Omega 3s: what are they and why do we need them?

by Jennifer Novakovich

Omegas 3s are a buzz word in nutrition today, with exciting evidence showing a reduction of many diseases. The benefits of omega 3 were first described in Greenland Eskimos, who ate a diet high in seafood and fat. These individuals, despite their high fat intake, had remarkably low rates of heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Since then, research has shown benefits that also extend to cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and mental health. Why is omega 3 so effective at promoting good health? Why do we need it? And most importantly, are you getting enough?

Why is omega 3 (and omega 6) essential? Omega 3s and 6s are examples of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs); they cannot be made in our bodies because we lack the enzymes to place double bonds in certain required locations within the fatty acid. Both PUFAs play an important role in altering our cell membranes, producing signaling molecules and modulating gene expression. The primary omega 6 is alpha-linoleic acid (which can be converted to arachidonic acid) while the three primary omega 3s are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Omega 3 has a counteracting action to omega 6; while omega 6s promotes coagulation, angiogenesis and inflammation (essential for many bodily functions including blood clotting) for example, omega 3s are anticoagulants, anti-angiogenic and anti-inflammatory. Both omega 6 and omega 3 compete for the same enzymes; omega 3s will not only act as an anti-inflammatory, it will also down regulate omega 6s.

Human evolution is characterized by diets high in omega-3, while low in omega-6; the ratio was most likely close to 1:1 in paleolithic diets. Many evolutionary theories suggest that omega 3 may have played a pivotal role in the evolution of our intelligence, allowing for larger brains. Today, our diets are drastically different from our ancestors’ hunter-gathering diets. Our diets are now characterized by agribusiness, processed foods, grain-fed livestock and hydrogenated oils resulting in low levels of omega 3 and high levels of omega 6. Today the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is closer to 30:1 at times! Our bodies are not adapted to these high levels of omega 6s, seen through the rise in chronic diseases, especially those characterized by inflammation (e.g. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis).

Where do we get our PUFAs? Omegas 6s are readily available in our diets especially in grains, grain-fed meat, processed foods and corn, soy or vegetable oils. Omegas 3s, on the other hand, are less available and should be actively incorporated into our diets. They are only found in a few foods, primarily in fatty fish (increasing at decreased environmental temperatures for the fish in order to maintain membrane fluidity) and certain vegetables and nuts. In marine-based omega 3s (DHA and EPA), algae and phytoplankton make omega 3; they are eventually eaten by fish so that omega 3 can move up marine food chains through bio-accumulation. In modern times, fish populations are decreasing at faster and faster rates leaving marine-based omega 3s even more scarce. Luckily, ALA omega 3 is derived from a different, on land source. ALA is present in many vegetables, nuts and seeds, with notably high concentrations in flax, chia, walnuts and avocados.

Now before you start jumping to the conclusion that we can get enough omega 3s through ALA, your physiology and metabolism must be taken into account. In your body, ALA must be converted to EPA and then to DHA in order for the beneficial end products to occur. Unfortunately, the conversion is quite low and may be anywhere between 0.2% to 21% depending on genetic and environmental factors. While a few studies have shown chronic disease risk reductions due to only ALA (e.g. 10% reduction in heart disease risk) supplementation, the bulk of the research is questionable and in its infancy. Most studies suggest that, in order to meet your omega 3 requirements, a marine based omega 3 must be present in your diet. This is obviously a dilemma in terms of both environmentally conscious individuals and vegetarians. Two solutions; take an algae based omega 3 supplement or eat a whack load of ALA (or better yet, both!). Wholly Noggin are vegan bars that packs ALA rich ingredients (e.g. Walnuts and chia seeds) into compact bars providing peace of mind for the environmentally conscious and the vegetarian.

So how do PUFAs affect our health? While omega 6 tends to support the development to chronic disease (e.g. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis), omega 3 has counteracting actions. For example, 250mg of EPA/DHA reduced heart disease by 36% in a meta-analysis of cohort studies and clinical trials. DHA supplementation to pregnant women resulted in a 31% reduction in premature births and by 61% in at-risk pregnancies. Omega 3 supplementation is also suggested to be a good component of a muti (??)-drug treatment option for cancer.

In terms of mental health, we have high omega 3 contents in certain areas of our brain (cerebral cortex and retinal phospholipids) which indicates that omega 3 plays an essential role in brain and visual functions. Omega 3 is vital in the development of our brains in early life and is shown to reduce risks for neurodegenerative disorders both early and later in life. Omega 3s is associated with a lower risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia. They also may improve learning abilities and memory and may be a viable option for children with neurodevelopmental disorders, who have a higher incidence of omega 3 deficiencies. Furthermore, growing evidence indicates that omega 3 deficiencies may put individuals at an increased risk for developing patterns of hostility, violence, substance abuse and alcoholism.

What makes Wholly Noggin Bars so great? Not only are they gluten-free, organic, non GMO, soy free, free of refined sugar, raw and vegan, they are also jam-packed with nuts and seeds that are high in ALA omega-3. The high ALA content makes them a good, environmentally friendly source of a nutrient that is absolutely vital for good health. Wholly Noggin Bars not only contain brain and heart healthy omega 3s, they also are an excellent source of protein, healthy carbs, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and many phytonutrients using high-quality, tasty ingredients. These bars can offer a convenient and nutritious snack or meal replacement without all of the disguised sugars and filler ingredients present in other bars. They will sustain you throughout the day while feeding your brain so you can be the creative, smart, emotional and physical person you were meant to be.

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