A PRIMER ON ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS: PART ONE

Essential fatty acids are defined as such since they must be obtained from the diet (thus are “essential”) and cannot be produced in the body from other elements. They are required for a wide range of functions including regulation of metabolism and maintenance of reproductive functions. As well EFA’s are needed for early growth and development, for normal brain function, bone health and stimulation of hair and skin growth.

Most people are already aware that they should be supplementing with Omega 3 fatty acids. We have heard and read enough about how fish oils prevent heart disease and are important for mental health, healthy skin and to keep inflammatory conditions in check.

There is however some confusion on which fish oil to choose and whether or not flax oil is a viable alternative to fish oil. The confusion on fish oils arises from the fact that all the capsules are the same size (usually 1000mg to 1200mg) yet contain varying amounts of actual Omega 3’s. Remember that for general preventative purposes we should obtain about 1000mg of actual Omega 3’s daily (much more for therapeutic purposes).

To explain in more detail let’s look at the actual level of the two prime components that make up Omega 3 Fatty Acids: DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid). A capsule of salmon oil contains about 80mg of EPA and 70mg of DHA. Whereas a capsule the same size containing oil from anchovies and sardines will contain on average 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA. So you can see we will get twice as much Omega 3 from the small fish than from the salmon, even though the capsules are the same size.

The next level of concentration occurs after just that. Concentrating the fish oils. The extra strength Omega 3 capsules will offer 400mg of EPA and 200mg of DHA per capsule, twice what the small fish provide. My concern with the higher strength products is that when we concentrate something we are trading off other components. Including elements that may have more value than we are currently aware of. Let’s look at soy foods as an example of how this process goes astray.

We start off observing dietary patterns of a culture. Japanese have lower heart disease rates and we attribute this, in part, to the ability of soy protein to lower cholesterol. Before long we have soy protein shakes and then isolated soy isoflavones in capsules. But every time the Japanese fellow has some tofu or tempeh he is eating it instead of meat. And he probably has some seaweed with it (which is important, since soy has a tendency to slow down thyroid function and seaweed, with it’s iodine content, counteracts this tendency) that also contributes to overall his overall health. By the time we have replaced a dietary component with a pill, we are a far cry from the population studies that supported the health benefits of the food in the first place.

Likewise, the Inuit had a cholesterol level that was off the world map and, up until they started eating a modern diet, had virtually no heart disease. This was due mainly to the large amounts of Omega 3 oils in their traditional diet. But again: they ate fish instead of meat. If I take a fish oil pill with my steak am I actually going to get the same benefits that eating fish offers?

That being said, there is one advantage to the pill over eating the fish and that is that the oils (when purchased from a reputable company) will have been processed in such a manner as to remove any mercury or other toxic compounds, often found in fish currently inhabiting our messed up oceans.

There is one other level of tampering that goes on, aside from concentrated fish oil products that is based on the standard Western reductionist approach. Now that we have reduced a dietary system to a pill and concentrated that original material we take it to the next step, pharmaceutical in nature, which is to further divide the Omega 3’s into separate DHA and EPA products.

Products that are almost exclusively DHA are marketed for mental focus and those that are dominantly EPA are marketed for depression and inflammation. While some studies have indicated that isolated EPA is more effective for treating bipolar disorders and schizophrenia, generally speaking we are better off taking the whole structure of the oil. Limited studies have implied that high levels of isolate EPA may deplete the body of DHA, which makes perfect sense, since these things exist together in nature for a reason.

When choosing a fish oil product you firstly have a choice between liquid and capsule, and then a choice between a regular gelatin capsule and one that is “enteric-coated”. Liquid is the best choice. A teaspoon is equal to about 4 capsules of the oil from the small fish, and is much easier to use when needing therapeutic doses to treat inflammatory conditions. In such cases one would need 8 or 12 capsules versus 2 or 3 teaspoons. And most of these oils are almost tasteless when added to a protein shake. I’ve even put a teaspoon of high quality fish oil in my yogurt and oatmeal and barely noticed the taste.

As well, a liquid is less processed than a capsule, which requires heat in its production.

Often when people take the fish oil capsules they get it “repeating” on them. That is they burp fish taste. This is because they don’t take it at a meal containing fat. When you swallow a pill there is no signal from the mouth to the stomach as to what is coming down the pike and what enzymes are needed to properly digest it. This holds especially true for fats soluble nutrients including supplemental forms of Vitamins A, D, E and K. These and fish oils (and any fatty product sealed in a capsule) should be taken at meals where you are chewing fat. These are meals that include meat, fish, cheese, eggs, poultry or even just butter or olive oil. The important thing is that your body knows that fat is on its way down, and this will usually forbid any repeating of fish taste.

For those with highly weak or sensitive digestion there are the enteric-coated capsules, which are protected against stomach acid and will only digest once they reach the intestinal tract. These will not repeat on you even if you take them with a fat-free meal. On the other hand their absorption will still be reduces if there is no fat at all accompanying them.

Next time we will look at where the Omega 6 and 9’s fit into the puzzle.

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