Fats, Fatty Acids and Fish Oil: The Basics
Fats and fatty acids are probably the most poorly understood molecules by the general public, as well as by many health care providers. Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) are fatty acids that can not be made in the body and must be consumed. Having too little of these EFAs can lead to skin, mood, heart and inflammatory disorders. In your body these EFAs have a critical role in cell membrane fluidity and permeability (especially in the nervous system), ion channel maintenance, prostaglandin formation, cholesterol transport and regulation of gene expression.
At a biochemical level, fatty acids are long chains of molecules formed by carbon (up to 24 carbons), hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon can form bonds in which one, two or three electrons are shared. A single bond has one shared electron and it is called a saturated bond and it shares its other electrons with hydrogens. A double bond has two shared electrons and it is unsaturated. A triple bond has three shared electrons. A saturated fatty acid (saturated fat) has no double bonds and has been implicated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have two or more double bonds.
Omega-3 fats are long chain fatty acids that are unsaturated at the third carbon location. Fatty acids are given names depending on their length and where the unsaturated bonds are. Examples of omega-3s are alpha linolenic acid (ALA), EPA and DHA. LA and ALA are in vegetable sources of omega-3s, such as flax oil. EPA and DHA are the most powerful and beneficial omega-3s are found naturally in coldwater fish and fish liver. They have been found to have many beneficial effects.
EPA and DHA
EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid and DHA stands for docosahexaenoic Acid. These molecules appear to be the omega-3s with the biochemical health effects. Some of these can be made in your body from flax oil and other vegetarian sources of omega-3s, but the conversion of these veggie forms to EPA and DHA is very inefficient. Taking purified fish oil is the best way to get adequate doses of EPA and DHA. You can eat coldwater fish such as wild ocean salmon and sardines to get the fish oils but these sources are often contaminated by mercury and PCB toxins. .
Purity and Formulations
Fish oil supplements can be obtained from fish sources in various parts of the world. They may be from cod liver or from the muscle of oily coldwater fish such as salmon or sardines. They may be distilled and purified. Often they are flavored with a citrus flavor to make them tolerable to your taste buds.
Because cold water fish and farmed fish have contaminants in their meat, the fish oils can also be contaminated. It is therefore necessary to make sure that the fish oil supplement that you use is free of mercury, PCBs and pesticides. Certain fish oil supplements are distilled or inspected and tested and found to be free of measurable levels of these toxins. Also you will find that fish oil products can vary considerably in regard to how many milligrams there is in any particular capsule or oil. In general, it is good if your fish oil supplement can have at least 300 mg of EPA and 150 mg of DHA per capsule.
Beneficial Effects of Omega-3s
Omega-3s have been found to have health benefits, especially for the following roles:
They help to maintain healthy arteries, especially in the brain and heart. They help to aid normal attention and concentration as well as prevent or improve depression. They decrease inflammation in the intestines and joints. They are important in the developing brains of babies and children.
Omega-3s and Your Arteries
If arteries in your heart narrow or close off you can get chest pain or a heart attack. Arteries in your heart and brain may close off because of gradual plaque narrowing or acute and sudden plaque rupture. The EPA/DHA in fish oil supplements or coldwater fish appear to be able to make plaques less susceptible to rupture. They can lower high triglyceride levels and raise the beneficial HDL particles. EPA decreases blood viscosity and improves red blood cell deformability and movement to tissues. EPA decreases the stickiness of platelets. They may be able to increase the LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) size which is beneficial.
Fish oil for Pregnancy and Breast Feeding
The developing babys and childs brain incorporates DHA. It is important for pregnant and breast feeding women to supplement with DHA. The exact dose is not well worked out, but this author recommends about 500 mg during the first trimester and 1000 mg of DHA during pregnancy and breast feeding. When children are able to chew and safely swallow, parents should consider having them chew DHA supplements with about 250-500 mg per day. This would also be true for teenagers.
EPA for Inflammation, Colitis and Arthritis
Fish oil and EPA can be used for Colitis and Arthritis. Appropriate doses are 2-6 grams per day.
Fish Oil for Mood
Use 1-2 grams of fish oil per day for improvement in your mood and prevention of depression.
At doses above 3-4 grams per day there may be excessive blood thinning. There are some potential issues regarding the immune effects of EPA and DHA but more research is needed on this topic.
EPA and DHA are some of the most researched and beneficial supplements. There appears to be a role for these supplements in people of any age.