Just what is essential to your health?
Now it’ time to take a look at the Omegas and how they affect our health!
Omega Fatty Acids
So what exactly are Omega Fatty Acids?
What do they do?
Omega fatty acids as you can see above in the chart are acids found in and with various fats. There are Saturated and Unsaturated Fats. Saturated Fats, most such fats are from animal fats, butter, lard, etc., though coconut oil also is saturated fat. For years, some tried to convince us these were unhealthy, though recent studies and groundbreaking authors like Nina Tiecholz in her nutrition-community-shaking book “The Big FAT Surprise” have helped set us straight again with the knowledge our grandparents and ancestors have known for centuries. Saturated fats are indeed healthy and do not cause heart disease as some tried to have us believe. (1)(2)(3)
Then there are Unsaturated Fats that the Omega Fats come from and these break down into two categories: 1) Polyunsaturated (PUFAs) and 2) Monounsaturated Fats. These come from plant and non-plant sources as shown in the chart. Omega 3 Fatty acids are the most commonly considered as good but all are healthy, though some less so, at least in the consumption of large amounts of them. You’ve probably heard of these: Omega 6s and Omega 9s.
However, it’s important to get the right balance of omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids in your diet. An imbalance may contribute to a number of chronic diseases. Properly balanced they help to protect our hearts, joints, pancreas, mood stability, skin. and more. (4)(5)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
For the most part, Omega 3 Fatty Acids come primarily from plants and fish with some exceptions and these all have one thing in common; they contain Polyunsaturated fats. The term “polyunsaturated” refers to their chemical structure, as “poly” means many, and “unsaturated” refers to double bonds. Combined, they mean that omega-3 fatty acids have many double bonds. “Omega-3” refers to the position of the final double bond in the chemical structure, which is three carbon atoms from the “omega” or tail end of the molecular chain. Since the human body can’t produce omega-3s, these fats are referred to as “essential fats,” so we have to get them from our diet. (4)
The three most common:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): This 20-carbon fatty acid’s main function is to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation. EPA also helps reduce symptoms of depression (6)(7)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): A 22-carbon fatty acid, DHA makes up about 8% of brain weight and is extremely important for normal brain development and function(8)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): This 18-carbon fatty acid can be converted into EPA and DHA, although the process is not very efficient. ALA is mainly used by the body for energy (9)
Omega-3 fatty acids can improve heart health by raising HDL cholesterol. They can also support mental health and are effective in reducing symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. They are effective for weight loss and maintenance, helping to reduce liver fat, fight inflammation, and aid in bone health, and support brain development in infants. They are also effective in preventing asthma and dementia and cancer. Omega-3s can also reduce triglycerides and blood pressure, in addition to preventing blood clots as they keep blood platelets from clumping together and preventing or reducing plaque, keeping your arteries smooth and free from damage They also aid in addressing rheumatoid arthritis, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), diabetes, osteoporosis, stress, and macular degeneration. Some studies have even shown them to lower LDL cholesterol. They improve eye health, reduce symptoms of ADHD and metabolic syndrome, menstrual pain, bone, and joint pain, and they improve sleep and skin health. (10)(11)(12)
The deficiency of Omega-3 fatty acids can lead to a number of problems with our health. Mental health can be compromised. Depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder have all been linked to low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Our appearance can be affected causing dry, itchy skin, flaky skin, discolored patches of skin, or rash. The skin may also become oily in patches and may take on a rough, bumpy appearance. In some cases, the fingertips may crack and peel. Some people with omega-3 deficiencies have reported dry, stiff, tangled hair, dandruff, and hair loss. The fingernails may also be affected, either growing very slowly or becoming very brittle and splitting or fraying frequently. Other symptoms may include fatigue and poor circulation. Intense menstrual cramps and premenstrual breast pain have also been reported. Some people may experience excessive thirst and excess urination. Dry eyes and excess earwax buildup may also develop. (55)
Though the RDI for Omega-3s is 250 – 500 mg combined, it is suggested the minimum for alpha-linolenic acid is 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women. To date, there is no official recommended daily allowance for EPA and DHA. However, The American Heart Association, among other organizations, recommends that people with coronary heart disease take 1,000 mg. of combined EPA and DHA daily, while those with high triglycerides take 2,000–4,000 mg. daily. Studies suggest that high doses of omega-3, ranging from 200–2,200 mg. per day can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. An additional 200 mg. of DHA is recommended for pregnant and nursing women. The recommended dose per day for infants and children is 50–100 mg. of combined EPA and DHA. (13)
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in whole foods — such as fatty fish which is best consumed two times per week. Here are some foods with amounts of Omega-3s.
