By strict definitions, omega-3 fats are “vitamins,” because they’re 1) organic compounds, 2) necessary to life, and 3) cannot be made by the body, so you have to get them through the diet.
In a nutshell, they help us with three things: inflammation, mood and behavior, and healthy cell membranes. Let’s start with inflammation.
In a balanced body, inflammation occurs as the first response to injury, infection, or chemical toxicity. Cells that have been damaged send out signals which increase blood flow to (but not through) the area, and recruit immune cells into the surrounding tissue to contain and repair the damage. So we experience redness, swelling, and heat – like a sprained ankle or a sore throat – not as a direct result of the problem, but as our attempt to begin healing it.
The real problem is when low-level inflammation persists past a point where it might be useful (arthritis is inflammation in the joints). We also see unhealthy inflammation playing major roles in heart
disease, dementia, and cancer. Reducing baseline inflammation, while still allowing healthy inflammation, is one of the major keys to a long, healthy life.
Our bodies regulate inflammation well when they have both omega-3s and omega-6s in balance. (Omega-6s, for the most part, help our bodies produce healthy inflammation. Omega-3s help control inflammation.) Our ancestors tended to get plenty of both. Today, however, we gorge on mass-produced grain and bean oils, and feedlot animal products (from animals fed copious amounts of grains and beans), all heavily weighted towards the omega-6 end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, we eat less fish, less nuts and seeds, less wild meat, less pastured eggs.
Corn oil, for example, runs at about a 45:1 omega-6:omega-3 ratio. Soybean oil is about 6:1. Canola oil is about 2:1.
Eggs from battery-raised hens tend to run about 15:1 in favor of omega-6s. Compare that to eggs from free-ranging, foraging hens whose number can look more like 2:1. We see similar switches when it comes to free-ranging dairy, poultry, and meats. Wild fish is almost entirely omega-3…
So to improve our omega-3:omega-6 ratio, we can eat a lot less of our “normal” food – advisable! – or begin to add omega-3 fats aggressively to the diet (or both). Switch out grain and bean oils for neutral olive oil, avocado oils and coconut oils, or omega-3-rich flax and hempseed oils. Eat pastured eggs instead of battery-fed eggs (even organic ones). Eat plenty of fatty, wild, cold-water fish. And of course take fish oil supplements.
Why fish oil instead of flax oil? Well, omega-3s come in different forms, abbreviated ALA, EPA, and DHA. In the body we convert one into another, into another, like this:
ALA > EPA > DHA
ALA is the omega-3 in nuts and seeds (including flax). It is not the active form… It’s useful for maintaining balance in the body. But since only EPA and DHA actually do anything – and since at best 15% of your ALA gets converted downstream – it’s limited as a medicine.
EPA and DHA are the omega-3s in animal foods, including fish oils. They’re stronger and more active. EPA is about reducing inflammation. It helps depression and impulsivity. DHA has more to do with structural issues: developing a healthy brain prenatally and in infancy, and maintaining the health of the brain and eyes into old age. Both EPA and DHA contribute about equally to heart health. Most pills contain slightly more EPA than DHA.
Here are some standard doses.
For general health: 1-3,000 mg combined EPA + DHA
For systemic inflammation: 3,000 mg combined EPA + DHA
For general heart health: Any amount in helpful, although optimally follow the instructions on system inflammation.
For mood, behavior, and impulsivity: 1,000 mg EPA, with very little DHA at the time you’re taking the EPA.
For prenatal brain development: at least 1,000 mg DHA. Although please do consider a good DHA/EPA blend, especially because of evidence it may reduce post-partum depression.
Editor’s note: Want to know how krill fits into all this? We have a handout on krill back in the supplement department for your reading pleasure!
 The world of herbal medicine is full of plants which intercept and block inflammation in the body. For the most part, they work quickly, effectively, and safely. However, they’re best suited to acute inflammation, such as sprains and other sports injuries, arthritis that is particularly aggravated, or active disease states – or when omega-3 fats have already been tried, and haven’t worked well enough. Look for formulas containing robust, concentrated doses of herbs like turmeric, boswellia, and devil’s claw.