Omega-3 Supplements: Are they worth it?
The health claims for Omega-3s cover everything from preventing heart disease, easing the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, reducing depression and aiding brain development. So is this just another expensive supplement that, if we’re eating well, we don’t really need?
What are Omega-3s exactly?
Omega-3s, along with Omega-6s, are fatty acids found in dietary fats and oils. They are known as ‘essential fatty acids’. This means our body cannot synthesize them and we have to get them from food. Fatty acids are differentiated by their chemical structure and are grouped into saturated (found in many animal fats, coconut oil and palm oil), mono-unsaturated (found in olive oil and some animal fats) and polyunsaturated (usually found in vegetable, seed and nut oils). Omega-3s and Omega-6s both belong in the polyunsaturated group.
Meet the Omega-3 and Omega-6 families.
Although we cannot synthesize Omega-3s and Omega-6s ourselves our bodies have the ability to alter the Omega-3s and Omega-6s obtained in the diet to create other members of the Omega-3 and Omega-6 families.
The Omega-3 family includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds and canola oil; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) usually obtained from marine sources or can be made in the body from dietary ALA (although this conversion is inefficient); docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which, like EPA, is usually obtained from marine sources and can be made in the body from ALA. DHA is found in the brain and is considered important for brain development (which is why you will see it in baby formula).
The Omega-6 family includes linoleic acid (LA) mainly obtained from the consumption of seed and vegetable oils and arachadonic acid (AA) made from dietary LA in the body.
Omega-3s, Omega-6s and Inflammation.
The Omega-6s typically support and promote inflammation in the body while Omega-3s have the opposite effect. Inflammation is an immune response necessary for the control of infection. White blood cells recognise invading microorganisms and immediately set off a chain of events that gives rise to pain, swelling and redness. Inflammation that is inappropriate, or out of proportion to the actual threat, causes damage to the local area and the production of chemicals that can have detrimental effects on other organs in the body such as the liver and pancreas. Many health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, some mental health diseases, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, involve a component of inappropriate inflammation.
A good balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6s in our diet allows appropriate regulation of inflammation to occur. Modern diets typically contain a high ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. Therefore it may be beneficial to increase the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in our diet.
Many clinical trials have been conducted to investigate the effects of Omega-3 supplementation. The results generally show mild to moderate benefits in many conditions such as cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and dysmenorrhoea, when omega-3s are taken at high doses (for example 2g to 3g per day) for extended periods. In other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and asthma inconsistent results have been reported.
Is supplementation worthwhile?
There are concerns that, at high doses, Omega-3 supplementation could reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. Currently it seems that no upper limit has been identified for safe usage of Omega-3 supplements and further research needs to be conducted.
For adults with no specific health concerns The American Heart Association recommends consumption of oily fish at least twice per week as well as consumption of plant sources of Omega-3s. Patients with heart disease, high triglycerides or other health concerns should consult a health professional for more specific information on supplement doses that might be appropriate for their condition.
There is a potential for Omega-3 supplementation to be beneficial in a wide range of conditions. However, for the individual without any specific health concerns a dietary approach to increasing Omega-3 intake and reducing Omega-6 intake should be sufficient in reducing risk for heart disease without resorting to supplementation.