Omega-3 fatty acids are regularly touted as vital elements in a healthy diet, and in fact they do have numerous, proven health benefits. They are essential not only because of their prominent role in maintaining a normal metabolism, but also because they help us to maintain proper brain function and allow for normal growth and development.
Although they are vital to us, our bodies cannot produce omega-3 fatty acids. Besides supplementation, the only source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids we have is the food we eat. Consuming sufficient omega-3 fatty acids reduces inflammation and can help with a number of conditions, including Candida and other digestive complaints.
Candida, Inflammation And Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In a previous post on Candida and inflammation I discussed how maintaining a healthy gut flora is one way to avoid inflammation, both in the gut and beyond. This is because of the connection between Candida and Leaky Gut Syndrome, a condition in which a chronic Candida overgrowth can begin to damage the intestinal lining, causing inflammation of the gut. And the metabolites of Candida, like acetaldehyde and tartaric acid, can cause inflammation too.
Since Candida overgrowth and inflammation are closely linked, one of the best ways to reduce inflammation in your gut is undoubtedly to restore your digestive system to a proper balance. That means maintaining the correct (acidic) pH in your gut, and encouraging a healthy, diverse gut flora. However, sometimes our bodies also need a little assistance, and that’s where omega-3 fatty acids can help.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been repeatedly shown to reduce inflammation, which can reduce some of the symptoms related to chronic digestive disorders like Candida. The omega-3s reduce inflammation in two major ways. Firstly, they prevent the formation of pro-inflammatory compounds named eicosanoids, which are formed from omega-6 fatty acids. And secondly, omega-3 fatty acids form several anti-inflammatory compounds that actively reduce inflammation. So, in other words, omega-3 fatty acids both reduce the cause of inflammation, and reduce any inflammation that already exists.
Sources Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are three kinds of omega-3 fatty acids that the human body regularly needs to absorb from food: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosaexaenoic acid (DHA), and A-linolenic acid (ALA).
The first two types of acid are the most important ones, and are primarily found in cold-water fish like salmon and sardines. These two provide us with most of the health benefits attributed to omega-3 fatty acids.
ALA is found in various seeds and nut oils such as flaxseeds, walnuts, purslane, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, canola oil etc. The body takes ALA and converts it into EPA and DHA, which is why foods that contain ALA are very prominent in vegetarian and vegan diets. However, there are many people whose bodies are not capable of converting ALA into the other fatty acids very effectively and they lose out on nutrients that they need in order to stay healthy. That is why omega-3 fatty acids also come in the form of supplements such as fish oil capsules.
Although it is a good idea to eat more fish in order to gain additional sources of omega-3 fatty acids, some of them (such as swordfish, mackerel and tuna) also have elevated levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins so they should be avoided. (1) Children and pregnant women in particular are recommended to avoid these types of fish.
The question of how much omega-3 to consume is not a straightforward one. It largely depends on how much omega-6 you are consuming, as you should always aim to keep these two competing fatty acids in balance. Those who eat large amounts of cereals and meat, and very little fish, might need to supplement significant amounts of omega-3. However, if you eat lots of fish and keep your intake of grains to a low level, you might not need to supplement very much omega-3 at all.
Other Reasons To Supplement With Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation and maintain important functions in the human body, but the truth is that their health benefits extend far beyond those functions. Research is still ongoing to determine the full range of positive effects that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can have on our health. Here are a few of the benefits that have been studied so far.
It has been observed that people who enjoy diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids tend to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol, also known as the “good” cholesterol which promotes heart health. Pertinent examples include those who follow the Mediterranean diet, and Eskimos who eat a lot of fatty fish. These results have been backed up by studies that used fish oil supplements rich in omega-3 fatty acids in order to reduce triglyceride levels in human subjects.
One of the most prominent benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is the way in which it averts heart disease. The role these acids play in helping to prevent cardiovascular disease has been very well documented. A diet which is rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 acids are polyunsaturated) and, at the same time, low in saturated fats will reduce the risk of developing factors associated with heart disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Moreover, fish oil is useful for eliminating fats in the blood and this, by itself, significantly decreases the chances of a stroke, heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, and other potentially fatal conditions.
It appears that an increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids reduces some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), including stiffness and joint pains. At the same time, an increase of fish oil in their diet would allow RA sufferers to decrease the amount of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) they take. It is possible that a combination of these two treatment options can yield the best results. One study showed that taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements along with conventional therapies helped minimize the symptoms of patients suffering from painful menstruation and inflammatory bowel disease (IBS). (2)
Some research would suggest that increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids can help with other forms of inflammation such as osteoarthritis. This is because one consequence of a diet rich in n-3 fatty acids is a reduction of available n-6 fatty acids and excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to inflammation.
