Adam's Corner

Fats and Oils, Part II: Omega-3’s from Flax and Fish

How they help cure almost everything – really!

People say omega-3’s are good for the skin. People say omega-3’s are good for the heart. People say they’re good for arthritis, colitis, osteoporosis, brain function, allergies, eczema, and asthma, too. And you know what? People are right.

If I had to make a list of the top five supplements that are good for just about everyone, omega-3’s would be on the list.

So what are they? Omega-3’s are a group of essential fatty acids, basically fats with vitamin-like importance in the body. (They’re called “essential” for a reason, you know). They’re a major structural component of healthy cell membranes. They’re needed to build a baby’s growing brain, and to keep aged eyes moist. But where they really shine is in terms of their ability to control inflammation.

If I had to make a list of the top five silent killers, the common denominators of aging and disease, inflammation would be on the list.

This thing with inflammation really struck me when I was researching the article on osteoporosis a few months ago, and I found all this data implicating inflammation in bone loss. Bone loss?!? I honestly never knew that. But all of a sudden, there it was, right alongside Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), cirrhosis, asthma, and every autoimmune disease under the sun – all caused by chronic, often hidden inflammation. And the list goes on. To say that inflammation simply “causes” these diseases is, of course, oversimplifying things. But it is an essential part of the disease.

And the beauty of omega-3’s is that they don’t just flat-out suppress inflammation. Unlike heavy-hitting aspirin, cortisol, and “vioxx,” they don’t shut down a natural process. They just help put out the fire if it gets out of control.

For example:

One study, published in April 2002 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined heart disease data from the Nurses Health Study, which followed 84,688 nurses over 14 years. After correcting for other risk factors such as age and smoking, the nurses in the top 20% in omega-3 consumption had a third less coronary heart disease than those in the bottom 20% – and 55% fewer deaths from the disease!

Or in terms of rheumatoid arthritis, a review published in the January 2000 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported: “Ingestion of dietary supplements of omega-3 fatty acids has been consistently shown to reduce both the number of tender joints on physical examination and the amount of morning stiffness… Several investigators have reported that rheumatoid arthritis patients consuming omega-3 dietary supplements were able to lower or discontinue their background doses of nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs or disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.”

There are a few studies which show that regular omega-3 consumption keeps acute stress (everything from marathon-running to surgery) from depleting your immune system as much.

And there are many, many more studies, but I don’t have room to list them all. If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, any autoimmune disease or any inflammatory “itis” (arthritis, colitis, bronchitis, tendonitis, etc.), fish oils can be profoundly helpful. I strongly encourage you to check our reference library for details. And if you’re not sick, fish oils help you stay that way.

There were two points made in the arthritis review which I think are relevant to other conditions as well. First of all, people generally started seeing results at 3,000 mg omega-3’s a day. (And remember, you might need 6,000 mg of total fish oil to yield 3,000 mg of omega-3’s – read the bottles carefully). And secondly, people usually saw results after about 3 months. It is true that some people do see results quicker and at lower doses…

Flax has omega-3’s, and so does fish – and so do other foods… what’s the difference? Omega-3’s from flax are really just raw materials for your body. Before they can be used, they have to go through a whole series of chemical reactions. First, they’re converted into another chemical, then that chemical gets converted into another, then another, etc. The problem is that the first step in this pathway is slow. For some people, it’s very slow. (This, incidentally, appears to be the problem in ADHD).

The difference between flax omega-3’s and fish omega-3’s is that fish oil is already past this first step. In a sense, the fish already did it for you. This is probably why fish oil consistently outperforms flax oil in the studies, and at lower doses, too. Maybe, just maybe, given enough time, flax oil could “catch up,” but in the three-month range, fish oil is the clear winner. All this doesn’t mean that flax oil is a bad choice. It is less expensive, and it’s vegetarian, too. My suggestion for those taking flax oil is to make sure you’re getting ample vitamin B-6 and zinc, which catalyze that first, slow step.

All vegetarian sources of omega-3’s (with the exception of some algae) have the same kind of omega-3’s found in flax; all animal sources have the stuff found in fish. Fish and eggs from wild, free-foraging animals have much more omega-3’s than farm-raised, grain-fed ones.

The issues with fish oil are purity and freshness. A bad fish oil can be full of lead, mercury, PCBs and pesticides; and be rancid to boot. It’s important, then, to look for a brand that undergoes regular and extensive testing. Among the brands we carry, I feel very good about Carlson, Eskimo-3, and Health from the Sun. If you want to go that extra step, you can buy Nordic Naturals or Source Naturals/ArcticPure, which do all that and are even packed in an oxygen-free environment.

Finally, there are two major kinds of omega-3’s found in fish oils, called EPA and DHA. A lot of studies over the years have concluded that DHA was what “worked” in fish oil. But this was based on faulty reasoning. Basically, high DHA is important for a developing brain: for pregnant or nursing women, and young children. (The European Union, which is often more progressive on health issues than the United States, mandates that all baby formulas sold within its borders contain DHA. I believe it’s just as important prenatally). High EPA, on the other hand, might help certain kinds of depression, including bipolar disorder. Other than in these instances, I haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that the EPA:DHA ratio really matters. Just look for total omega-3’s.

(Also, I want to set the record straight about two brands of fish oils not sold in our store. One, called OmegaBrite, distinguishes itself with a 7:1 EPA:DHA ratio, making it especially suitable for bipolar or other mood disorders. In other situations, however, I don’t think it has any real advantage versus other quality products. And anyway, I’m not sure how much better it would be than ArcticPure’s EPA formula, with its 4.5:1 EPA:DHA ratio. The other product, OmegaRX, is sold via Barry Sears’ website. Here’s a quote from the site: “The only way you can tell that a fish oil is truly pharmaceutical-grade is to look for the OmegaRX brand imprinted on every capsule.” Oh, that infuriates me! “Pharmaceutical-grade” is just Sears’ made-up way of saying “molecularly distilled,” the same process used for years by companies like Nordic Naturals, ArcticPure, and Health from the Sun. He also has price comparisons between his brand and health food stores. Well, I don’t know what store he’s shopping at… I could go on, but I won’t).

But 3,000 mg of fish oil omega-3’s has 80 calories, and a tablespoon of flax has 120…! Do I really want that many calories? Yes, you do.

What’s the difference between regular and “high-lignan” flax oils? Basically, lignans are a type of fiber found in the flax seeds. Flax lignans protect against breast and colon cancer, and like other forms of fiber, they’re basically just good for you. There has been a correlation shown, however, between consumption of flax lignans– not the oil – and higher rates of prostate cancer among men. Personally, I think the benefits still outweigh the risks, but I’d understand if people disagree with me here.

How much ground flax seed do I need to equal a tablespoon of the oil? Roughly six table-spoons of seed yields one tablespoon of oil, plus all the fiber and other goodness.

When should I take oil supplements? With food, or with thick liquids like smoothies

Is fish oil the same as cod liver oil? Sort of. Oil from the fish’s liver is lower in omega-3’s, but has vitamins A and D, plus all the goodness that made it a loved (and hated) folk remedy for generations. Cod liver oil has a lot to recommend it, but if you want a full, therapeutic dose of omega-3’s, stick to the fish body oils, so you don’t get too much A and D in the process

. – Adam Stark

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