Omega 3 Fatty Acids – DHA, EPA & ALA

There are two types of fatty acid that are essential for health: omega 3 and omega 6. The human body needs not only sufficient amounts of each, but also a suitable ratio between the two.

Our modern diets with high levels of sunflower and corn oils, processed foods and low oily fish consumption has led to a dramatic alteration in the omega 3: omega 6 ratio.

Dietary studies have revealed that until the 1850s a 1:1 ratio between the two types of fatty acid was normal in the human diet. That, however, has shifted to around 1:20 (omega 3: omega 6 ratio).

Such a huge change over such a short period of time, in evolutionary terms, has led to a series of health consequences. We therefore need to increase our intake of omega 3 fatty acids to regain the beneficial balance of oils in our diet and reap the health benefits they can give.

In this week’s article we are going to look at the three major types of omega 3 fatty acid; EPA, DHA and ALA and where best to source them.

What are Essential Fatty Acids?

There are only two fatty acids that are known to be essential to humans; alpha-linolenic acid (an omega 3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega 6 fatty acid). Neither can be synthesised by the body, so adequate levels must be obtained from the diet.

Omega 3: Omega 6 imbalance

Although we do need both omega 3 and omega 6,  it is now increasingly clear that for the majority of us there is now an excessive difference between our intake of omega 3 and our intake of omega 6.

Indeed, although a ratio of 1:1 in the mid 19th century was deemed commonplace, we are now looking at a ratio closer to 1:20 (omega 3:omega 6). A lot of this is down to modern food choices and industrialised food oil production. But what does this imbalance mean in terms of our health?

Well research backs up the claim that there are in fact huge health benefits from having a much more balanced intake of omega 3 and omega 6:

“In the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4/1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality. A ratio of 2.5/1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer.

The lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio in women with breast cancer was associated with decreased risk. A ratio of 2-3/1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and a ratio of 5/1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.”

So with this imbalance between omega 3 and omega 6 now abundantly clear, what do we need to do to increase our intake of omega 3?

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Natural sources of omega 3 fatty acids include oily fish such as wild salmon, sardines and halibut and also some plants and oils (eg flaxseed). However, as many people do not obtain sufficient levels from their diet, omega 3 supplements have become  very popular in recent years.

Omega 3 fatty acids play an essential role in the functioning of all cell membranes throughout the body. They provide the initial starting point for hormones that regulate the relaxation and contraction of artery walls, inflammation and blood clotting.

Research shows that omega 3 fatty acids contribute to a reduction in  inflammation and alsohelp lower risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, arthritis and heart diseases.

Omega 3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and therefore are important for cognitive  function. Infants who do not get enough omega 3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Symptoms of omega 3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation. It is widely considered that a deficiency in omega 3 contributes to more symptoms than a deficiency in any other nutrient.

Omega 3 (EPA/DHA) has the following allowed EFSA health claims. It contributes to:

  • The maintenance of normal brain function;
  • The maintenance of normal vision;
  • The maintenance of normal cardiac function;
  • The maintenance of normal blood pressure;
  • The maintenance of normal (fasting) blood concentrations of triglycerides.

Types of Omega 3 fatty acid

There are three major types of omega 3 fatty acids that are ingested in foods and used by the body: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

ALA

ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning it cannot be naturally made in the body so therefore we must obtain adequate levels from diet. It has important functions and is needed to make the long-chain omega 3 fats – EPA and DHA.

ALA is found mainly in vegetable oils, rapeseed and linseed (flaxseed), nuts (walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts) and green leafy vegetables.

ALA from food is converted to DHA and EPA in the human body. This conversion process is not efficient and hence people can be short of DHA/EPA. Indeed, a recent article published on Harvard Health Publications stated that the conversion of dietary ALA to EPA/DHA is around 8%. Hence, EPA and DHA are referred to as “conditionally essential”.

EPA and DHA

The long-chain fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are most commonly found in cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and halibut.

There is concern about contamination of fish with heavy metals, PCBs and other pollutants – so it is best to choose smaller fish such as wild salmon and sardines; avoid larger fish such as fresh tuna and swordfish (tinned tuna is ok and doesn’t count as an oily fish as the oils are mostly lost through cooking process prior to canning).

Like ALA, EPA/DHA are unsaturated fats because they contain double bonds on their structural chains. These polyunsaturated fats are known to play important functional roles throughout the body. DHA is important for visual and neurological development and low DHA status may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Increasing EPA and DHA intake may be beneficial in individuals with type 2 diabetes, especially those with elevated serum triglycerides.

What type of Omega-3 fatty acid should you be taking?

Ideally you would want to include an animal based form of omega 3 – so derived from fish or krill – as most of the health benefits associated with omega 3 fats are linked to long-chain EPA and DHA, rather than the plant-based omega 3 fat ALA.

