get from omega-3s is highly dependent on how they are absorbed and transported throughout your body. Although these fatty acids are water soluble, they cannot be easily transported into your blood in their free form. Therefore, they need to be packaged in lipoprotein vehicles for them to be better absorbed into your bloodstream.
When you ingest fish oil, you're getting omega-3s that are attached to triglycerides that needed to be broken down in your gut to the base fatty acids DHA and EPA. Unfortunately, about 80 to 85 percent of these omega-3s are eliminated in your intestine.
This is another area where krill oil outshines fish oil. This is because the omega-3 fats in krill are attached to a mixture of phospholipids and triglycerides. Phospholipids carry long-chain fatty acids directly to your cell membranes so your body can more readily absorb and utilize them.
With the help of phospholipids, the nutrients in krill oil can even cross your blood-brain barrier to reach important brain structures. Studies confirm this, as they found that krill oil is absorbed 10 to 15 times more than fish oil.
What's more, phospholipids serve as essential building blocks of your cells. They are crucial to the structure of your cell walls, maintaining their strength and flexibility. By helping maintain your cells' structural integrity, phospholipids help them function properly.
The videos above perfectly summarize the function of phospholipids and why a high-quality, phospholipid-containing omega-3 source like krill oil is a better option than other sources.
Fact: You Cannot Substitute Animal Omega-3s With Plant-Based Sources
In recent years, many people – particularly those who strictly follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – have believed that they do not have to consume animal products to get omega-3s, as long as they are consuming high amounts of plant-based omega-3s. But, as I mentioned before, most of the health benefits that you can get from omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based EPA and DHA fats – not plant-based ALA. They are simply NOT interchangeable.
Let's examine the composition of these two fatty acids. EPA and DHA contain between 20 and 22 carbons, while ALA has 18 carbons. All of these fatty acids have their first double-bond in the third position, which is why they're called "omega-3." It's how chemists write down the chemical structures.
However, this difference in the length of the carbon chain gives these two types of omega-3s significant characteristics. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid. The long-chain fatty acids are more important for cellular health. Another omega-3 fat, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) can also be better synthesized by your body by elongating EPA.
Nils Hoem, Ph.D., a leading scientist in omega-3 phospholipids, does a good job of describing this. He says that when you observe the uptake and distribution of EPA and DHA, you see something rather strange.
After ingesting good amounts of EPA and DHA, such as from salmon or krill oil, the fatty acid level in your plasma (blood) stays elevated for more than three days afterward. "Your body works on its distribution, redistribution and re-redistribution for three days. That's hardly consistent with being 'just food,'" Hoem says.
Meanwhile, ALA omega-3s are rapidly absorbed, peaking a couple of hours after ingestion, and then disappearing within 10 hours. This means that your body uses ALA very differently from EPA and DHA.
Hoem adds that short-chain fatty acids like ALA are simply food — they're a source of energy. But the long-chain fatty acids are structural elements. They're not just "food" – they are actually essential in the composition of your cells – meaning they play a greater function in your body's structure.
What's more, ALA is just a precursor to EPA and DHA. You need certain enzymes to elongate and desaturate ALA so it can become long-chained omega-3s. Unfortunately, this does not work in some people, particularly those who are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, leading to very low conversion rates – only 1 percent of ALA is converted to EPA/DHA. In some, the conversion can even dip as low as 0.1 to 0.5 percent!
This is why relying on only plant-based sources to get your omega-3 (ALA) supply is a very inefficient health strategy. You would do better if you supply your omega-3s directly from marine animal sources, like krill 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.
Remember These Considerations When Buying a Krill Oil Supplement
There's no doubt that animal-based omega-3 fats are really crucial for optimal health, and these reasons make it clear that krill is one of the top choices you can settle for. However, there are a few important reminders you need to keep in mind when selecting a krill oil supplement:
• It should be made from Antarctic krill, which is by far the most abundant and most bioavailable source today.
• The company should have a valid sustainability certification such as from The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), ensuring that it's harvested in compliance with international conservation standards.
• The krill oil must be cold processed in order to preserve its biological benefits. Unfortunately, some of the most popular krill oil brands in the market use hexane, a dangerous chemical agent. Make sure that this chemical is not used to extract the oil from the krill.
• The oil should also be free of heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants.
• It should be encased in hard capsules instead of soft gels. Soft gels cause more oxygen to reach the content, which makes the oil more prone to rancidity. Even though krill oil contains astaxanthin that decreases oxidation significantly, hard capsules provide additional protection, assuring maximum effectiveness and freshness.
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 animal food 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.