Why you should be sure to get enough Omega-3

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – professor emeritus, researcher, lecturer and author. Read more of Stig’s columns here.

Two 19th century Germans, psychiatrist Rudolf Arndt and pharmacologist Hugo Schultz, are famous for a rule named after them: The Arndt-Schultz rule, or the law of hormesis. It essentially says that the effect of a substance depends on the concentration you take in. So, for example, a very small dose stimulates, a moderate dose gives the desired effect and a large dose causes severe side effects and even death. This law applies to everything from arsenic to water – and what we eat.

Some researchers have determined that our ancestors, who lived long before agriculture came into the picture, obtained their food from more than 500 plants and a few animals as well. Others have calculated that modern Westerners, in the wake of rational agriculture, now derive 80% of our food from less than 20 plants and 50% of their diet from eight cereal grains. In addition, the nutritional content of the food grown in the West today has been thoroughly destroyed by a variety of industrial processes – not least through heating but also due to the presence of additives/poisons.

Some nutrients are considered essential – what does that mean?

Our body is incredibly good at producing the substances it needs by itself, but it is unable to produce certain important substances, and we need to get these into our bodies through our diet. These substances have been given the name essential nutrients. There are essential amino acids and essential fatty acids.

Essential amino acids are the building blocks we need so that the body can make certain proteins itself. There are eight essential amino acids for adults and ten for children, and if just one of these amino acids is missing in the body, the production of the desired protein ceases immediately. Tryptophan is of one of the eight essential amino acids (abundant in, e.g. sesame and pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, tuna, turkey, chicken and some cheeses) and it is absolutely crucial for the synthesis of the important neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin – without which there would be no neurotransmitters, which are so important for wakefulness, sleep, energy and activity.

There are also essential fatty acids – e.g. linoleic acid and linolenic acid, which are essential for important bodily functions such as building cell walls and regulating the level of inflammation in the body. Simply put, the linoleic acid family (abundant in both vegetables and fish) represents a potentially inflammatory substance called omega-6, while the linolenic acid family represents omega-3, which represents resistance to inflammation (anti-inflammatory).

An important member of the omega-6 family is arachidonic acid, which is a precursor to pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Fatty acids from the linoleic acid family are abundant in the brain. Important substances in the omega-3 family are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – these are the most important players in the inflammatory processes that are always underway inside the body. It is these substances and their impact on the body’s functions and health that I will discuss here in this column.

The big fat debate

For a few hundred thousand years, our ancestors lived on a diet that was just over 20% fat – I think it is fair to say that humans are genetically adapted to eat such a diet. Over the last 150-200 years, however, we humans have dramatically increased our intake of dairy products and a variety of meat products, which has resulted in at least a doubling of our fat intake. This is a change that has significantly contributed to an increased degree of chronic inflammation in our bodies, which has in turn paved the way to increased obesity and chronic diseases.

There are even some people today, even in Sweden, who have taken it one step further and increased the proportion of fat in their diet up to 60%. The method is called LCHF, which means low-carb-high-fat. Low carbohydrate intake is extremely beneficial if what you are limiting is “refined” carbohydrates: sugar and sugar-like foods such as bread (both white and dark), boiled hot root vegetables, rice, pasta, pizza, sweets, soft drinks and similar. LCHF is an excellent method for dieting to lose weight, but the large quantities of fat will certainly be catastrophic for your health over the long term.

RCRF (Right Carb Right Fat) – where the quality of the fat is what matters

I would much rather that the diet be called the RCRF, i.e. the right carbohydrates (green and unprocessed) and the right fat (short- and medium-chain fatty acids – those that can be absorbed through the portal vein and do not need to pass the thoracic duct, circulate in the blood and give rise to postprandial inflammation).

So, in just 150-200 years, we have doubled our intake of saturated long-chain fatty acids, increased our intake of dairy products by up to 5,000% and our sugar intake has gone from less than half a kilo per year in 1850 to almost 40 kg per year today – an increase of almost 10,000%. And at the same time, our intake of toxic trans fats, heat-generated toxins, external toxins (pesticides) and similar has dramatically increased. And perhaps worst of all, our intake of inflammation-promoting omega-6 (n-6), at least in some Western populations, has severely distorted the optimal fatty acid balance. Our intake of cheap all-purpose oils, mainly sunflower oil, has resulted in a huge increase in our intake of omega-6 fats, while our intake of omega-3 fats has been cut in half.

For inflammation control and optimal health, it is important to keep the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 at a 50/50 ratio. The way things stand now, this ratio strongly favours inflammation – in Sweden, we are somewhere between a 1 to 3 or 1 to 4 ratio, and in the US, which has gone further down the “spiral of ill health”, they are actually at a ratio of around 1 to 10 or worse.

