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Omega-3 fatty acids
One of the most important and most researched fats in the diet is omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for health for numerous functions in the body including regulating inflammation, supporting immune health, and providing structure and function of the brain. The ‘essential’ fatty acids are those which can only be obtained from the diet (and therefore cannot be made in the body) and include omega-3 ALA (food sources include linseeds and chia seeds) and omega-6 LA (food sources include nuts and seeds and vegetable oils).
Omega-3 fatty acids may be considered the most important choice of supplement, compared to other fatty acids, for their optimal health benefits. It is also important to understand that the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 in the body can also determine health outcomes. Too much omega-6, for example, can increase inflammation. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are known as polyunsaturated fats, and there are several types of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids which have different effects on health. Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from plant sources such as from linseeds, echium seeds and algae, or from fish. The different types of omega-3 fatty acids are structured with varying ‘chain lengths’, i.e. the higher the number of carbon atoms in the molecule, the longer the chain will be. The body requires the longest chain length fatty acids for health, including omega-3 EPA and DHA, which are found in fish and algae. The body can convert short-chain fatty acids from plant oils to the longer chain fatty acids such as EPA to a certain extent, although, for reasons which can vary from inadequate diet to stress or illness, this is often limited.
EPA is required in the body to regulate inflammation; supplementation can therefore support conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease and inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. EPA is also required for the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters which are the chemical messengers in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine which allow us to feel happy and relaxed, etc. EPA can therefore have beneficial effects on those with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD, as well as for those with mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder. EPA can also regulate blood pressure and cholesterol; it is therefore beneficial for cardiovascular health.
DHA is an important structural fatty acid in the brain, and is required in higher amounts during pregnancy and breast-feeding, as well as the first few years of life when the brain structure is still being developed. Adequate omega-3 DHA intake during pregnancy and breast-feeding can therefore improve brain function for the child later on in life. DHA is right at the end of the fatty acid metabolism chain, therefore EPA can be converted to DHA if the body requires more.
Plant source omega-3
Rich food sources of plant omega-3 include linseeds, chia seeds and echium seeds. Although conversion of these shorter chain omega-3 fatty acids to the long-chain fatty acids (such as omega-3 EPA) may be limited, this may be your only option if you are vegetarian. Echium seed oil (providing SDA, further along the conversion pathway) has the best conversion to the longer chain fats, therefore is more anti-inflammatory compared to other seed oils.
Omega-3 deficiency signs
It is common for people following a typical Western diet to have deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids, as fish consumption is low and refined foods and intensively farmed meat are generally poor providers of omega-3. Deficiencies may present as dry skin, brittle nails and dry hair and eyes. Deficiency during pregnancy may affect brain and eye development of the unborn foetus. Deficiencies of young children may manifest as difficulties with concentration and behavioural issues. Deficiencies over a long period of time may lead to development of diseases such as arthritis, depression and cardiovascular disease.