Are Omega-3s Still Relevant?

SDO3 for blog

In the 20 or so years I’ve been writing about heart health, one thing has not changed: The consensus of professional opinion that Omega-3 fats are essential to support a healthy cardiovascular system.

Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve seen quite a few ideas in the field of heart health evolve and transform. The emphasis on cholesterol, for example, which is now known to be far more complex than what is measured by a “good” and “bad” cholesterol test. The definition of a heart-healthy diet is another example. Fat is no longer considered a dietary demon, and diets as varied as vegan, Paleo, low-carb and Keto are beginning to replace—or at least stand beside—the standard “low-fat” diet as acceptable heart-healthy ways to eat.

But Omega-3s have not lost an ounce of luster in the over 50 years they’ve been studied. In fact, the opposite has happened. Nutritionists and health professionals of all stripes—even generally conservative, conventionally trained medical doctors—are coming around to the importance of omega-3s for a healthy heart.

One of the main reasons for that can be summed up in a single word: inflammation.

What inflammation is and what it is not—and why you should care

Inflammation is not a medical condition, but it accompanies most of the major ones. In fact, inflammation is a fellow traveler on just about any disease pathway you can think of. That’s why we usually think foods or substances that are pro-inflammatory (promoting inflammation) as “bad” and foods or substances that are anti-inflammatory (like fish or flax) as “good”.

But the notion that inflammation is always bad is not entirely true.

We actually need inflammation in the body—it’s a hugely important tool in healing. Inflammation is one of the immune system’s first responses. So the problem isn’t inflammation—it’s inflammation run wild.

And here’s where Omega-3 comes in.

The body’s inflammatory pathways and the body’s anti-inflammatory pathways need to be in balance because both are needed. They are like two political parties in a divided Congress. If you want a healthy interchange of ideas and the ability to strike a good balance, you need both “sides” to be robust and vigorous. In the body, those two parties are roughly represented by Omega-6s and Omega-3s. To have a healthy body, a heart, and immune system—we need both Omega-6 and Omega-3. But we need them to be in balance. A 1:1 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 intake would be just about perfect to accomplish this.

And therein lies the problem.

Industrialized societies like ours consume at least 16x more Omega-6s than Omega-3s, according to a large body of research. In many parts of the country, it’s even higher than that. That sets us up for an awful lot of inflammation, and, let me repeat, inflammation is the enemy of heart disease.

The awesome anti-inflammatory power of Omega-3s

In addition to the many other things they do—and it’s a long list—Omega 3s are one of the most anti-inflammatory compounds on earth. Consuming a lot more of them on a daily basis—while cutting down on some of the pro-inflammatory, nutritionally empty, highly processed GMO seed oils (like corn, soybean and canola) could go a long way towards righting the metabolic scale and funding our own internal “anti-inflammatory army”.

Omega-3 fats come in three flavors, all of them good for you. One of them—alpha-linoleic acid, or ALA—is found in flax and some other plant foods like chia and hemp. The other two—eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA—are found primarily in animal foods like fish and grass-fed beef. All three are anti-inflammatory. DHA seems to have an affinity for the brain while EPA has an affinity for the heart, but you need both EPA and DHA for optimal health, and ALA is considered an essential fatty acid because the body cannot make it.

The literature on Omega-3 and just about any medical condition you can imagine is broad and deep and easily findable. So, let me tell you my personal experience using Omega-3 with private clients over practically 20 years of private practice.

I’ve noticed that many clients using Omega-3—myself included, by the way—experience joint support. Others notice a luster and shine to their hair and a less-dry appearance to their skin. Still others notice a strengthening of their hair and nails. And again, let’s remember, these are just the obvious signs we see on the surface.

Under the hood, Omega-3s get incorporated into the cell wall. We need saturated fats for stability, but Omega-3s are needed for flexibility. They modulate the structure and function of the cell membrane in ways that are almost uniformly positive (1,2). What’s more, incorporation of Omega-3s into the cell membrane facilitates the communication of neurotransmitters, making the brain work better (3). This is probably the reason Omega-3s are being so heavily researched related to mood (4).

What’s the best way to take Omega-3 supplements?

There is no best way—but the good news is that there are a lot of options.

Vegetarians and vegans need look no further than Barlean’s flax oil, which comes in a number of different forms (from softgels to Seriously Delicious® emulsions). Those who are not opposed to healthy animal-based products have a wide variety of fish oil products to choose from. My personal preference is for Fresh Catch® Ultra EPA-DHA softgels, which I’ve been taking for over a decade. My partner, Michelle, and her two teenage daughters are partial to the Seriously Delicious® Omega’s (who isn’t, come to think of it?) They are not only delectable and teenager-friendly, but, because they are emulsified, they’re even more absorbable by the body (5).

The American Medical Association—one of the most conservative medical organizations in America—recognizes the importance of Omega-3s in its recommendation that everyone eat fatty fish two times a week (6).

Though there are limited ways to get omega-3 in your diet—fish, flax, and grass-fed meat are three that come to mind—there are dozens of ways to consume Omega-3 supplements. Unfortunately, all Omega-3 supplements are not created equal. For one thing, sourcing matters. (Fish oil from rogue fish that manage to survive the pollution of the Hudson River—or the Chinese equivalent—would be very different than fish oil that came from salmon swimming in pristine Alaskan waters.) And since toxins or heavy metals in the water are always a concern when we’re talking fish oil, it’s extremely important to buy only reputable brands that carefully test) all their products for impurities and reject any that do not meet their rigorous standards (Barlean’s is an excellent example of this kind of responsible manufacturing).

I’m frequently asked—on podcasts, magazine interviews, and on television—to name the three supplements I consider most important for the average American. I’ve been giving the same answer for the past decade: Omega-3, magnesium, and vitamin D.

Jonny Bowden is a board-certified nutritionist, a nationally known expert on weight loss, metabolism and health, the best-selling author of 15 books and a member of the Barlean’s Scientific Advisory Board.