When I ask my patients what they know about omega, most will know that it has something to do with fish or cod liver oil. Some will tell me that regular fish oil supplementation lubricates our joints while others say it is good for our heart. But what actually is Omega and what does it do for our health? Read on to find out.
What is Omega?
The first home truth is that Omega-3 is actually fat. A polyunsaturated fatty acid to be more precise. It is termed an ‘essential fatty acid’, which means that it must be ingested, as the body cannot produce it. There are different types of omega, with the most renowned being Omega-3 and Omega-6. The number refers to where the first double bond occurs in the FA chain. For example with Omega-3, the first double bond occurs 3 carbons into the chain. The placment of the first double bond is important as it changes the chemical nature of the compound and how our bodies react to it.
Why do we need Omega?
Most studies agree that we don’t consume enough Omega-3 in our diets. Omega 3 is needed for the production of hormone like compounds, otherwise known as prostaglandins. Prostaglandins act as anti-inflammatory agents in our bodies with positive health benefits. This anti-inflammatory action is suggested to improve most conditions in the body where ‘inflammation’ is a problem including asthma, inflammatory joint disease, cardiovascular health, certain brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s. However, before you hail Omega is a miracle drug, there is very little evidence from big studies suggesting that this is actually the case.
Can omega help my health and performance?
In short, yes. There are a lot of the beneficial properties with Omega, particularly Omega-3 are due to the anti-inflammatory affect of prostaglandins. Lets have a look at a few suggested key areas where omega can make a difference:
1. Exercise usually puts your body into a catabolic state, which means that muscles and tissues are being broken down with a degree of inflammation present. Anything that helps the body reduce that inflammation will ultimately help muscle soreness and aid recovery time. There is some suggestion that Omega-3 aids protein synthesis which in turn helps muscle to build.
2. Animal studies have shown that a higher dietary Omega-3/Omega-6 fatty acids ratio is associated with beneficial effects on bone health. This ultimately helps in the prevention of bone stress reaction and fractures. Follow the link to read a systematic review on this. A systematic review of omega-3 fatty acids and osteoporosis – NCBI
3. Symptoms for medical conditions such as exercise induced asthma may also be improved, click on the link for more information! http://www.resmedjournal.com/article/S0954-6111(13)00139-X/abstract.
4. Another key area where Omega can improve our performance is with nerve conduction and neuromuscular control. Fat surrounds the nerve axons in our body acting as an insulator. This insulation increases the rate of transmission of signals and improves its quality. For a performance point of view, this translates into improved control of muscular contraction, speed and reaction times.
Omega-3 and Heart Health
In contrast one area where Omega-3 has a well proven positive benefit to our health is with heart disease. The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition suggest a “large body of evidence” suggests that fish consumption, particularly oily fish, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. It does this by:
- Helping to prevent irregular heart beats
- Reducing the risk of clotting by making the blood less sticky, protecting the walls of blood vessels from damage
- Helping to improve the cholesterol balance of the blood by increasing levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and decreasing levels of bad cholesterol (LDL)
Different types of Omega-3
Omega-3 comes in a variety of forms that we should be aware of:
- EPA ( eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexanenoic acid)
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
Both EPA and DHA are longer chain fatty acids and are found in oils of cold water fish, such as herring mackeral sardines and shellfish. ALA are short chain forms of Omega and are not utilised by the body as well.
Why are fish in particular packed out with Omega-3 you may ask? And why cold water fish in particular? Remember, the more double bonds in the fatty acid, the more liquid the fat will be and therefore the less likely it is to freeze at colder temperatures. The cell membrane and other cellular structures in cold water fish therefore remain fluid in a very cold environment due to the number of double bonds.
Recommendations for Omega
Omega-6 fats are found in vegetable oils such as rapeseed, corn, sunflower and some nuts. While most of us get sufficient Omega-6 in our diet, mostly from cooking oil, we’re advised to eat more Omega-3 by eating at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish. To help protect against heart disease everyone should try to eat 1 serving of high Omega-3 fish and 1 serving of white fish a week. Tinned fish is as good a source of Omega-3 as fresh fish, tends to be cheaper, and is convenient as it can be easily stored. The British Heart Foundation endorses the Princes brand of tinned fish as it has a higher Omega-3 content.
Eat at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, there are other foods that contain Omega-3 such as:
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
- Soya beans and tofu
- Nuts, especially walnuts, pecans, peanuts and almonds
- Omega-3 enriched foods such as Columbus eggs and supermarket own brand alternatives
- Rapeseed oil – most oils sold as vegetable oil are rapeseed oil, check the label.
- Ground flaxseeds or linseeds and their oil.
Is all Omega good Omega?
A word of warning, foods such as flax and chia seeds, nuts, avocado, olive oil contain ALA Omega-3 chains rather than EPA and DHA. This is great but unfortunately the cardiovascular benefits of Omega-3 discussed are more associated with the longer chain Omega-3 FAs. In addition less than 1 percent of ALA is converted to EPA and DHA.
Don’t fear though, this is where fish oil supplementation are worth their weight in…well…Omega. Cod liver oil supplementation is great source of Omega-3 which in recent years may have lost flavour due to mercury poisoning scares. With Omega-3 supplements, aim for 0.5 – 1.0g Omega-3 daily (on the active ingredients will be listed as EPA and DHA).
In addition, excessive amounts of Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and a very high Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio (as is found in today’s Western diets where is can reach 20:1) promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. By increasing levels of Omega-3 (lowering the Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio) exerts suppressive effects. To improve our ratios we need to increase our Omega-3 consumption and reduce Omega-6 as much as possible. This is difficult as we have already discussed Omega-6 is very readily available, especially in cooking oil. We are aiming for an Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio of about 4:1 (The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.). But this is definitely something not to get obsessed about, just bear it in mind.
In conclusion, Omega and Omega-3 in particular has many potential benefits to help you with your performance and recovery. However, remember that there is still much more scientific evidence required to back this. One area where Omega-3 does make a big difference is with cardiovascular health. It is definitely therefore worth making sure you have having the recommended weekly dose of Omega-3 to ensure you reap all those benefits!