One of the most studied and debated effect of omega-3 fatty acids is their role in preventing cancer. Although there is no general consensus regarding this, some research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids are capable of decreasing the risks for certain kinds of cancer. These fatty acids are likely to reduce the risk of colon cancer, as well as slow down its progression once it has appeared and it is in its early stages.
This has been observed in Eskimos who have a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, thanks to all the fatty fish they eat, and also have a very low rate of colorectal cancer. These observations were backed up by lab data, where animal tests revealed that omega-3 fatty acids prevent the disease from worsening. It is possible that omega-3 fatty acids play a positive role in fighting off other forms of cancer (particularly prostate and breast cancer) but there is not enough empirical evidence yet to confirm this fact for sure.
The efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids for the treatment of asthma is still being debated. One study performed with children found that a group taking fish oil supplements experienced reduced symptoms compared to a placebo group. The test was relatively small in scale and more research is needed, but the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids suggest that they may be helpful.
People who suffer from diabetes have low HDL cholesterol levels and high triglyceride levels. Both of these issues can be resolved by increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. However, it is important that the fatty acids come from fish oil (EPA and DHA). ALA, which is gained from seeds and plants, needs to be converted by the body into EPA and DHA and this is not something that diabetics can do very well. Moreover, taking fish oil can also increase fasting blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes so it is necessary to consult a medical professional before supplementing their diet.
The Importance of Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 acids are very similar to omega-6 fatty acids, another group of essential fatty acids that the human body is unable to produce on its own. Omega-6 fatty acids are primarily obtained from nuts, seeds, and oils made from them. However, when our intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids becomes imbalanced, this can cause health problems such as inflammation and arthritis. Consuming sufficient omega-3 fatty acids is important to maintain that balance.
One important thing to note is that there is no standard recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids to be consumed on a daily basis. These need to be kept in balance with the consumption of omega-6 fatty acids so, in reality, how much we consume of one should dictate how much we consume of the other. Both types of acids are competing for the same kind of conversion enzymes and the human body simply cannot produce enough enzymes to match the requirements. Consequently, the more omega-6 fatty acids are present in a diet, the fewer ALA can be converted into essential DHA and EPA. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition actually found that that the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in human tissue was inversely proportionate to the availability of omega-6 fatty acids. (3)
How can we tell if the omega-3 and omega-6 acids in our diet are not properly balanced? One important and obvious sign is inflammation. An excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids will lead to inflammation of the tissues (and potentially some of the conditions listed elsewhere in this article). This occurs when the relative consumption of omega-6 is higher than omega-3. In other words, eating lots of omega-6 fatty acids is probably OK as long as you eat enough omega-3 fatty acids to balance it out. Unexpected signs of inflammation can be a good indicator that a person requires more omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
In order to avoid the problems associated with an imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, an appropriate ratio between the two of them must be found. There is plenty of ongoing debate and research regarding what that ratio might be. Anthropological evidence shows us that the ratio has been increasing in favor of omega-6 fatty acids over the course of human evolution and this mainly has to do with our changes in diet. In fact, it is likely that our most primitive hunter-gatherer ancestors had a ratio close to 1:1. Severe changes started taking place around the time of the industrial revolution due to the fact that vegetable oil rich in omega-6 fatty acids became such a common ingredient used for cooking all over the world. At the same time, grains that were also rich in omega-6 acids were being fed to livestock, altering the amount of omega-6 fatty acids we received from meat.
The amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet continued to increase during the 20th century. In the 1930s, the ratio between the acids was reported as being 8:4:1, and by the end of the century it had reached 12:4:1. (4) Modern estimates of the ratio are even more alarming, ranging between 10:1 and 20:1. In short, humans are now consuming a lot more omega-6 fatty acids than they should, affecting the amount of omega-3 acids which get converted and absorbed. In turn, this seems to be a major contributor to the rise in chronic inflammation, and inflammatory diseases like asthma, arthritis, and more.
(3) Hibbeln et al (2006), “Healthy intakes of n−3 and n−6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity”, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/83/6/S1483.abstract.
(4) Kris-Etherton et al (2000), “Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the food chain in the United States”, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/71/1/179S.full.