ALA, which is the type of omega 3 found in flaxseed and nuts, is converted into EPA and DHA in the body. However, that being said, flaxseed oil is still considered to be a suitable alternative for those who are not able to take a fish oil or a krill oil supplement.

We have recently introduced a new organic flaxseed product into our range and you can find a link to this product below.

Fish Oil

Fish oil products have historically dominated the omega 3 marketplace in food supplements. As fish consumption has declined over time, and the importance of omega 3 for our health has been commensurately reinforced, fish oil supplements have increased in popularity.

Please follow the link to find out more about Cytoplan’s Fish Oil supplements.

Krill Oil

The public awareness of krill oil supplements has been substantially elevated over the past five years. Not only does krill oil provide good natural levels of omega 3 essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA), it also has a number of additional natural nutritional attributes and these can be summarised as:

  • Choline – krill phospholipids contain choline, an essential nutrient, and neurotransmitter precursor important to brain and muscle tissue;
  • Phospholipids – unlike fish oils the omega 3 fatty acids in krill are more efficiently absorbed by our body as they are carried to our body cells in a ‘phospholipid’ form. Phospholipids are an important class of ‘lipids’ in our body that support construction of cell membranes;
  • Astaxanthin – a carotenoid molecule found in krill oil with powerful antioxidant activity.

Please follow the link to find out more about Cytoplan’s Krill Oil supplement.

A Vegetarian option?

Omega 3 Vegan DHA/EPA

Algal Omega 3 oil has been available in supplement form for a while – but it did not contain meaningful amounts of EPA. More recently this nutritional issue has been addressed using oil derived from dried marine plant microalgae such as Schizochytrium sp. This microalgae is rich in the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA; with the ratio in favour of DHA – a higher intake of DHA can be particularly beneficial for some people including pregnant women.

It is important that the microalgae in such supplements is grown in a strictly controlled environment, eliminating the risk of oceanic contamination. Cytoplan Omega 3 Vegan, for example, is produced in an FDA-inspected facility, under current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations.

For some however, the preference is still flaxseed oil and in a recent Harvard Health Publication Dr. Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the T.H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health stated that as long as you eat plenty of ALA rich foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and green vegetables then you should get the required amount to be converted into DHA/EPA.

And of course, there is the option of taking an organic flaxseed supplement and we have recently introduced a delicious new supplement into our range.

Flaxseed Oil

Prior to the arrival of our Omega 3 Vegan supplement, vegetarians and vegans often chose flaxseed oil supplements for their Omega 3 needs – and in fact it is still the preferred choice for many.

Flaxseed oil is the richest known source of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). It also contains the monounsaturated fatty acid oleic acid; monounsaturated fatty acids are heart healthy – they lower LDL, raise HDL and lower blood pressure, consumption is also linked to reduced risk of cancer and diabetes.

When choosing a flax seed oil supplement, it is important to choose one that has been cold pressed as this will protect the fatty acids during the extraction process; heat can damage the delicate fatty acids. Cold pressing also preserves other beneficial nutrients in the oil including carotenoids, mainly beta carotene and vitamin E which are naturally present to protect the Omega 3 fatty acids in the plant.

Fresh, unrefined flax oil contains lecithin and other phospholipids that help emulsify fats and oils for easier digestion.

Flaxseed oil can be taken straight from the spoon or added to salads and vegetables. Due to the delicate nature of the fatty acids it should not be heated or used for cooking.

Summary

Many of the chronic conditions that prevail frequently today, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and depression are associated with an imbalanced ratio between omega 3 and omega 6.

This imbalance is at odds with our genetic make-up and you only have to go back around 160 years to a time when ratio’s closer to 1:1 were commonplace. Therefore, reducing your omega-6:omega-3 ratio by including healthy oils or an omega-3 dietary supplement in your diet can help promote optimal health.


 Cytoplan’s NEW Organic Flaxseed Oil

Cytoplan Flaxseed Oil is grorganicflaxown on an organic farm in the UK. It is hand cold pressed in small batches. We believe it is the best flaxseed oil product available for sale anywhere.

Sold in 500ml glass bottles, it is the most wonderful, smooth, nutty-tasting, mineral-rich oil available.

It has Soil Association organic status, which means that it is:

  • Free from pesticides
  • Free from herbicides

 


If you have any questions regarding the health topics raised in this article then please do get in touch via phone (01684 310099) or e-mail ([email protected])

Amanda Williams & The Cytoplan Editorial Team: Joseph Forsyth, Clare Daley and Simon Holdcroft


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10 thoughts on “Omega 3 Fatty Acids – DHA, EPA & ALA

  1. I was surprised to read that tinned tuna was ok and not a cause of heavy metal toxicity. Has there been a study I could read? Is it manufacturer dependent ?

