Omega 3s are everywhere… In the news, in your eggs, even in your trail mix. There’s no question that this nutrient plays a crucial role in human health, but choosing the right omega 3 sources for your family can be mind-boggling… Fish oil, flax oil? DHA, EPA? Food or pill? Here’s a guide on why you need this supplement and the best ways for your family to get it.
The Health Benefits of Omega 3s
Omega 3s are essential to all human beings and in particular are important for:
- Improve hormone functioning
- Increase blood flow to reproductive organs
- Soothe the nervous system to address the effects of stress on fertility
- Improve sperm and egg quality when taken for a minimum of 3 months
- Prevent erectile dysfunction
- Promote the healthy development of the fetus’ brain
- Reduce the risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension
- Reduce the risk of gestational diabetes
- Reduce inflammation associated with pain and discomfort
- Manage stress to keep mom and baby healthy
- Support neurological function and brain development
- Increase the ability to concentrate on school work
- Significantly reduce symptoms of ADHD, autism and other developmental/behavioral disorders
- Improve skin conditions such as eczema, acne, cradle cap.
- Resolve inflammatory conditions including allergies, asthma, digestive irritation, etc.
Omega 3s also can help to treat:
- Heart Disease
- Digestive Conditions such as Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative colitis and IBS
- Immune Support and Immune-compromised conditions
- Respiratory Conditions
- Pain of various presentations and origins
- Hormone imbalance related to PMS and menopause
- Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia and other psycho-emotional conditions
- Skin and Hair Health
Understanding Omega 3s, 6s and 9s
Why 3s? What about the other essential fatty acids?
Omega 3, 6, and 9s are three major types of fatty acids needed for human health. Most modern diets don’t tend to include enough of the foods that are rich in Omega 3s, but contain far too much omega 6s and 9s; Omega 6s are present in common vegetable oils and other popular food products, and omega 9s are found in animal fats as well as vegetable oils.
It’s important to consume omega 3s, 6s, and 9s in the right proportions. While omega 3s tend to have an anti-inflammatory effect, omega 6s actually boost the inflammatory process. When these essential fatty acids are out of balance, inflammation runs rampant in the body and a host of health issues can result. The recommended ratio of omega 6’s to 3’s should be between 2:1 and 4:1. Instead, most people are consuming them in proportions between 10:1 and 30:1.
Omega 3s Food Sources and Supplements
Omega-3 supplements are especially important for vegetarians, kids who are picky eaters, and others who don’t regularly consume food sources of omega 3s. Usually I prefer when my patients get nutrients from food whenever possible, but due to the potential mercury contamination in fish, high quality omega-3 supplements usually a safer option that food sources.
Up until recently, I’ve recommended fish or cod liver oil for nearly all of my patients for the many benefits of the omega 3’s which are superior to plant based sources since they include both DHA and EPA. The newcomer to the Omega 3 market is Krill Oil which appears to be a superior choice both nutritionally and environmentally compared to fish oil.
Fish Oil Supplements for Omega 3s
Fish oil is an excellent sources of Omega 3s, and cod liver oil provides the same fatty acids, but also contains vitamins D and A.
Vitamin D is naturally processed by the body when exposed to sunshine, and Vitamin D deficiency is linked with childhood illnesses such as diabetes, asthma and autism. Cod liver oil may be a good option in the winter months when sunlight is at a minimum. Most brands of cod liver oil contain incorrect proportions of these two vitamins (usually too much Vitamin A and insufficient Vitamin D.) Read labels; Green Pastures Fermented Cod liver oil is the only one that I know of that contains both A and D in the proper ratio for optimum health benefits. Read more about the benefits of fermented cod liver oil here.
For children there are several great options of fruit flavored chewable fish oils. Parents of infants can add liquid fish oil to baby’ bottles or use an medicine dropper to gently squirt into baby’s mouth.
High quality cod liver and fish oils allow you to consume Omega 3s without risk of exposure to toxins found in many fresh fish. In some people, fish oil causes
stomach upset, “fish burps,” or fish breath. Sometimes flavored fish oil may help eliminate these side effects, but krill oil may be an even better answer to this concern.
Krill Oil for Omega 3
Krill oil is made from krill, small crustaceans that live in cold ocean areas. Krill oil is a rich source of Omega 3s, and it also contains Vitamins E, A, D and a natural antioxidant called astaxanthin.
Combined with plankton, krill make up the earth’s largest biomass. As the most renewable food source known today, krill oil is a much more environmentally friendly option than oil harvested from cod or other large fish.
There are several more advantages to Krill Oil over Fish Oil. Krill is:
- Easier to digest-doesn’t produce a fishy after-taste
- 48 times more potent as an anti-oxidant
- Less likely to be contaminated with toxins
- Less likely to go rancid quickly
- A protector against skin damage from UV exposure as it contains astaxanthin
Despite its extra cost, the health benefits and low level of impact on the environment make krill oil an excellent choice for adults and children at all stages of life. Krill for kids is currently less available but can be found online.
Options for Vegetarians
Vegetarian options for omega 3s include flax, hemp, walnut, and algae. These sources contain ALA which, in healthy individuals, can convert to DHA and EPA. Some supplements that source DHA and EPA from algae can provide all 3 essential fatty acid molecules. For men, bear in mind that some studies show flax oil associated with prostate cancer (although other recent scientific research disputes this).
Cold Pressing is Crucial
Regardless of the source omega 3s you prefer, be sure to choose oils that are cold-press processed. This technique preserves nutritional value, purity, color and flavor of oils. Cold pressed methods yield less oil than higher heat methods, resulting in pricier oils but also higher quality and optimum nutritional value.
image credit: Patrick Hoesly