Omega Nutrition 101
Demystifying Essential Fatty Acids:
Omega-3s and Omega-6s
What are essential fatty acids?
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are fats that your body simply cannot make on its own, which is exactly why they are deemed essential. There are two classes of essential fats: omega-3s, found in seafood, flax oil, and algae; and omega-6s, found in animal meats, cooking oil, and nuts. While omega-9s are considered important fats for a healthy diet, they are considered non-essential fats because your body is capable of synthesizing them from the other foods you consume. Essential fats are used in every cell in your body all 37 trillion of them! If you aren't consuming enough essential fats, and in balance, your health may suffer.
Why do we need to balance omega-3 and omega-6 consumption?
As we evolved in hunter-gatherer societies, we consumed omega-3s and omega-6s in relative balance, foraging from plant and animal ecosystems that were wild. Grazing animals munched on a multitude of grasses and plants, consuming omega-6s and omega-3s in harmony. When we consumed land animals, their meat contained a wide spectrum of fatty acids, including omega-3s. The food we foraged also had a balance of fats. This meant that the food we ate was composed of essential fats in balance.
With the advent of agriculture and feed-lot farming, all of this changed. The animals we raise are fed a standardized diet that only includes a few components. The food we raise to feed them is dominated by corn and soy, both of which are excellent sources of omega-6, and poor sources of omega-3.
As human populations continue to grow in the 21st century the imbalance is only getting worse. We now farm-raise more of our fish, and have similarly standardized what the fish eat. As you might have guessed, this impacts their balance of omega-3 to omega-6 as well. In fact, farm-raised tilapia is comparable in their omega-6 content to farm-raised cattle. Why? It comes down to the algae they eat (or rather don't) when raised in captivity.
When reviewing the above chart, it becomes clear why balancing our fat consumption is critical to health. Omega-3s, when consumed in sufficient supply, produce eicosanoids resolvins and protectins which support the body's ability to resolve inflammation or return to homeostasis after an inflammatory event. You see, inflammation is a critical process in the healing journey.
Think of this simple example. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, it becomes inflamed. Your body sends white blood cells, sebum and more to the area to heal the site of injury. But after that healing has commenced, the inflammation must resolve. If it doesn't, chronic health issues can erupt. A simple injury to your thumb could lead to arthritis, bone loss and tissue degradation. Your thumb might never return to its prior health.
While this example may be obvious, there are other less obvious challenges our bodies face each day. Our cells need to be fluid and flexible so they can remove waste and toxins. They must be able to adequately communicate (intracellular / intercellular communication). EPA and DHA are used in every cell in the body. They keep our cells fluid, flexible, and able to communicate efficiently. Without enough of them in our body systems, they just won't work as efficiently. When we are truly deficient in omega-3s, entire body systems can start to fail.
THE OMEGA-3 MIRACLE FATS: EICOSAPENTAENOIC ACID (EPA) AND DOCOSAHEXAENOIC ACID (DHA)
Algae were the first living organisms on earth. They hold within their structures the capacity to build the conditionally essential omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two miracle fats are the most heavily researched omega-3s, with life supporting benefits that range from circulatory health to brain health and cognitive function, joint health to skin health. Now, here's where it gets a little complicated. They are called conditionally essential because technically, our bodies are capable of making them from another common omega-3 traditionally found in terrestrial plants, alpha linoleic acid (ALA). Flax oil is a fantastic source for ALA, but it contains no EPA or DHA-SO we leave it to our bodies to utilize enzymatic processes to create them from this raw component. In order for this enzymatic 6-step process to work well, we must be certain that we're consuming omega-3s and omega-6s in balance which is not that easy. Unfortunately, omega-6s abound in food sources, and omega-3s are in paltry supply.
There is good news though! When you consume EPA and DHA directly through your diet, it's akin to consuming 16 times that amount of ALA. You essentially super-charge your omega-3 consumption which makes it much easier to attain a balance of Omega-3s to Omega-6s in your diet. This is where the benefits of supplementing with a pure and clean source of the omega-3s EPA and DHA comes in.
If our bodies can't make EPA and DHA-how do we get enough of them?
As hunter-gatherers, we stayed close to water sources. Much of our diets were comprised of food from waterways. We ate fish. We ate crustaceans. We ate clams. You see, fish, crustaceans and clams don't build EPA and DHA either. They get them from the algae they eat. When we ate seafood and fish, we supercharged our bodies with a direct source of EPA and DHA. But today, our waterways are polluted with microplastics, heavy metals, roadway runoff, and wastewater. Most of us consume a credit card's weight in plastic each week.
Finding a pure, clean source of omega-3s EPA and DHA that hasn't been impacted by these problems has become more and more difficult… But by turning our sights on that first plant that started it all a solution is in sight. We can harness the power of algae and the benefits of EPA and DHA without impacting marine ecosystems. We can consume algal omega-3s and cut out the fish sources altogether.