Omega-3 should absolutely be added to your diet as a supplement

There are actually studies that question the importance of the balance between omega-3 and omega-6, which complicates the recommendations that are typically given. Up to now, the recommendation has been to get 3 grams a day of Omega-3. We usually get plenty of Omega-6 from our diets, and it is rarely needed as a supplement. Instead, you should practice some restraint with omega-6 – especially sunflower oil. In our family, we never use sunflower oil, only high quality olive oil and rapeseed oil (cold pressed/extra virgin), and we even limit the amount of these oils as much as possible (even these oils contain long-chain fatty acids and are forced to enter through the thoracic duct, but they are not considered to be as aggressive as animal fats once inside the blood vessels).

Omega-3 is found mainly in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines (contain EPA and DHA), certain algae (contains EPA and DHA), rapeseed oil and in certain foods such as flaxseed oil or walnuts. Omega-6 is found in corn oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, sesame seeds, sesame seed oil and, to a certain extent, rapeseed oil – fats that should be avoided with the exception of rapeseed oil. You can easily get 3 grams a day of omega-3 by consuming either 5 grams of fish oil, 10 grams of flaxseed oil, 30 grams of salmon, 50 grams of walnuts, 60 grams of mackerel or 100 grams of salmon – but it is all the more difficult with other foods. For example, you would need to eat 70 grams of soybean oil, 500 grams of olive oil, 1 kg of almonds, prawns or whitefish, 6.5 kg of cucumbers or 8 kg of apples to get the amount of omega-3 you need in a day.

Krill oil is particularly interesting

There has been growing interest lately in the use of krill oil as a source of omega-3 – a shrimp-like crustacean that is fished in the North Atlantic, with about 500 million tonnes harvested from the oceans each year. Krill oil is extremely rich in the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, and while EPA and DHA are found in triglyceride form in regular fish oil, they have a phospholipid structure in krill oil in, which is considered to be a significant advantage. Among other benefits, it is absorbed faster in the body in phospholipid form and also easily crosses the blood-brain barrier so it can be utilised more quickly. Krill oil also contains relatively high amounts of vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin D and canthaxanthin (which brings up the important antioxidant astaxanthin) which – even if the total ORAC value is not all that impressive – gives krill oil an antioxidant power 48 times stronger than fish oil (Burri L et al. Front Genet. 2011 Jul 12;2:45.)

Important things to consider in the fight against chronic inflammation and disease

Krill oil has a special place in the fight against systemic inflammation alongside vitamin D, turmeric and probiotics, among others. Regular intake of omega-3, especially krill oil, can significantly reduce:

  • High levels of blood lipids – and sugar in the blood, to a certain extent
  • Oxidative stress, high levels of inflammation in the body and also high levels of CRP (C-reactive protein) – a marker of generally high inflammation in the body
  • Hunger, obesity and metabolic syndrome/diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Musculoskeletal pain and joint pain, especially rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Painful periods and pain before menstruation (premenstrual syndrome – PMS)
  • Pain caused by cancer and weight loss (cancer cachexia), some observations also indicate the reduced progression of cancer
  • Memory loss, aging of the brain and ADHD

See also an up-to-date summary, which is under publication: Ellulu MS et al. Role of fish oil in human health and possible mechanism to reduce the inflammation. Inflammopharmacology 2015, Feb 15.

Omega-3 strengthens the gut flora and reduces levels of endotoxin in the blood

An animal study that was published last year – unfortunately in Chinese – reports a significant improvement in gut flora and reduced endotoxin levels with regular supplementation of omega-3. This is likely to result in a significant reduction in post-prandial inflammation after meals. (Kao ZJ et al. Zhongguo Yi Xue Ke Xue Yuan Xue Bao. 2014;36:496-500).

The mouth is a reflection of what is going on inside your body

If you want to know more about what is going on inside your body – take a look inside your mouth. Supplementation with DHA and EPA (omega-3) has been shown to significantly improve the oral mucosa in periodontal disease but also in, e.g. bowel disease (inflammatory bowel disease), metabolic disorders/diabetes (metabolic syndrome) and, in all likelihood, significant improvements in the condition of the gut flora as well as in the vessel walls, not least the coronary arteries.

There is a well-known phenomenon called clustering – i.e., those who have gingivitis are at a greater risk of getting additional diseases, which often start with diabetes and high blood pressure, etc. You need to break free from the life-threatening, vicious cycle that goes along with clustering!

You can decide for yourself whether you want to be sick or continue to be healthy!


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