What are the health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids? Do you really need to make sure you get docosahexanenon acid – much more commonly referred to as DHA – in your diet?
What are the omega-3 fatty acids, anyway?
If you pay any amount of attention to the world of nutrition, you have probably heard the recommendation of eating salmon two or three times a week to get your omega-3’s. But what exactly are they, and what do they do?
They are a kind of polyunsaturated fat (PUF), and there are actually three types of the omega fat: 3, 6, and 9. The numbers have to do with the molecule bonds. Omega-6 fatty acids are double unsaturated linoleic acid, meaning they have two bonds.
From wikipedia: “A double bond in chemistry is a chemical bond between two chemical elements involving four bonding electrons instead of the usual two.” The elements involved with the PUF’s in question are carbon bonds.
The omega-3’s are triple unsaturated linoleic acid, meaning they have three bonds. These two types of fat are called “Essential Fatty Acids”, or EFA’s, because your body cannot make them. You must get them in your diet, and both are beneficial to the body.
The omega-6 EFA’s are much more ubiquitous in food, which is why you don’t hear nutritionists and registered dieticians going around telling people to “make sure you get your omega-6!” In fact, people who consume processed foods are getting way more omega-6 than is good for them, because without enough omega-3 EFA’s in the diet to keep the other fat in check, the chance of chronic inflammation skyrockets.
“Do you need omega-3’s if you consume a whole foods diet low in omega-6’s?”
I once read a blog post by a dude who was into Paleo who answered that very question in the negative. If you don’t have a lot of omega-6 EFAs in your diet, you don’t need the omega-3 EFAs to balance them out.
At the time, I was looking for somebody to tell me that I didn’t need to spend money on salmon, sorry cheapskate that I was. As one can always do if one takes enough time, I found someone saying what I wanted to hear, and quit buying salmon and preparing it for my family.
God is good, and always leads me to the right resources at the right time. Lately, despite the use of hormone-balancing essential oils – which seemed to work really well for a while – my extreme P.M.S. mood swings returned. While the use of rosemary, frankincense, and geranium oils helped somewhat, I knew that they were only bandaging the symptoms. The cause was something lacking in my diet.
After not having read any books on nutrition for a couple of years, I grabbed a couple out of the library the last time we went. There, I discovered that omega-3 EFA’s, particularly DHA, are essential for emotional balance and memory.
That was another thing. Eating two to three tablespoons of coconut oil used to be enough to keep my memory sharp. But lately, it has been slipping again.
I had an “ah-ha!” moment. And I muscled-tested. I also tested for both Jerry and Benjamin. Jerry has been getting stressed easily lately (ostensibly due to the house-building, but his temperament is such that he shouldn’t be getting quite as stressed as he has been). B has begun to have emotional struggles again, despite that he is still taking the supplements that had helped him out of it a year and a half ago. In addition, his ability to remember academic facts for more than a week is non-existent.
I muscle-tested on behalf of all three of us, and what were the results? We are all three of us deficient in the omega-3 EFA’s.
DHA and brain function
Sixty percent of the brain is fat.
Ever tried a low-fat diet and wondered why you couldn’t think straight half the time? Sixty percent of the brain is fat. As in, most of it. No human being can thrive on a low-fat diet.
When you eat the right fats, they help to produce the hormones called eicosanoids which protect the brain tissue from aging and boost serotonin – the “happy” chemical – levels. Those right fats include saturated fats from plant sources, a limited amount of animal-based saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and EFA’s.
DHA is a type of omega-3 which the human brain particularly relishes. One study found that eating a DHA-rich diet decreases the risk of developing dementia by 60%.
There’s that number again.
A large observational study published in 2004 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that the consumption of DHA along with a balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 are critical for healthy cognitive function in the latter part of life.
If you think that sounds encouraging, how about this: the nerve connections in your brain increase by almost a third simply by adding more DHA into your diet! Without practicing a musical instrument, doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles, or trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube every day.
Here’s another interesting tidbit: your brain will use all of the DHA you give it! No worries about overdosing here. Eat salmon three times a day, every day, and there will be no excess DHA being eliminated through your urine. No sirree. Your brain will happily make room for all the DHA – and the more you give it, the happier and more relaxed and smarter you will be! The fact is, up to 97% of the omega-3 EFA’s in your brain can be DHA. Why not max it out?
Other omega-3 types include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha linoleic acid). EPA is somewhat helpful with brain function, but it is not nearly as prevalent in the body as DHA. ALA, although great for the heart and circulation, does nothing at all for the brain.
But wait, there’s more!
You have surely by this time heard of free radicals, oxygen molecules that are missing an electron and therefore run about the inside of your body seeking to fill that gap. The brain is especially vulnerable to oxidative damage caused when free radicals steal electrons from its cells.
However, when you get enough omega-3 EFA’s, especially DHA, in your diet, they protect the brain from free radical damage.
Other health benefits of omega-3’s
The brain isn’t the only part of your body that benefits from increased intake of the omega-3 fatty acids. Besides improving your mood and sharpening your mind, they keep the blood vessels clear, decrease inflammation, and can improve fertility in men.
They are believed to, in addition, decrease the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, vision loss, arthritis, depression, attention deficit disorder, and a host of other mental issues.
Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in 2007, positively correlated the intake of omega-3 EFAs, DHA in particular, with peak bone mineral density in the bodies of young men.
