Food as medicine and medicine as your food. This beautiful adage carries a lot of meaning and even more questions. When we think of fish oil and its history, images of mothers holding spoonfuls of potent cod liver oil and scrunched-up faces of children might come to mind. For most people today, the idea conjures up the rows of omega 3 fish oils available in stores: glass bottles, large capsules, varying prices, and a world of jargon specific to this particular nutritive supplement.
So let’s tackle this piece by piece.
Fish oils can be called by a few different names:
Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA) – This refers to the molecular structure of these oils and it is within the chemistry that omegas have many benefits for our bodies.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) – This title illuminates exactly the fact that our bodies need exogenous sources of this oil, meaning that we cannot produce omega 3s ourselves; we must eat or consume these oils to obtain it. This may also refer to the different omegas that exist, such as omega 3, 6, 7, and 9.
EPA/DHA – These are the abbreviated names of the top two omega 3s (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These have been deeply researched and clinically studied to optimize their actions in the body and companies sell their products based on the ratios of these two important PUFAs. There are seven other omega 3 fatty acids: DPA (Docosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) among others.
Sources and actions of omega 3 fats; where do these oils come from and where do they go?
While vegetarian sources are viable, the most well-known source for omegas comes from fish. Fish livers are especially saturated and cod livers have been used widely for millennia. Marketed fish oils commonly use smaller fish as they are lower on the trophic level and thus have a lower concentration of a heavy metal burden (unlike larger fish, such as tuna, that eat smaller fish). Sometimes these fish have been farmed or they are wild-caught. Sources from algae, nuts, and seeds vary in quantities that can be obtained and often need to be converted in the body through enzymatic processes.
The benefits of omega 3s are far-reaching in the body and serve systemically to nourish cellular and organ health. Whole systems in the body make use of omega 3 fatty acids including the endocrine system, the nervous system, cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, digestive system, and more. Many studies have shown the modulating effects of inflammation and while it may not be easy to attribute the benefits specifically, omegas have proven to be wholly effective in helping to prevent the number one cause of death in industrialized society, that being cardiac arrest.
For every person I have tested who has not been taking an omega 3 supplement, I have found that their ranges are usually sub-optimal to downright dismal and these can usually be linked to the primary concerns that many of my clients come to consult with me for. Clients that choose a vegan way of living, are often surprised at the results, expecting that flax seeds, spirulina, and walnuts would suffice -Fortunately, many companies have recognized the need for vegan-sourced omegas and are able to provide high doses of DHA and EPA from algae (usually Schizochytrum spp.). In my consults, I check for any contraindications and ensure the best digestion when I recommend omega 3s.
To understand the intricacies of omegas and our well-being, please read my post called “Methylation and Immunity“. To learn more about mood and mental health, please read “This Too Shall Pass“. For weight management, please read “Holiday Fat Loss“.
When it comes to terminology, a few terms are standard to know:
EPA/DHA: This is the ratio of how much EPA is provided compared to DHA. EPA is regularly recommended for its actions on the digestive system and for decreasing chronic inflammation. DHA has been widely used and advised for helping with concentration and brain health.
Ethyl Ester: This is a purified form of omega 3s coming from the molecular distillation processes used to remove traces of heavy metals and other impurities.
Triglycerides: This is the natural form of omegas from fish. If it had been molecularly distilled, it will take extra steps for the company to bring it back to this form, hence, the cost will be a bit more expensive than others that have not done so.
In conclusion, while fish and algae oils are not food anymore, they are the stepping stones needed for optimal health in longevity. I highly recommend testing your levels to see if you are meeting your daily needs. In the meantime, whether it is the liquid or the capsules that you prefer to take your omegas, do take them!