Omega-3-Fatty Acids: Superstars of the Nutrition World

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I first became interested in the power of Omega 3 when  psychiatrists I work with began prescribing it for their depressed patients, finding it made positive improvements. Then I started hearing about its potential benefits for arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Could it be possible that one nutrient could provide so many benefits?

The connection between Omega 3s and health was first observed in the 1970’s. Scientists observed that Greenland Eskimos had a reduced rate of heart disease, rheumatoid, arthritis and other ailments even though they ate a high fat and cholesterol diet. They hypothesized that the type of fat – marine derived – might play a role. Since then, study after study has confirmed that omega 3s in fish have a potent effect on reduction of heart disease.

Omega 3s work several ways in the heart. They prevent irregular heart beat, reduce fatty placques inside artery walls, decrease blood clotting, decrease triglycerides (blood fat), increase HDL (good cholesterol), and decrease inflammation.

“Omega 3 favorably effects a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and at the top of the list is reducing the risk of sudden death from heart attack,” says Penny Kris Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition, Pennsylvania State University

But when it comes to the benefits of Omega 3’s that may be just the tip of the iceberg!

The two most potent omega 3 fatty acids are known as DHA and EPA. They’re usually found in a 50/50 or 60/40 ratio in fish. These fatty acids end up in every single cell membrane in the human body. They act as a cell lubricant, improve flexibility and communication between cells, and are important for cell metabolism and gene expression.

It’s been well-established that omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found primarily in seafood, can improve your chances of living longer if you have heart disease. But its healing powers don’t stop there. Other organs may benefit. They have a positive impact from the womb to old age.

Omega 3’s reach is vast and the health benefits are intriguing the scientific community. While not an answer to every ailment, omega 3s are essential nutrients in the human body. Studies show that omega 3s may have significant physiological and psychological benefits.

In fact, Omega-3s are so important to human health, the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Board recently set a minimum daily requirement for the first time. For years we thought there was only one essential fatty acid, Omega 6 fatty acid (found in vegetable and soybean oils), but now scientists have added omega 3 to the list of essential nutrients humans must get from the diet.

But as we’ve discovered in nutrition, balance is everything. The two essential fatty acids, omega 6 and omega 3 must be in harmony with each other for proper functioning. If one or the other is too high or low, negative consequences result.

“If you eat too much omega 6, as is the case with today’s American diet, this promotes inflammation, blood clotting and constricts blood vessels,” says Artemis Simopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health and the author of The Omega Diet (Harper Collins, 1999) “When your cells contain equal amounts of Omega 6 and Omega 3, as was the case with early humans, this promotes less inflammation, less constrictive blood vessels and prevents clot formation, all important functions in preventing many diseases.”

The ideal ratio of omega6 to omega3 is the hottest debate among omega3 researchers. Some say a ratio of 1:1 or even 2:1 is acceptable. If you followed the fatty acid recommendations of The National Academy of Sciences, and had an intake of 12 or 17 grams of omega 6 for women and men, respectively, and an omega 3 fatty acid intake of 1.1 and 1.6 for women and men, your ratio would be 10:1. But many omega 3 researchers say a ratio of 1:1 or even 2:1 or 5:1 is ideal. If you’re a typical American, your ratio could be as high as 12:1 or 15:1. Still others believe a specific ratio doesn’t matter. But they all agree on the need to get more omega3s.

Omega 3 concentrations are highest in the brain and nervous system. They are necessary for optimal functioning of the neurons, protect cells, decrease cell death and improve nerve transmission. Emerging research indicates Omega 3s may boost levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, decreasing depression and violence.

“In 5 out of 6 of the clinical trials where people were given either a placebo or omega-3 fatty acids, on average, the symptoms of depression have been reduced by about 50%,” says Joseph Hibbeln, a psychiatrist at the National Institutes for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “This is true even when the subjects were already on anti-depressants and failing to respond to them.”

Hibbeln’s studies found an increase in depression, violence and homicides in countries who eat less fish as compared to countries who eat more fish. It may even improve conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Bone density may be enhanced by omega 3 intake.

“Osteoporosis is lower in populations who eat more fish, such as Asians, when compared to Europeans who eat more calcium-containing foods” says Bruce A. Watkins, Ph.D., nutrition professor at Purdue University. The mechanisms aren’t completely understood, but omega 3’s may help support bone formation.