Mackerel – 4,107 mg in one piece of salted mackerel, or 5,134 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (40)
Salmon – 4,123 mg in half a fillet of cooked, farmed Atlantic salmon, or 2,260 mg in 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (41)
Cod liver oil – 2,682 mg per tablespoon (42)
Herring – 946 mg per medium fillet (40 grams) of kippered Atlantic herring, or 2,366 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (43)
Oysters – 70 mg in 6 raw, eastern oysters, or 435 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (44)
Anchovies – 951 mg per can (2 ounces, or 45 grams) of canned European anchovies, or 2,113 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (45)
Sardines – 2,205 mg per cup (149 grams) of canned Atlantic sardines, or 1,480 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (46)
Caviar – 1,086 mg per tablespoon (14.3 grams), or 6,786 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (47)
Flax seeds – 2,350 mg per tablespoon (10.3 grams) of whole seeds, or 7,260 mg per tablespoon (13.6 grams) of oil (48)(49)
Chia seeds – 5,060 mg per serving / one ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds provides 4,915 mg of ALA) (50)
Walnuts – 2,570 mg per ounce (28 grams), or about 14 walnut halves (2,570 mg per serving /2,542 mg of ALA) (51)
Soybeans – 670 mg in a 1/2 cup (47 grams) of dry roasted soybeans, or 1,443 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (52) [soy should be avoided as 94% is GMO and all grown with Glyphosate which has been proven to cause cancer]
Soybeans – 670 mg in a 1/2 cup (47 grams) of dry roasted soybeans, or 1,443 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (52) [soy should be avoided as 94% is GMO and all grown with Glyphosate which has been proven to cause cancer]
Brussels sprouts (half-cup (78-gram) serving of cooked Brussels sprouts contains 135 mg of ALA)
Algal Oil (derived from algae – provides 400-500 mg. of DHA and EPA)
Perilla Oil (derived from perilla seeds used in Asian cuisine /1 tablespoon (15 grams) of perilla oil contains 9,000 mg. of ALA) (28)
Trout, rainbow (3 oz. EPA = .40 g/DHA = .44 g) Amout providing 1 g EPA/DHA (3.5 oz.)
Tuna, canned, wht. (3 oz. EPA = .20 g/DHA = .54 g) Amout providing 1 g EPA/DHA (4 oz.)
Crab, Dungeness (3 oz. EPA = .24 g/DHA = .10 g) Amout providing 1 g EPA/DHA (9oz.
Tuna, canned, light (3 oz. EPA = .04 g/DHA = .19 g) Amount providing 1 g EPA/DHA (12 oz.) (60)
Other foods include pastured eggs, omega-3-enriched eggs, meats, and dairy products from grass-fed animals, spinach and purslane, and vegetables like spinach. (11)(14)
Excess/Overdose – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that Omega-3 supplements containing EPA and DHA are safe if doses don’t exceed 3,000 mg. per day. On the other hand, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) notes that up to 5,000 mg per day from supplements is safe. These cautions are in place for several reasons. For one, omega-3s can cause blood thinning or excessive bleeding in some people. For this reason, many organizations encourage people who are planning surgery to stop taking omega-3 supplements 1–2 weeks beforehand. The second reason is due to vitamin A. This vitamin can be toxic in high amounts, and some omega-3 supplements, such as cod liver oil, are high in it. Finally, taking more than 5,000 mg of omega-3s has never been shown to provide any added benefits, so the risk is not worth taking. (13)
In taking supplements, it’s important to maintain a proper balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 and one should always follow the directions on the label. Taking up to 3,000–5,000 mg. of omega-3 per day appears to be safe, although such a high intake is likely not necessary for most people. (13)
Omega-6 & 9 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. The only difference is that the last double bond is six carbons from the omega end of the fatty acid molecule. Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential, so you need to obtain them from your diet. These fats are primarily used for energy. The most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid, which can be converted into longer omega-6 fats such as arachidonic acid (ARA) (4)
One of the primary differences between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids is that Omega-6 fatty acids tend to be more “pro-inflammatory.” Like EPA, ARA is used to produce eicosanoids, but those produced by ARA are more a source of inflammation than those produced by EPA. This can be a problem if too much is introduced to the body as it can increase inflammatory disease, according to some sources. (4)(15)(16)
So even though omega-6 fats are essential, it is important to have the right balance of these fatty acids and some say most people in the developed world should work to reduce their omega-6 intake since most of the Western diet has a ratio between 10:1 and 50:1 which is far too high. (17) While some suggest the ratio should be between 6:1 or low as 4:1, others, such as Dr. Stephan Guyenet, believe it should be even lower, between 4:1 and 1:4. Chris Masterjohn, Ph.D. and nutritionist suggests most, especially vegans, get closer to a 1:1 ratio. (4)(17)(18)
What may interest some is that hunter-gatherers who ate mostly land animals consumed these fats at ratios of 2:1 to 4:1, while the Inuit, who ate mostly omega-3 rich seafood, had a ratio of 1:4. Other pre-industrial populations were somewhere in between. Today, the average is 16:1, leaving many still far off from what some say is a healthy balance. (17)
A more proper perspective of balance is suggested by a publication from Harvard Medical School, saying rather than getting less Omega-6, we just need to increase our Omega-3 intake. (27) Omega-6s and omega-3s compete for the same enzymes, which convert the fatty acids into their biologically active forms. (53)(54) Therefore, it is vital to maintain a balance between the Omegas.
