Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA

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Our modern diet is so far removed from the diet our ancestors ate from nature that many of the essential chemicals our body needs to maintain itself are missing. 

Ancient hunter gathers would have had a high proportion of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish in their diets. In comparison our diets are full of over processed carbohydrates, salt, sugar, fats and a huge number of chemicals is the form of colours, additives, preservatives, artifical flavourings – to name just a few.

It has long been recognised and acknowledged by the medical profession that to maintain a healthy lifestyle we need a balanced diet which includes all of the basic elements – minerals, vitamins, amino acids and various enzymes.

Many people are finding that despite eating healthily they cannot source the food nutrients needed.  Due to the consumer demand for cheap food, we have encouraged and pressurized the food industry, from farmer to supermarket, to mass produce our food. From battery poultry farming to mass growing fruit and vegetables, most of the products we buy to consume are produced on a large scale.

Fish consumption has been dramatically affected by consumer demand with fishing restrictions and quotas common place as we have come very close to wiping out some species with over fishing. The knock on effect for the consumer is that this once cheap and abundant food has become more expensive, consequently less fish in our diets.

What is important about this, is that because of our reduced consumption of fish in our diet, we are also consuming less fatty acids. While the initial reaction to this was positive, the reality of this is confusing as we are now learning that not all fats are bad.

Research in this area has shown consistently that oily fish contains fatty acids that are essential in maintaining our health. Fatty acids are basic units of fat molecules that are arranged as chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Fats are mixtures of different fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are not produced by the body and can only be supplied by absorption from our diet.

Omega-3 are highly polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are found in higher fat fish, such as tuna, mackerel and salmon. It can also be found in high quantities in flax seed but the digestive system has a hard time breaking it down in its raw form. The name, omega-3 refers to the numeric position of the first double carbon bond when counting from the methyl end of the molecule.

Omega 3 comes in three forms, known as; a-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Scientists have been most interested in the potentially beneficial effects of combinations of DHA and EPA

William E.M. Lands published an article in 1992 giving an overview of his research into omega-3 fatty acids.  It was found that for animals and children to grow normally a small proportion should contain omega-3. It was discovered that every cell in the body has components made of fatty acids, which means that omega-3 is essential for normal tissue functions in the human body.

In September 2004the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said "supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."

It has been shown that the Mediterranean and Artic Inuit's diets have high HDL, or good, cholesterol levels. This is due to the high levels of fish consumed which contain omega-3 fatty acids and have benefit of increased HDL cholesterol.  Additionally, circulating fatty material (triglycerides) in the blood is decreased. Fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA have been shown to have a similar effect.

Omega-3 fish oils have been tested and researched for many years and there are now many highly regarded clinic studies that have published reports validating the benefits of taking this fatty acid. Some of the benefits include;

- Fish oils have been shown to help lower cases of high blood pressure due to cardiovascular disease and reduce high cholesterol.
- Fish oils with omega-3 also help prevent blood clots.
- Fish oils with omega-3 have been shown to lower heart rates and decrease the chances of dying from a sudden heart attack.
- Omega-3 also helps stimulate the circulation and eases problems with varicose veins.
- Omega-3 also helps with depression as this condition has been linked to a lack of omega-3.
- Fish Oils with omega-3 have been proven on numerous occasions to improve brain function. There are also links to support the lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease when taking omega-3.

There has also been studies and evidence to support claims that children with autism are likely to benefit from omega-3 supplements.  There is anecdotal evidence that it can improve cognition, sleep patterns, concentration and general health.  One report suggests that a 540 mg dose of EPA removed the anxiety over every day events from one autistic child.  Dyslexia which is said to be an autistic spectrum disorder is also said to be improved by the use of good quality high concentration fish oil supplements.

In another study a group of people with schizophrenia and Huntingdon's disease were given EPA or a placebo.  There was given the EPA had an increase in white and grey brain matter while those on the placebo lost cerebral tissue. This ability of omega-3 to repair brain damage has given the fatty acid in the name of ‘Brain Food’.

Currently the easiest way to increase your intake of omega-3 is to take a supplement. When looking at the various supplements around, be sure not to confuse Omega 3 fish oils and fish oils with omega 3 – there is a difference. It is also worth doing some research on the different brands available as the price is a very revealing factor. If you buy cheap oils, you will get what you pay for and in some cases you might get a bit extra.

The best oils are produced from fish that live in areas where there are little or no pollutants. Some fish oils have been known to contain heavy metal contaminants. Also the capsule strength and additional ingredients are worth comparing.

Another area of confusion is cod liver oil and omega-3 fish oil. Cod liver oil is made from the liver of the cod and is high in vitamin A. Omega-3 fish oil is made from the whole fish which means it has a completely different nutrient content.

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