    1. Hello Sarah,

      Many thanks for your comment.

      Tinned tuna (preferably in spring water) is okay to eat occasionally and is lower in mercury than fresh tuna. Before tinning, tuna is cooked (grilled) and this results in a loss of much of its fatty acid content; it is therefore lower in omega-3 fatty acids than fresh tuna and does not therefore really count as a source of omega-3 fatty acids. This cooking method does also remove a lot of the mercury which is why it is lower in mercury than fresh tuna.

      Good choices oily fish are wild salmon (fresh or canned) and sardines (in olive oil).

      Any further questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

      All the best,
      Clare

  2. Cold pressed organic hemp oil is now available in the UK at the reasonable price of £12 a litre an excellent food oil considered by some to be superior to Flaxseed oil so why is Hemp oil rarely mentioned?

    1. Dear Tony,

      Thank you for your feedback on our blog. As you say hemp oil also has health benefits. Hemp oil also contains omega-3, like flax oil, but differs from flaxseed oil in being higher in omega-6 fatty acids. Flaxseed oil as you know is an excellent source of omega-3 and omega-3 is often low in the Western diet, whereas we obtain omega-6 fatty acids from many sources. In the body omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete with each other for certain enzymes, which is may be why hemp oil gets less attention. I hope this answers your question. If you have any further questions please contact me.

      Best wishes
      Clare

      1. My hemp oil [ Good Hemp by Braham & Murray] lists 18.2g Omega 3 and 5.4 Omega 6g per 100g Surely this is an acceptable ratio ? It is also ok to use for cooking, which many oils are not. Seems to me that provided it is not used in huge quantities there should be no problem with hemp oil – quite the opposite.

  3. Hi

    There is a safety question over Flaxseed. I have read that it can be a contributory factor in the cause of Breast Cancer. My body cannot tolerate it so I take walnut oil instead. Perhaps you can look up any findings on the maybe dangers in taking Flaxseed. Not sure how true it is.

    1. Thank you for your question on flaxseed oil. I can assure you that flaxseed oil is a safe oil to use.

      There was a concern raised about people with breast cancer eating foods high in phyto-oestrogens – these are substances found in certain foods which have a mildly oestrogenic effect. They are found in high levels in eg soya and whole flaxseeds (not in the oil). Some breast cancers are hormone sensitive and high levels of oestrogen are an important contributory factor.

      There is however debate on this subject with the suggestion also that phyto-oestrogens might actually have anti-oestrogen effects and be protective against hormone-dependent cancers. This is because the phyto-oestrogens compete with oestrogens that are produced in the body and so lower the overall ‘oestrogenic’ effect (phyto-oestrogens are not as powerful as the oestrogens we produce and they block oestrogen’s actions).

      There has been research suggesting that women with higher levels of the flaxseed oil constituent, alpha-linolenic acid, in breast adipose tissue have a lower risk of breast cancer. Other research has suggested that alpha-linolenic acid might have anti-tumour effects. But there is still more research to be done and no claims to this effect can be made.

      To summarise, flax seed oil does not increase the risk of breast cancer. Whole flax seeds are also safe to consume. For people with a diagnosis of hormone sensitive breast cancer my advice would be not to eat large quantities of foods containing phyto-oestrogens (ie soy and whole flaxseeds) until more research has been done.

      Flaxseed oil should be consumed cold, as heating can damage the oil eg use on salads or straight from the spoon. Store in a cool, dark place

      I hope this answers your question.

      Best wishes
      Clare

  4. What are your guarantees about your oils not being rancid as keeping good quality oils is a massive problem

    I read that book in French years ago that talked about the omega 3 in high doses for depression.

    Kind thoughts,

    Nadine

  5. You mentioned the symptoms for the omega 3 deficiency. What about the symptoms for the omega 6 deficiency?

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Aly,

      There are many physiological complications that can occur from a dietary lack of omega 6 fatty acids. These include eczema or dry, irritated skin, water loss, hair loss, drying eyes, arthritis and high cholesterol. More serious complications can lead to heart arrhythmias, infection and the inability to heal, kidney damage, sterility, growth problems, behaviour problems and miscarriage.

      Each of these may also lead to further complications. For instance, water loss can lead to dehydration and dry eyes can cause cornea problems. But Omega 6 deficiencies are very rare indeed. In my life working within Nutrition I can honestly say I have only once encountered this – in a baby who had been deliberately (and naively) fed from birth on high omega 3 and almost no omega 6.

      Most western diets give a high intake of omega 6 – and as it so abundant in Western foods, it would be quite hard to eat a diet that was depleted in Omega 6 to the point of deficiency.

      All the best,
      Amanda

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