So what are the benefits of Omega-6 fatty acids and where do we get them? The benefits include much more than most believe but still need to be kept limited in proper balance.
Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid found in certain oils, such as evening primrose oil and borage oil. When consumed, much of it is converted to another fatty acid called dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA).
One study showed that a high dose of GLA supplements significantly reduced the number of symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. (19) Another study found that taking GLA supplements in addition to a breast cancer drug was more effective at treating cancer than the drug alone. (20)
Other benefits have shown to be reduced nerve pain in those with diabetes. (21) It’s proven effective at addressing rheumatoid arthritis, especially with the use of Evening Primrose Oil (22) and reducing morning stiffness. (23) It’s also thought to reduce symptoms of ADHD as shown in a study after using it for six months. (24) It reduces high blood pressure, lowers the risk of heart disease, and supports bone health. (22)
Deficiency of Omega-6 can create a number of conditions that are anything from unpleasant to unhealthy. Red, itchy, scaly skin for example; or loss of hair from it falling out excessively, or a low sex drive. (18) According to Chris Masterjohn, where rats were restricted in Omega-6, developed irritated, sore, and scaly skin, dandruff, and hair loss. Their tails were inflamed, swollen, scaled and ridged, and were hemorrhaging in certain spots. Their kidneys got hurt and they started peeing blood. They drank what seemed like way too much water, yet didn’t pee any more than usual because the water just evaporated from their skin. The males lost interest in sex, stopped producing sperm, and their testosterone tanked. The females stopped ovulating, couldn’t get pregnant, and their levels of both estrogen and progesterone tanked. The females developed enlarged adrenals, giving them an exaggerated response to stress. They ate more food but gained less weight.(18)
Deficiency in Omega-6 has shown to cause premature births, heart problems, extreme fatigue, a greater chance of developing inflammatory conditions, in addition to dry skin. (25) In 1929, George and Mildred Burr, a husband and wife duo that conducted research on rats showed that a lack of fatty acids in the diet could cause deficiency and, in extreme cases, even death. Not only did this lead to the discovery of omega-6 fatty acids, but it also demonstrated the importance of other essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids. (26)
A further breakdown of each acid follows:
- Linoleic Acid: soybean oil,* corn oil,* safflower oil,* sunflower oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil*, rice bran oil**
- Arachidonic Acid: peanut oil, meat, eggs, dairy products
- GLA: hemp seeds, spirulina, evening primrose oil, borage oil, black currant seed oil
So where do we find the best sources of Omega-6?
