Omega-3 fatty acids control many of the most basic functions of the cell — they are a major constituent of brain cell membranes and are converted to critical brain chemicals. One can easily see, then, how essential they are for our normal nervous system function and how their deficiency might be linked to mood regulation, attention, memory and mental health.
Omega-3 fatty acids also benefit the body by increasing insulin sensitivity. We tend to think of circulation as the process of flow through arteries and veins: obviously this is the case, but the major part of circulation is what goes into and out of the cell itself by crossing the all-important cell membrane. Regardless of what nutrient is delivered to a cell in the blood, it will have no effect at all if it can't get into the cell itself. Cellular circulation is deeply affected by the intake of fatty acids which in turn affects the fluidity of the cell membrane.
Increasing the omega-3 content of one's diet significantly increases the cell membrane fluidity and hence allows more nutrients to reach the cells themselves. Also the brain does not function well unless there is an adequate amounts of omega-3s are in circulation in the bloodstream and are incorporated into cell membranes.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal growth and may play an important role in the prevention and treatment of coronary artery disease, hypertension, arthritis, cancer and other inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.
The bottom line is that healthy fats are critical to life and the body is designed to manufacture most of the fats it needs. However, there are two major classes of fats that the body needs but cannot manufacture on its own; hence they must be obtained through diet alone.
These fats are the essential fatty acids (EFAs). The EFA classes are called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. There are two categories of omega-3: plant sources, such as flaxseed that contains alpha linolenic acid (ALA) , and marine sources such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. The most effective forms of omega-3 are EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
It is believed that less than 15 per cent of ALA converts to DHA and with little or no conversion to EPA due to which plant omega-3, such as flaxseed, cannot meet our body's nutritional requirements. Fish oil from cold water fish is a direct source of EPA and DHA. Similar to omega-3 EPA/DHA, gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is one of the most powerful forms of omega-6. When GLA (found in borage seed oil and evening primrose oil) is combined with EPA, beneficial prostaglandins (short lived local anti-inflammatory hormones derived from specialised essential fatty acids) are produced.
WHERE TO FIND OMEGA-3s
While high dose fish oil has extraordinary health benefits, it is extremely susceptible to oxidation/lipid peroxidation within the body unless therapeutic doses of fat soluble antioxidants are taken along with fish oil. The body must receive a continuous supply of EFAs in proper ratios in order to ensure proper production of prostaglandins.
Most often our diets are rich in omega-6 foods and salad dressings (sesame, sunflower, corn, peanut and soy, to name a few) and low in cold water fish and we tend to eat far too much omega-6 and are dangerously deficient in omega-3. Both the level of omega-3 and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is thought to be approximately 3:1.
The answer is usually as simple as taking fewer omega-6s and adding antioxidant protected fish oil to your diet.
Monika Seth/Nutritionist and diet consultant specialising in weight loss at Al Raffah Hospital