If you are health-conscious and have an interest in vitamins and nutritional supplements, you more than likely have taken notice of the Omegas: Omega-3 and Omega-6. They are also known as “Essential Fatty Acids”, or EFAs. Researchers have found that they are essential to growth in young children and animals, and more recently, to our adult health.
But what exactly are they and why are they important for our health, particularly our cardiovascular health? The key to a basic understanding of these is the term essential fatty acid. Sure, “essential” means what it says and is self-evident.
We have to dig deeper, though, to put it in proper physiological context. In this regard, “essential” translates to “our body cannot produce these EFAs from scratch”. Very simply put, but with a powerful implication for our health needs.
Without going into the extremely complex depths of human chemistry, our bodies need these fatty acids to produce other beneficial substances. Let’s examine the two primary EFAs:
– Omega-3: these are a part of the polyunsaturated fatty acids, and consist of three distinct components:
o ALA (alpha linoleic acid)
o EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
o DLA (docosahexaenoic acid)
Dietary sources of Omega-3 include:
o Fish: cold water oily fish such as wild salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines.
o Eggs: produced by chickens fed a diet of greens and insects produce higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than chickens fed corn or soybeans.
– Omega-6: these play a similar role in normal growth, but also play a stronger role in skin integrity, kidney function and child-birthing:
o Y-linoleic acid
o Arachidonic acid
Dietary sources of Omega-6 include:
o Whole-grain breads
o Most vegetable oils
o Eggs and poultry
Again, you almost need a degree in cellular physiology and biology to understand the complex metabolic processes involved with these EFAs. Suffice it to say that they are significant and you should be aware of some important characteristics.
First is the desired ratio between Omega-6 and Omega-3. I have been taking Omega-3 fish oil supplements as an added nutrient to get my “bad” cholesterol down. What I was not aware of was this ratio and why it’s important.
Clinical studies have shown that a ratio of 4:1, that is four times the amount of Omega-6 to Omega-3, is the desired target to maintain cardiovascular health. However, the typical Western diet far exceeds this, with ratios ranging from 10:1 to 30:1. Even though the body requires both EFAs, when the ratio is skewed it can have potentially adverse effects on the metabolic processes. Like a lot of other things in life, balance is the key. The ideal range is 3:1 to 5:1.
Second are the potential health risks. The FDA released a letter on October 31, 2000 noting known or suspected risks of Omega-3 supplements:
– Increased bleeding can occur if overused (normally over 3 grams per day)
– The possibility of hemorrhagic stroke
– Oxidation of omega-3 fatty acids forming biologically active oxidation products
– Increased levels of low density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol or apoproteins associated with LDL cholesterol among diabetics and hyperlipidemics
– Reduced glycemic control among diabetics
– Suppression of immune and inflammation responses, and consequently, to decreased resistance to infections and increased susceptibility to opportunistic bacteria
Should you take supplements containing these fatty acids? This is a good question for you to pose to your primary care physician. He or she is in a better position to answer it based on blood chemistry results and your medical history. Everyone has individualistic health factors and “one size” does not fit all.
It’s very easy to buy nutriceuticals and supplements over the counter. Indeed, it’s a multi-billion industry. Sometimes they are beneficial and sometimes they are dangerous, as we can easily fall into the phenomenon of “if a little works, then more will be better”.
Research this, and any vitamin supplement, thoroughly before taking them. The Internet has a wealth of reputable, credible sites with tons of data and information at your disposal. Be an informed consumer – your body and health depend on it!