DHA, along with other omega-3 fatty acids, have also been associated with reduced risk of ischemica stroke, which is the most common kind of stroke in the United States.
DHA and children
Proper nutrition begins in the womb. DHA is essential to proper brain and eye development in babies, and the only way they can get that is if the mother is getting enough DHA, either through eating fish or taking a supplement. If a mother is going to breastfeed, she needs to continue consuming DHA because the more she consumes, the more she will pass on to her child through her milk.
The following graphs illustrate where the United States (represented by Texas) falls regarding the average percentage of human breastmilk that is DHA. It’s not the lowest, but it’s far from being the highest (perhaps if researchers had tested the milk of mothers from Maine, the results would have been a bit skewed due to the high amount of seafood eaten there). (Graphs from slideshow article published on Medscape website.)
While results aren’t certain, some studies suggest that weaning a child onto DHA-rich foods and/or giving her supplements can improve her visual and neurological development as an infant and toddler. While most children dislike oily fish and organ meats, the two foods with the highest amount of omega-3 DHA, they can consume supplements mixed into soft foods or smoothies.
Eggs from pasture-raised chickens are also a good source of DHA. When our son was a toddler, I invented a food called “banana mush,” which is simply a mashed banana with two raw pastured egg yolks mixed in. He loved it! And still enjoys it on occasion.
In older children, higher levels of DHA in the blood have been tentatively associated with higher memory and learning skills. More certain is the effect of DHA supplementation on the metabolic disorder known as phenylketonuria. Children afflicted with this problem experience improved vision, body coordination and fine motor skills when they supplement with this powerful omega-3 EFA. Children with behavioral problems have also shown significant improvement upon having a DHA supplement added to their diets.
If a child is getting sufficient of this EFA in their diet, they are likely to be much less likely to develop cardiovascular disease as adults, since it has been shown to reduce blood pressure early in life. In addition, taking an omega-3 DHA supplement has also been strongly correlated with reduced respiratory infections in toddlers, as this essential fatty acid supports immune function.
Have you eaten a brain lately?
The best sources of the omega-3 EFA’s include the brains of other mammals, as from cow or deer. But who eats brain anymore? I don’t even think you can find it from suppliers of things like liver and other organ meats.
Speaking of liver, that is another rich source of DHA. However, if you’re like me, you were not brought up eating liver (I called it “beaver” when I was very small 🙂 ) and you don’t find it very palatable. Wild-caught salmon is the best source that most people find palatable. Note that it must be wild-caught, as farmed salmon is much lower in the omega-3’s and also contains artificial color to make it look pinker.
The disadvantage with eating salmon (we are going to be eating it three times a week) is that, at the price of at least $10 a pound (our source is $12), it will be beyond some families’ budgets – especially to eat it more than once a week.
Then, take a cod liver oil supplement. A brand easily available both at health food stores and at higher-end grocery stores is Nordic Naturals. They have a strawberry flavor that, according to Amazon reviewers, kids enjoy. Also, their oil has been tested for purity.
If you can stand to pay a little bit more for a cod liver oil supplement, the Blue Ice brand sold by Green Pastures is more nutritious because it is fermented. You can get it in capsules or liquid, and if in liquid, you can get a cinnamon flavor. Veteran blogger Carrie Willard gives her children the combination butter oil and CLO that is cinnamon flavored, and says that her kids love it (this is a liquid, not a capsule).
Is there a vegan source of DHA?
Supposedly, the DHA algae supplements are vegan. But I want to let you in on a secret: a large part of the diet of ocean algae is ocean bird poop.
What do ocean birds, such as seagulls, eat?
Those evil creatures.
Seriously. Why not cut out the middle man and just eat the fish, or fish oil capsules, yourself? Forget about the vegan gurus. They regularly consume fish oil, raw cheese, egg yolks, and even fish without telling the public because then they would lose their credibility.
John Robbins and Gabriel Cousens, who both used to believe in strict veganism, now eat – and encourage other people to eat – oily fish such as salmon.
I and a host of other former vegans experienced frightening memory loss during our vegan days. I believe this is partly due to the lack of saturated fat, and largely due to the lack of DHA, in the vegan diet.
Vegan literature claims that if you just get enough ALA in your diet from sources such as hemp seeds and flaxseeds, it will convert to DHA. Here’s the truth: in children, ALA does not convert to DHA, and in adults, the conversion is extremely low. You would literally get sick of eating seeds before you consumed enough ALA to convert to the amount of DHA your brain, not to mention the rest of your body, needs.
What about krill oil?
I once asked an associate at Whole Foods why they didn’t sell krill oil. “It’s not harvested sustainably,” he told me. Apparently, the krill being harvested for supplements is not being replenished at a rate fast enough to support the life of the ocean animals, such as certain whales, that eat krill.
Wild-caught salmon; high quality, clean cod liver oil; organ meat are the best sources of DHA. Of course, you will always get better results from any supplement if you are consuming a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet.
We have ordered smoked salmon for the next Azure Standard pickup. In the meantime, Jerry and I have resumed taking the Blue Ice CLO capsules I had squirreled away, and I ordered the strawberry Nordic Naturals DHA supplement for Benjamin. But I told him he might like the smoked salmon better than the boring salmon I make (just braising it in plain water).
I will keep you updated on how everybody’s mood, memory, and intellectual capacity goes. Even if we don’t see any drastic changes, I am convinced that the health benefits of the omega-3’s, especially DHA, have been substantiated enough to make it worth continuing to get it into our bodies.
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