Omega 3 may also benefit the skin. The Greenland Eskimo studies found they don’t suffer much from psoriasis, a skin disease causing painful inflammation, redness and scales in its sufferers.

Laboratory studies have found that omega 3s suppress the hyperproliferation of the skin cells, which causes the disease to spread. When tested in humans, after 10 weeks, 60% of the subjects experienced a decrease in the area of psoriasis and a decrease in proliferation and inflammation.

“The dose is very essential,” says the researcher, Vincent Ziboh,Ph.D., professor, dept of dermatology, Univ of Ca at Davis. “The work is promising, but more research is needed to understand the mechanism and doses, and why it works for some but not others.”

Just as omega 3s inhibit proliferation of skin cells which causes psoriasis, new research is finding it inhibits proliferation of cancer cells in the breast, prostate and colon. This is a new area of research which hasn’t been tested widely. But, a new study found breast cancer patients responded better to chemotherapy and the cancer was less likely to spread when patients were given omega 3 fatty acids.  There is epidemiological evidence that men who eat more fish have lower risk for prostate cancer.

There is evidence that omega3s may help prevent type 2 diabetes and improve diabetes by reducing insulin resistance.

The FDA recently approved Omega 3s for infant formulas because of the overwhelming evidence that it improves cognition and visual functioning in children. (mother’s breast milk provides it naturally, especially when she regularly eats fish)

Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease may improve with omega 3 supplementation.

The studies are just beginning. More research needs to be done to understand who will benefit most from higher levels of omega 3 in their diets. Your genetics and environment play large roles in responsiveness to omega 3s. And while studies are very promising for a wide range of illnesses, the optimal amount of omega 3 and the ideal ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 are still hotly debated in the scientific community.

But what isn’t debated is that adult women need at least 1.1 grams and adult men need 1.6 grams daily, according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, Americans don’t come even close to getting their omega 3 requirement. But we used to. Apparently, in our earlier evolutional stages, we ate plenty of wild greens, lean animals which grazed on high omega3 grasses, and fish high in Omega 3s, and our bodies evolved a need for it.

But today, omega 3s have largely been replaced with omega 6s, vegetables oils, especially soybean oil, which is used in large doses in processed foods and fast foods. And no longer do our animals graze on high omega 3 grasses, but on grains instead. This changes the fatty acid composition of the meat, to our detriment.

Most of the studies found a positive benefit with 500 to 1,000 mg of omega3s per day. The American Heart Association recommends all adults eat a variety of fish, particularly oily fish, at least twice weekly, which would provide an average of 500 mg daily. For patients with coronary artery disease, they recommend 1,000 mg daily, or double the seafood requirement (but never above 3,000 mg without a doctor’s supervision). Supplements are effective and may be used instead of eating the fish. Due to environmental pollutants found in fish, women of child-bearing age are recommended to keep their fish intake to no more than 12 ounces per week. But omega3 researchers believe the risk of not getting enough omega3 in your diet outweighs the potential risk of pollutants.

There are possible dangers to taking too much omega3 supplement. The inflammatory response is your immune system working, or overworking. This means that omega 3s are actually reducing your immune response when they reduce inflammation. So, large doses should be taken only with a doctor’s advice by people with compromised immune systems. There is also a slight increase in risk for hemorrhagic stroke or excessive bleeding.

As usual, I have to underscore balance.  It may be safer to stick with food sources so you don’t go overboard and are more likely to stay in balance.

There is a vegetable source of omega 3, known as ALA. It’s found in flax seed oil, walnuts, and canola oil. The omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, is one which has to be converted to DHA and EPA, which means vegetable sources are less potent than fish oil. But it’s still a great idea to include them in your diet.

Some values of Omega-3’s in 3-1/2 ounces of Fish


Fish                                         Omega-3’s (g)

Sardines in Sardine Oil           3.3

Atlantic Mackerel                   2.5

Atlantic herring                       1.6

Chinook Salmon                     1.4

Anchovy                                 1.4

Atlantic Salmon                      1.2

Tuna                                        0.5

Brook Trout                            0.4

Catfish                                                0.3

Shrimp                                     0.3

Flounder                                  0.2

Found in: S.L. Conner and W.E. Conner, “Are Fish Oils Beneficial in the Prevention and Treatment of Coronary Artery Disease?” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 66 (1997); 1020S – 1031S.

“Understanding Omega-3s” by Katherine Tallmadge, originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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