Even if you're not kicking it with the health obsessed peeps, you've probably heard the words "omega 3 fatty acids". I've known about them for years but it was more or less in the "for heart health" context - take these fish oil capsules and have a healthy heart. Well there's way more to it than that.
While the body is impressive at making fats from most of the nutrients it receives, this isn't the case for omega 3 fatty acids. These have to come from food and they are essential for well being.
My diving into omega three fatty acids didn't have as much to do with heart health as it did with mental health. I'm interested in understanding how nutrition affects our mental health as well as our physical health and what we can do to improve certain symptoms we view strictly as a chemical imbalance.
There seems to be a parallel between the rise of depression, anxiety and heart disease as a bi-product of consuming a diet high in processed foods with minimal omega 3 fatty acids consumption. But while I was digging for that, I uncovered just how beneficial omega 3 fatty acids can be for overall health. I'm going to unpackage some of the information and fill you in on everything you need to know about omega 3s.
What are omega 3 fatty acids?
Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They are made up of ALA, DHA and EPA.
ALA or Alpha-linolenic Acid is found in plants. Dietary sources of ALA include leafy greens, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts and walnut oil, chia seeds, soybeans and soybean oil, tofu, pumpkin seeds.
EPA or Eicosapentaenoic Acid is contained in marine plants, fatty fish and fish oils.
DHA or Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) is also contained in fatty fish, marine plants as well as eggs.
Why are omega 3 fatty acids important?
They play an elemental role in the development of cell membranes. And are also imperative for the hormone production that's responsible for regulating blood clotting, relaxation and contraction of the arteries as well as the inflammatory response. Omega 3 fatty acids also play a role in regulating genetic function.
What about omega 6 and 9?
While omega 6s are important in small quantities, many of our western foods are saturated with them. The trouble with omega 6s, is that they cause inflammation in the body where omega 3 fatty acids do the opposite. Examples of foods high in Omega 6 fatty acids are:
salad dressing and conventional mayonnaise
nuts and seeds
snacks made with oils high in omega 6s
standard potato chips
conventional sausage and fried meats
Omega 9s are produced by the body and can also easily be obtained from food so they don't play as vital a role as striking a balance between omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids.
Omega 3 fatty acid deficiency symptoms
depression and anxiety
flaky, dry skin
Benefits of omega 3 fatty acids
Improved depression and anxiety symptoms - It appears that there is a correlation between increased intake of Omega 3 fatty acids and a decrease in both depression and anxiety symptoms. Anxiety and depression plague the majority of the population and nutritional deficiency has a direct effect on brain function.
Heart health - Omega 3 fatty acids reduces inflammation, reduces blood pressure and directly impacts the health and resilience of blood vessels while reducing plaque.
Reduces inflammation - I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but every single modern disease has its root in inflammation. This study shows that Chron's, ulcerative colitis as well as, MS, psoriasis and migraine headaches positively respond to increased omega 3 fatty acids in the diet.
Reduced PMS symptoms - I learned about this only after I started my personal experiment with increasing omega 3s and I have to say that it's made a drastic difference in reducing PMS cramping and mood swings and this study confirms this to be the case.
Improved sleep - Over the years, I've realized that the answer to optimal health doesn't just lie with food but works synergistically with sleep, relaxation and community support. But sleep is something many of us struggle with. Proper nutrition, however, can impact our quality of sleep, particularly increasing the intake of omega 3 fatty acids. This study suggests that lowered levels of DHA can impact melatonin production.
Good for skin - The skin is our largest organ and the direct contact with the outside world. Increasing the intake of omega 3 fatty acids can alter the appearance and feel of your skin, minimizing acne as well psoriasis and other skin related conditions.
Help prevent mental decline - This may not be something one thinks about when young and vibrant but the decisions made early in life can directly impact how we age and our quality of life later on. Alzheimer's disease and Dementia have reached epidemic proportions in the elderly population but research suggests that a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids, especially when started early in life, can reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Foods containing omega 3 fatty acids
Alaskan Salmon (wild caught)
Supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids
While I think it's always in our best interest to obtain omega 3 fatty acids from food as they work in synergy with other nutrients, that's not always possible so supplementation may be a good alternative. It's important to note that all supplements are not created equal and just because it says Fish Oil, it may not be the cleanest source.
What I try to look for in supplements is organic or sustainably sourced with no additives. Just the way we wouldn't want to eat the chemicals most farm raised fish are exposed to, we wouldn't want that from our supplements. So here are the supplements I recommend:
Quality fish oil - I recommend this one
Algae omega - vegan option
Cod liver oil - I recommend this
Organic walnut oil - can be found here
As you see including a good amount of food high in omega 3 fatty acids can have a positive impact on many of our systems and something as simple as taking in more chia seeds and salmon can have a ripple effect on our physical and emotional health.