Omega-3 is a class of essential fatty acids with numerous health benefits found in cold-water fish and some nuts and seeds. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are the two most common omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in flaxseed oil, chia seeds, canola oil, and walnuts, is another common omega-3 and is converted in the body to EPA and DHA, but in very small amounts. These essential omegas have long been used for their anti-inflammatory benefits.
Understanding the Omega-3 and Omega-6 Ratio
Like omega-3, omega-6 fats are essential and provide numerous health benefits, with one major difference: Because omega-6 fats are commonly found in vegetable oils, nuts, and grain-fed meats, they aren’t a fat most Americans are deficient in.
“This is problematic because, despite being essential, these fats can become unhealthy when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 gets higher than 2:1,” says Evan DeMarco, clinical researcher, expert and nutritionist. “Omega-6 fatty acids can be very pro-inflammatory when the ratio gets too high. A hundred years ago, the average ratio in our diets was 1:1. Now, it’s estimated at 20:1.”
Omega-9 fatty acids, also known as monounsaturated fats, can be found in canola oil, safflower oil, olive oil, mustard oil, nut oils, and nuts such as almonds. Unlike omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, omega-9 fatty acids can be produced by the body, which means you likely already get what you need.
Omega-3 Health Benefits
Omega-3s have shown benefit for numerous biological functions, including:
- Muscle protein synthesis. As we reach our 30s, DeMarco says that age-related sarcopenia, or muscle protein breakdown, starts to take hold. Our bodies simply don’t synthesize amino acids to help build and maintain muscle mass. “Omegas help support the use of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to improve muscle protein synthesis,” he says. “If you want better gains in the gym, add omegas.”
- Brain and eye health. In studies, DHA appears to have the ability to influence many different signaling pathways, receptor systems, and enzyme activities that ultimately lead to overall better development, maintenance, and aging of the central nervous system.
- Inflammation Defense. Clinical trials have examined the benefits of dietary supplementation with omega-3s in such inflammatory and autoimmune diseases as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, and migraines. Trials of fish oil in chronic inflammatory diseases reveal significant benefit, including decreased disease activity and less need for anti-inflammatory medications.
- Healthy pregnancy and lactation support. Studies show DHA’s importance on the development of the brain and resulting cognitive function during pregnancy and infancy, which highlights the importance of accumulation of DHA during gestation and nursing.
- Cardiovascular support. The Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing cites the heart-protecting benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which may be attributed to its effects on lipids, blood pressure, vascular function, cardiac rhythms, and inflammatory responses. Another study found that omega-3 fatty acids have shown to reduce coronary mortality and sudden death in people without prior cardiovascular disease.
Getting Omega-3s Through Diet
The modern Western diet has become very pro-inflammatory, and many farm-raised fish have higher levels of omega-6. So trying to eat your way to higher omega intake can have negative results. DeMarco says that one major consideration is rising ocean pollution and its effects on fish — plastics, mercury, and pollution can mean your fish dinner comes with a side order of chemicals and contaminants. Getting your omegas from good-quality fish supplements is the best way to ensure a consistent, reliable dose of daily omegas.
The combinations and ratios of omega fatty acids are as important as the acids themselves. “The average Western diet yields an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 20:1,” says DeMarco. “This is exacerbated by cheap omega-3 supplements, which have a high concentration of omega-6, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Athletes looking to improve their performance should get a high-concentrate omega-3, something 80 percent or higher, and rely on their diet to support omega-6 and omega-9.”
Taking a good quality omega supplement can help take the guesswork out of getting the proper amounts of omegas from diet alone. For people to get the real benefit of omega supplementation, DeMarco says it’s important to look for a high-concentrate oil produced using CO2 and not harsh chemicals or solvents. He also suggests a 1:1 ratio of EPA and DHA, with a 10:1:1 ratio of Omega 3, 6, 9. Consider one of the following: