Many health experts recommend fish oil supplements to reduce inflammation and increase omega-3 fatty acids. But are they helpful or even safe?
First off, let’s define what omega-3 and omega-6 fats are. Both are considered to be essential fatty acids because our body cannot make them and yet they are required by the body to function correctly.
Omega-3’s are considered anti-inflammatory, have anti-coagulant properties and slow down cell growth.
And by the way, there are two main types of omega 3’s:
DHA and EPA, found primarily in fish and shellfish.
ALA, found mainly in plant sources such as chia seeds, walnuts, and flax. (ALA doesn’t offer the potent health effects that DHA and EPA do and dietary sources of ALA can be difficult for the body to convert to DHA/EPA).
Omega-6’s can have the opposite affect; can be pro-inflammatory, increase blood clotting and encourage cell growth.
Before you vilify Omega-6’s, remember that they are essential to the proper functioning of the human body. We need them and the processes they influence. When we have an improper ratio of omega-3’s to 6’s, then trouble can arise.
Due to our heavily “corn and soy” saturated diets, many of us are developing imbalances in these ratios: too much omega-6’s and not enough omega-3’s. Ideally, a person would have a ratio ranging from 1:1 to 3:1 of omega-6:omega-3. This is far from the average American ratio of 20:1. Yikes! No wonder inflammation is such a widespread health issue!
Beware of fish oil supplements
However, making assumptions that you have an omega imbalance and taking therapeutic doses of fish oil can be a waste of money and potentially harmful.
First, omega 3’s are very fragile and the extraction process almost always subjects them to high temperatures, processing, and chemical solvents/deodorizers to take away the fishy odor. (An exception to this is fermented cod liver oil, which is high in both Vitamin D and omega-3’s, and is a whole food supplement).
“It’s estimated that 25-50% of fish oil supplements are rancid before you even open the bottle. This means that once that oxidized fish oil is in your body, it’s going to encourage a state of inflammation –the opposite of what you want!” (Coco Noel).
A couple reputable brands are Nordic Naturals and Pharmax Finest Pure Fish Oil.
Dietary Tips For Healthy Omega’s
Recent research suggests adjusting your diet so that you’re taking in fewer omega 6’s and increase dietary intake of Omega-3 rich foods (seafood) rather than mega-dosing Omega-3’s is a more effective approach. A real life example would be to eat less corn and soy (and animals fed corn and soy rather than their natural diet!) and “take fish” over taking fish oil supplements.
*Also, make sure to get plenty of antioxidants like Vitamin C and E and (drumroll, please) CHOLESTEROL to protect those delicate fats against oxidative damage! Fresh vegetables and fruits of all colors and high quality eggs, dairy and meats are great sources of antioxidants.
Examples of sustainable, Omega-3 rich foods are:
- Wild Alaskan salmon (avoid farm-raised salmon, including those labeled Atlantic or pink)
- Arctic char
- Atlantic mackerel
- Sablefish/black cod
- Rainbow trout
- Albacore tuna—much higher levels of omega 3 than chunk light
- Grass-fed meat and dairy
- Pastured egg yolks
- Chia and flax seeds (but because our bodies cannot efficiently convert the ALA to DHA/EPA, don’t rely on this as your primary source).
Foods to minimize (because they are very high in omega-6’s) are:
- Nuts. Even walnuts, which are higher in omega-3’s than most nuts, have 10 times more omega-6’s.
- Chicken. Even pastured organic chicken has a lot more omega-6 than grass-fed beef. It is concentrated in the skin and dark meat because that’s where the fat is. I’m a huge proponent of eating skin on poultry and don’t see this as problematic unless you eat chicken very frequently and/or have inflammatory issues (and then you should consider sources of protein lower in omega-6’s and opt out of eating the skin most of the time).
- Avoid processed vegetable oils (canola, cottonseed, soybean, and corn) at all costs. Limit nut oils, even high quality, as they are so disproportionately high in 6’s. Use butter, coconut oil, palm oil, or ghee for higher heat cooking and olive oil for low heat cooking or raw.
To know whether you have an imbalanced ratio, testing is advised.
I recently took a test that I was able to order myself through Life Extension called an Omega Score test. It was inexpensive (on sale for $99) and very easy (everything provided in a kit that they mail to you, no fasting required and no blood draw required). Your results include:
- Omega-3 Whole Blood Score
- Omega-3 Equivalence Score
- Omega-3 EPA/DHA Equivalence Score
- Omega-3 Red Blood Cell Equivalence Score
- Complete breakdown of fatty acids by weight, including the AA/EPA ratio and the Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio
If you have any health challenges, especially digestive or inflammatory, I recommend taking this test or one similar.