The Many Splendors of Fish Oil
When working with patients, I am often asked for my advice concerning what the best maintenance supplement program is. Assuming you are otherwise healthy, my minimum daily supplement regimen would include a very good multivitamin/mineral, a good plant based antioxidant, and you guessed it - fish oil. Allow me to relate to you the many splendors of fish oil and you will see why.
Fish Oil is primarily composed of omega-3 fatty acids. These fats fall into a couple of categories. One is called “EFA”s or Essential Fatty Acids. These fats are essential because the human body lacks the capability to make them on its own. omega-3s are also known as “PUFA”s or PolyUnsaturated Fatty Acids. These means that these fats have many sites of “unsaturation” - a chemical term referring to its structure. PUFAs have the distinction of being our most favored building block for constructing cellular membranes. If the body had its way, all cells would have their membranes entirely composed of PUFAs. Because the body can not make its own PUFAs (remember - they are essential), we have to insure an adequate intake in order to provide the body with enough fatty acids for whatever building or repair it wants to do. If there are not enough PUFAs available, the body will be forced to use other fatty acids, such as trans-fatty acids.
Trans-fats are found primarily in processed fat products, such as margarine and other spreads. These are synthetic fats. The body was never meant to ingest, let alone use, these fats. However, if there is not an adequate supply of PUFAs, the body will have to use these fats. This will result in poorly functioning cellular membranes and poorly functioning cells. Ultimately, I believe that this leads to chronic disease, and most likely cancer as well. The less PUFA intake we have, and the higher processed food intake we have, the more sluggish our cells will become. This will lead to poor function on the organ level over time. It is just this type of insidious process that leads to the degenerative and auto-immune conditions that we see so much more of today than even a few decades ago. And to think, its all preventable by fish oil (well..not quite, but its a start!). However, the praises of fish oil don’t end there.
A group of anthropologists and doctors did an analysis once on the diet of very long lived peoples. Groups of native peoples around the world who tend to live significantly longer than the rest of the human population. When they broke the diets down into their elementary parts, one striking similarity was found between them. Whether they were mountain people, plains people or island people they all had enormous amounts of omega-3s in their diet. For island folks, its easy to see how they got it - through the fish, but how about the mountain peoples? Cattle and goats raised on fresh grasses (ie - allowed to graze) concentrate the omega-3s in the grasses into their milk and meat. This is only one of the many reasons why meat from grazing cattle is better than industrial raised cattle. The very high amounts of omega-3 in their diets, it is hypothesized, created optimally functioning cells which on an organism level translates into longer life.
Furthermore, there have been almost innumerable studies which have found regular fish oil consumption to be correlated with lower rates of almost every disease out there including heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol,asthma, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, osteoporosis, and even cancer. Sometimes, the differences between those who ate no fish to those who ate fish regularly were striking. The people who ate fish the most had a 60-70% less chance of contracting certain conditions. Fish Oil is also very anti-inflammatory, immune enhancing, skin nourishing, and protective of cellular damage in general .
So why not just eat lots of fish. Well, you could - but there are problems. The fishes that have the highest omega-3 levels tend also to be highest on the food chain. They also have to be cold water fish (not lake or stream fish). This means primarily salmon and tuna. Sardines also have significant levels. Salmon and tuna are highly contaminated fish due to their placement on the food chain and the pollution in our oceans (pollutants concentrate up the food chain). Farmed salmon, which is almost all we get here, has very little omega-3 because the fish are not raised in cold enough water, nor are they really allowed to swim and so they never develop their fat. There are other major problems with farmed salmon which I can’t go into here. Tuna tends to be very high in mercury - to the point where the surgeon general recommends that pregnant women should avoid it.
That is why I think that (unfortunately) our best option for getting adequate fish oil intake is through supplements. You should look for a product that states plainly on the outside that it is tested for and contains no heavy metals or pesticides or DDT. Carlsons is a widely available brand that I trust. You should take between 1.5-3 grams of EPA+DHA a day. EPA and DHA are the two fatty acids that are found in fish oil. On the label, it will tell you how much EPA and DHA there is per dose.
A note about flax oil. Flax oil is also an omega-3 fatty acid and most people equate it with fish oil. However, this is not the case. Flax oil is actually one metabolic step away from EPA and DHA. In order for the body to use it effectively, it must be converted into EPA and DHA. This conversion is regulated by an enzyme who’s name I won’t bore you with. The point is that this enzyme does not have a lot of activity in the human body. So - flax does not get converted into the much more useful oils found in fish oil to any great extent. Now - flax oil is great and has many uses, but most of the above information does not apply to flax because of this conversion problem. So eat your fish or fish supplements and you will go far in giving your body the building blocks it needs to build a strong and healthy you.