To answer this question, let me give you a better understanding of the importance of long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids. The two long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids that are most important are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Unlike other nutrients in our diet, the long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are not found in many foods. This is why nutritional experts have found that most Americans are not getting nearly enough of these key nutrients.
Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that the human body needs for normal metabolic function but cannot produce. Therefore, they have to be acquired from food. Essential fatty acids are made up of mainly Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The typical American diet consumes far too many Omega-6 fats while consuming very low levels of Omega-3 fats. The ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats to promote good health is anywhere from 3:1 to 1:1. Today the ratio of the abundant Omega-6 fats to the scarce Omega-3 fats averages from 20:1 to 50:1. This imbalance is not healthy and must be corrected.
A great deal of the problem is due to the overabundance of Omega-6 fats in our diet. The primary sources of Omega-6 fats are vegetable oils like corn, soy, canola, safflower, and sunflower. Trans fatty acids (trans fat) are made through hydrogenation to solidify oils to increase shelf-life. Heating Omega-6 oils to high temperatures creates trans fat. Trans fats are found in shortenings, some margarines, commercial pastries, fried foods, crackers, cookies, and snack foods.
Omega-3 fatty acids come in two groups, short-chain and long-chain. Short-chain Omega-3 fats are found in flaxseed oil, walnuts, and some green vegetables. A small amount of these fats (between 1% to 9%) are converted to long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids by the body. The rest are used primarily for energy.
Long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are only produced by marine algae and are the source of DHA and EPA in fish. The fish feed on the algae and thus bring the Omega-3 fats into their systems. Cold-water fish are the only substantial source of DHA and EPA in our diets today. Recommended fish are tuna, sardines, salmon, mackerel, and herring. Sadly, we are finding that tuna is becoming increasingly contaminated with mercury and other organic pollutants that have found their way into the marine food chain. We are likely to add other cold-water fish to the list in the future. We also know that most Americans do not eat the recommended two meals of fish per week. Experts conclude that the average adult consumes less than 100 mg of DHA per day. The body needs at least three to four times that amount for proper nutrition.
DHA and EPA are vital for human health and development. From the earliest weeks of pregnancy to adulthood, the heart, brain and eyes depend on DHA and EPA for healthy development and function. The body does not use these long-chain Omega-3 fats for energy. Literally, 100% of these nutrients are used to protect the body and promote good health. Long-chain Omega-3 fats have significant anti-inflammatory properties and counteract the inflammatory properties found in Omega-6 fats. DHA and EPA inhibit platelet function causing blood to clot less readily. The Omega-6 fats do just the opposite, so again the long-chain Omega-3 fats keep the body in the proper balance. The importance of Omega-3 fats simply in regards to the excess of Omega-6 fats is more significant than ever.
However, the health benefits of DHA and EPA are much more extensive. The direct evidence that they reduce coronary heart disease and reduce sudden cardiac death is so compelling that the American Heart Association recommends 1 gram of long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids per day for those with known coronary heart disease. This is the first time they have ever recommended a nutritional supplement.
There is a great deal of scientific evidence that DHA and EPA also protect the brain significantly. The long-chain Omega-3 fats appear to reduce Alzheimer disease, post-partum depression, bi-polar disease and depression.
Long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are currently used as alternative therapies in a wide range of illnesses like Crohn’s disease, diabetes, Rheumatoid and Osteoarthritis, hypertriglyceridemia, eczema and Lupus.
The good news is that while the long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are found only in fish, we can extract them easily from the fish and leave the mercury and organic pollutants behind. Fish oil capsules contain no mercury. Mercury (actually methyl mercury, the toxic form) is water-soluble, not oil-soluble. Refining fish oil removes the possibility of organic pollutant contamination. The result is that we have a safe effective remedy to increasing Omega-3 fats in our diets.
The use of Omega-3 fatty acids supplements will become an increasingly significant wellness strategy. A supplement that consists of a high concentration of EPA and DHA is recommended. A supplement with an EPA/DHA ratio of 2:1 is best. The long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are already being added to infant formula and food products but for now a fish oil supplement is the best and safest option.