Not getting enough omega-3 fats in the diet contributes to inflammation, the underlying cause of many of the chronic diseases that contribute to early aging. Understanding what omega-3's are good for and how much omega-3 per day your body really needs are critical to healthy nutrition.
What Is an Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid?
An essential fatty acid is a fat the body needs for its function that is "essential" because it can't make that fat on its own. An "omega-3" essential fatty acid is a molecule of fat that has a double bond to the third carbon. This chemical distinction makes a difference in how the body uses the fat (compared, for example, to an omega-6 or omega-9 essential fatty acid) to make hormones.
There are three main kinds of omega-3 essential fatty acids. These are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is the essential fatty acid found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are most abundant in marine algae, fish, and shellfish.
If the body has a supply of ALA, it can make EPA and DHA, although only 1 to 10 per cent as much as the ALA it starts with.
What the Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
The human body uses DHA and EPA to make anti-inflammatory hormones. These are the substances that stop the immune system from attacking healthy tissue, or that keep a blood vessel open, or that help the brain relax.
It's not unusual to call omega-3's "good" and omega-6's "bad," but the fact is, both are essential.
The body uses omega-6 fatty acids to make the pro-inflammatory hormones. It's not unusual to call omega-3's "good" and omega-6's "bad," but the fact is, both are essential.
The problem is that most diets provide much, much more omega-6 than omega-3, so pro-inflammatory hormones are not balanced by anti-inflammatory hormones.
Consuming less omega-6 fatty acid and more omega-3 fatty acids brings the production of these two classes of hormones back into healthy balance.,
How Much Omega-3 Per Day?
The amount of omega-3 essential fatty acids you need depends on the amount of omega-6 essential fatty acids you consume.
You get omega-6's from safflower oil, corn oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil without any omega-3's.
You get a little omega-3 with walnut oil and a lot more with flaxseed oil, but both of these sources of fat also contain omega-6's.
You get a lot of omega-3's in perilla oil, fish oil, and microalgae. But you need at least half as much omega-3 as omega-6, and most people only get 1 to 5 per cent as much!
The amount of good omega-3's can do you is limited by your consumption other fats and sugar.
Sugar cancel out the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids
Eating foods that are high in arachidonic acid, such as egg yolks, fatty beef, hot dogs, sausages, and luncheon meat, accelerate the production of pro-inflammatory hormones. They cancel out the benefits of omega-3's. So does sugar.
It's not unusual to have a serious shortage of omega-3's that requires intensive, short-term supplementation. Using healthier plant oils such as perilla and flaxseed oil certainly helps, but since they contain both omega-6's and omega-3's, it's hard to get the two kinds of essential fatty acids in balance.
Starting Your Omega-3 Supplement Program
Just about anyone can benefit from taking 2.5 grams of a combination of DHA and EPA every day. That's the equivalent of about 8 fish oil or microalgae capsules. This dosage helps your body reestablish balance of omega-3's and omega-6's.
Then as you cut back on the processed, fried, and fatty foods in your diet, you may do just as well with less omega-3 supplementation.
A good sign that your omega-3's have begun to work for you is a lab test that shows your triglyceride levels have gone down. (If your triglyceride levels go down drastically, then the lab should note that your LDL levels are probably lower than the test shows. See Does Fish Oil Lower Cholesterol?)
It's highly unlikely but possible to take too much omega-3. If you do this, the first symptoms will come from your digestive tract, telling you not to take so much by causing diarrhea and burping. The solution is simple. You're getting enough omega-3's. Just take less. Getting at least 1,000 mg (3 capsules) of omega-3's every day, however, is fundamental to good nutrition.