Omega class fatty acids are also known as "essential fatty acids." Why? Because while the body can produce most of the types of fats it needs for cellular function, there are a few that cannot be synthesized and must be obtained from the diet. Not getting enough of the Omegas can result in some pretty serious diseases, including decreased Liver and Kidney function, mood disorders, and disruption of your endocrine (hormonal) system.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6
Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. They have long chain bodies, and are essential components of the makeup of cell membranes, as well as precursors to many important enzymes and hormones in the body. While both are important, Omega-6 fatty acids are extremely prevalent in everyday foods, including grains, nuts, seeds, corn and soy derived vegetable oils, sunflower and sesame seeds, etc. Most people have more than enough Omega-6 fatty acids from food without trying. Omega-3s however, are more difficult to get because most people in the US do not eat nearly enough of the foods in which they are contained. They include many of the deep sea fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna, and can also be gotten in good quantities from flax, chia, and hemp seeds.
The body needs a good balance of Omega-6 to Omega 3 fatty acids in order to have therapeutic effect. A good ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is about 4:1. However, most people in the US usually average about 10-25:1. When there is too much Omega-6, it can actually start to negate some of the positive health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids.
DHA and EPA
EPA and DHA are two of the most important Omega-3 fatty acids. They both have been extensively researched and found to be quite effective at reducing the cholesterol/triglyceride levels in the body. They achieve this action by helping to activate the synthesis of enzymes that break down triglyceride molecules.
Comparatively, EPA is better at reducing the overall blood lipid profile, and it also helps to stop the production of an enzyme that starts the chain reaction related to inflammation.
DHA is helpful for stopping the plaque formation inside the artery walls. It is also important as a neuroprotective agent, helping to protect the deterioration of nerve and brain cells, promoting memory, and brain and nerve function.
What is the importance of taking fish oil, and why do we need it?
Over the last decade, multitudes of clinical trials have shown that taking fish oil in the form of Omega-3 fatty acids has many beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. Taking Omega-3 fatty acids over time can help to lower LDL and triglyceride levels, prevent and even reverse formation of plaque in the arteries, and significantly reduce the risk of stroke and heart-attack related deaths.
But more than that, recent studies have found that fish oils have other benefits as well. In addition to its cardiovascular benefits, fish oil can help to reduce overall cellular inflammation, improve neurological function, assist in the proper visual and cognitive development of fetuses, and even serve a function in improving mood-related disorders.
Why take fish oil instead of eating fish?
The problem with enough Omega-3s from food sources is that you need to eat large quantities of those foods to get the beneficial amounts required for therapeutic function. While flax and chia seeds are good sources of Omega-3s, the type of Omega 3s they provide are not directly DHA and EPA, but rather ALA (kind of a precursor form of DHA/EPA), and so is rather less efficient. And when you are eating a lot of fish to get the Omega-3s, one thing that tends to get in the way is the heavy metal content and the potential of toxicity. This is why fish oil supplements are so important.
1) Not all fish oil supplements are created equal! It is important to be selective when choosing the right supplement for your needs. If you are taking it for pain and inflammation, having a higher concentration of EPA vs DHA is more important. If you are taking it for cardiovascular health, an equal amount of both EPA and DHA, or a slightly higher amount of EPA is better. For memory and nerve function, a much higher concentration of DHA is better.
2) Read the label! It is recommended for all purposes that an adult take about 800-1000mg of DHA/EPA per day. If the supplement you are taking boasts 1000mg of Omega-3s, be sure to see that it is not mixed with general Omega-3s, and the DHA/EPA specific concentrations are high enough.
3) Choosing a brand that specifically dedicates itself to producing fish oil supplements is better than a brand that produces all sorts of vitamins and supplements. The reason is that when they only do one thing, usually they have the most knowledge and know-how when it comes to quality and purification. Know that the FDA allows a certain amount of heavy metals like Mercury and Lead to remain in supplements, so choosing a conscientious company is very important versus a few dollars saved when choosing a less expensive, but potentially more toxic supplement.