The Forager's Path - School of Botanical Studies

Taking the Mystery Out of Omega 3 Supplements

Omega 3 is a fairly well known dietary supplement. Yet many people have only a general idea that it is ‘good for you’ in some vague way, usually connected to inflammation. The purpose of this article is to clarify what omega 3 is, why we need it and where to get it.

Omega 3 is an ‘essential’ fatty acid. It is essential in our diet because our bodies are not able to produce it.

There are other essential fatty acids such as omega 6 and 9. They play a role as pro-inflammatory agents within the body. Omega 3 has a balancing effect as an anti-inflammatory agent in addition to many other beneficial actions in the body.

Why We Are Deficient

The traditional diet of our ancestors was fairly rich in omega 3s, found in both wild game and fish and the plant world. A healthy ratio of omega 6:omega 3 is thought to be in the range of 1:1 or 2:1. The modern diet has this ratio way out of balance; for many people it is 20 or 30:1. Trying to correct this extreme imbalance is the reason so much attention is currently given to omega 3 sources.

Paul Bergner writes in “The Healing Power of Minerals” of what has happened in the dietary change from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agricultural lifestyle: deficiencies in omega 3s, minerals and fiber (along with a more sedentary lifestyle).

An example of the different levels of omega 3 in the same food but from different sources:
Supermarket eggs – omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is 19:1
Backyard or free range eggs – omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is 1:1 

Benefits of Omega 3 in Our Diet
Various research studies suggest the following benefits but are not conclusive. Many factors influence health and no type of supplement, including omega 3, should be looked at as a cure or quick fix for a specific health condition.

  • Lowers the overall risk of death from heart disease
  • Lowers triglycerides which benefits heart health
  • Reduces the risk of having another heart attack.
  • Lowers the risk of stroke.
  • Reduces stiffness and joint pain connected to rheumatoid arthritis and boosts the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Reduces inflammation connected to asthma
  • Cultures with diets high in omega-3s have lower levels of depression
  • Reduces inflammation caused by allergic reactions
  • Improves brain function in children with ADHD and elders with Alzheimers

Types of Omega 3
There are three basic types of omega 3:

  1. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – found only in fatty fish, this is especially beneficial to a variety of brain functions and eye health
  2. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) – Found mainly in fish, research shows this acid to be especially beneficial for inflammation and depression.
  3. ALA (a-linolenic acid) – found in plant sources, this must be converted in the body before it is useful. Many research studies show an inefficient conversion rate. This is considered a weaker and less effective form of omega 3.

Choosing: Animal or Plant Sources?
Animals, especially wild game, grass-fed livestock and cold water fish, are considered to be the most efficient sources of omega 3s. They provide DHA and EPA directly to our bodies. Grain-fed beef and assembly line poultry, which are the current standards for many meat eaters, have unhealthy omega 6 to omega 3 ratios.

Plant sources such as chia, flaxseed, evening primrose and black currant oils are richer in alpha-linolenic acid, known as ALA. This type of omega 3 needs to be converted in our body before it is beneficial and is not considered to be as strong. Animal-sourced omega 3s are usually used for therapeutic doses while plant-based oils are more appropriate for prevention and tonic purposes.

For people who like their daily smoothie, adding a teaspoon of chia or flax to the blender is a good way to get  some extra omega 3 without the issue of rancidity.

Should We Eat Food or Eat Nutrients?

Our ancestors did not analyze the nutritional content of the foods on their dinner plates. They trusted the food that was hunted, gathered or cultivated was of good quality because it had sustained previous generations. They did not know about, or use terms such as saturated fats, glycemic index or essential fatty acids. Most people had a sense of which foods made a good diet and which ones didn’t.

In modern times, many health conscious people lose sight of the big picture: eating a variety of fresh fruit and greens, nuts and seeds and ethically-sourced, free range animal products. The emphasis instead is on ingesting the appropriate daily amount of vitamin C, calcium, enzymes and omega 3s.

Following this line of thinking, many people recommend whole food sources of omega 3 instead of the more refined fish or flaxseed oil capsules. This is supported by some, but not all, of the research. An additional reason to use whole food sources is that many of the plant supplements for omega 3 are rancid by the time they are purchased off the store shelf; especially flaxseed oil.

Sources of Omega 3

  • Cold water fish, especially salmon, sardines, tuna, anchovies, herring, mackerel
  • Grass-fed livestock and dairy products, wild game, free range chickens and eggs
  • Most nuts and seeds, especially flax and chia seeds

How Much Do We Need?
Most health benefits are accomplished when 1000 – 2000 mg of omega 3s are taken daily. It is important to note that many bottles contain 1000 mg of fish oil per capsule. This amount of fish oil is not the same as omega 3. The 1000 mg capsule may only contain 300 mg of omega 3. Read the label carefully.

Safety Concerns

  • Fish oil capsules can cause digestive upset such as gas, bloating, belching, and diarrhea. Lower the dose or use Time Release products if this happens.
  • Type 2 diabetics may experience increases in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements. Work closely with a doctor in this situation.
  • Fish higher up on the food chain may contain harmful toxins such as heavy metals (including mercury), dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This includes tuna, shark and swordfish. The FDA recommends 7 oz. a week as a safe amount.
  • Use cautiously with people who bruise easily, take blood thinning medications or have a bleeding disorder. Higher doses may increase the risk of bleeding.

Paul Pitchford makes an interesting observation in “Healing With Whole Foods”. He describes omega 3 as a type of anti-freeze for the body; it is more abundant in cold water fish, nuts from colder climates and its effect on thinning the blood.

Resources for this Article
“The Healing Power of Minerals” by Paul Bergner
“Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon
“Healing With Whole Foods” by Paul Pitchford


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