Beef, chicken, eggs, nuts, seeds – especially pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, and certain oils; However, it’s important to opt for organic. (22)(27)(28) and –
Walnuts -10,800 mg. per ounce (28 grams), or 38,100 mg. per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (29),
Peanut Butter – 1,960 mg. per tablespoon (16 grams), or 12,300 mg. per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (30)
Safflower Oil – 1,730 mg. per tablespoon (14 grams), or 12,700 mg. per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (31)
Sunflower Seeds – 10,600 mg. per ounce (28 grams), or 37,400 mg. per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (32)(33)(34)
Hemp Seeds – 8,240 mg. per 3 tablespoons (30 grams), or 27,500 mg. per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (35)
Avocado Oil – 1,750 mg. per tablespoon (14 grams), or 12,530 mg. per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (36)
Eggs – 594 mg per large egg (50 grams), or 1,188 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (37)
Almonds – 3,490 mg per ounce (28 grams), or 12,320 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (38)
Cashews – 2,210 mg per ounce (28 grams), or 7,780 mg per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) (39) Unhealthy choices many select are found in salad dressings, potato chips, pizza, pasta dishes, and processed meats like sausage. (22)
Excess/Overdose – Excessive consumption of vegetable oils, or linoleic acids, can contribute to inflammation and increase the risk of serious conditions like heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis, and depression. People with specific conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, diabetes or breast tenderness, should consult their doctors before taking any omega-6 supplements. Both borage oil and evening primrose oil reportedly lower the seizure threshold, so individuals requiring anticonvulsant medication should exercise caution and discuss it with their physician. Too much Omega-6 can raise your blood pressure, lead to blood clots that can cause heart attack and stroke, and cause your body to retain water. (10)(22)
Note: While some critics argue that we should cut back on our intake of omega-6 fats to improve the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6s. Hogwash, says the American Heart Association (AHA). In a science advisory that was two years in the making, nine independent researchers from around the country, including three from Harvard, say that data from dozens of studies support the cardiovascular benefits of eating omega-6 fats (Circulation, Feb. 17, 2009). “Omega-6 fats are not only safe but they are also beneficial for the heart and circulation,” says advisory coauthor Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It turns out that the body converts very little linolenic acid into arachidonic acid, even when linolenic acid is abundant in the diet. The AHA reviewers found that eating more omega-6 fats didn’t rev up inflammation (27)
Omega-9 Fatty Acids
Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated, meaning they only have one double bond. Oleic acid is the most common omega-9 fatty acid and the most common monounsaturated fatty acid in the diet.
Omega-9 fatty acids aren’t strictly “essential,” meaning they can be produced by the body. In fact, omega-9 fats are the most abundant fats in most cells in the body.
However, consuming foods rich in omega-9 fatty acids instead of other types of fat may have a number of beneficial health effects. (55) One large study found that high-monounsaturated fat diets could reduce plasma triglycerides by 19% and “bad” very-low-density-lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol by 22% in patients with diabetes. Another study found that feeding mice diets high in monounsaturated fat improved insulin sensitivity and decreased inflammation. And in the same study, it was found that humans who ate high-monounsaturated fat diets had less inflammation and better insulin sensitivity than those who ate diets high in saturated fat. (57)(58) Omega-9 fats are non-essential fats since they can be produced by the body. Diets that replace some saturated fats with omega-9 fats may have benefits for metabolic health. (59)
Foods high in Omega 9 –
Here are the amounts of omega-9s in 100 grams of the following foods:
- Olive oil: 83 grams
- Cashew nut oil: 73 grams
- Almond oil: 70 grams
- Avocado oil: 60 grams
- Peanut oil: 47 grams
- Almonds: 30 grams
- Cashews: 24 grams
- Walnuts: 9 grams
Combined omega-3-6-9 supplements usually provide each of these fatty acids in suitable proportions, such as 2:1:1 for omega-3:6:9. (56)
Excess/Overdose – Here are four potentially deadly omega-9 side effects.
- Erucic acid is the main fatty acid found in rapeseed oil, which is commonly used in cooking in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and India. Too much erucic acid can cause a condition known as thrombocytopenia. This blood-clotting problem creates prominent blue and purple bruises even without injury. These skin markings can last not just for weeks but for years.
- Erucic acid can also be problematic for people taking chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs like Adriamycin (doxorubicin) often damages the heart. Erucic acid in rapeseed oil can make heart damage worse.
- Mead acid is the a fatty acid found in gristle and cartilage, sometimes included in less expensive brands of ground meat and also in gelatin. Mead acid is chemically very similar to arachidonic acid, which is the building block of dozens of different inflammatory hormones that increase blood pressure, increase sensitivity to pain, trigger blood clots, and activate the immune system to destroy tissues even if they have not been damaged. Mead acid specifically activates the COX system which causes inflammation in joints. Even if you cut back on eggs, fatty beef, and processed meats to reduce your consumption of arachidonic acid, mead acid can cause inflammation problems.
- Oleic acid is the monounsaturated fatty acid abundant in olive oil. Most of the effects of olive oil are beneficial-except in women who have a genetic tendency for certain kinds of breast cancer. Although the exact causal relationship has not been scientifically determined, increased oleic acid content in red blood cells is associated with increased risk of breast cancer in women. (60)
This concludes part 4 of Vitamins, Minerals, & Omegas, Oh My! Part 4 – Omega Fatty Acids
Written by Douglas K. Johnson – Life, Health and Wellness Coach, Herbalist, Nutritionist, and Author
“The Big FAT Surprise” by Nina Tiechholz Simon and Schuster 2014
Vitamins & Minerals 101 by Chris Masterjohn Ph.D. & Nutritionist
(1) “The Big FAT Surprise” by Nina Tiechholz Simon and Schuster 2014
(18) Vitamins and Minerals 101 by Chris Masterjohn Ph.D./Nutritionist
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