By Dr. Mercola
Mounting research drives home the importance of animal-based omega-3 fats for heart health. After reviewing this topic carefully, I am convinced that maintaining a healthy level of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may be one of the most important food priorities.
DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are long-chained omega-3 fats (22 and 20 carbons respectively) found in fatty fish like wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies and certain other sea creatures, including krill. The featured video by AkerBioMarine is part of a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of measuring your omega-3 level. Indeed, along with vitamin D, I believe measuring your omega-3 level is a truly vital health test that should be done on an annual basis.
Like vitamin D, being deficient in omega-3 will leave you vulnerable to all sorts of chronic disease. Optimizing your omega-3 is a truly foundational component of good health. Unfortunately, many still do not even realize such a test exists. It does, but first, let’s review why animal-based omega-3 fats are so important for health in the first place.
Plant- Versus Marine-Based Omega-3
Omega-3 fats can be obtained from both marine animal and plant sources, but they are not interchangeable. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an 18-carbon omega-3 fat found in plants like flax and chia seed does readily convert to DHA. Typically, just 1 to 3 percent of ALA is converted to DHA, which is nowhere near the amount you need for brain and heart health. Some studies have found the conversion rate to be as 0.1 to 0.5 percent.
And, while plant-based omega-3 fats are important for health, the animal-based DHA is the one most strongly associated with heart health and other important health benefits. EPA and DHA are both considered “essential” fats as your body cannot make them, and hence you must get them from your diet. Omega-3 ALA on the other hand is quite ubiquitous in the diet and therefore there is no real need to supplement.
DHA and EPA Protect Your Heart Health
Research suggests eating fatty fish and other omega-3 rich foods may lower your risk of a fatal heart attack by 10 percent. Taken after a heart attack, omega-3 fats can also significantly improve your odds of survival. In one large trial, heart attack survivors who took 1 gram of omega-3 fat every day for three years had a 50 percent reduced chance of sudden cardiac death.
As noted in the featured video, exercise is not enough to protect your heart. You also need to be mindful of your omega-3 level. Animal-based omega-3 fats, especially DHA, protect and support your cardiovascular health by:
- Lowering blood pressure and counteracting or preventing cardiac arrhythmia
- Improving endothelial function (which helps promote growth of new blood vessels)
- Lowering triglyceride concentrations and preventing fatty deposits and fibrosis of the inner layer of your arteries
- Helping prevent thrombosis (a blood clot within a blood vessel)
- Counteracting inflammation
DHA and EPA are also important for digestion, muscle activity, blood clotting, visual acuity, memory and learning, basic cell division, function of cell receptors and more. Importantly, animal-based DHA and EPA:
- Are structural elements, not just a source of energy. DHA is particularly vital, as it is a component of every cell in your body. There are specific transporters for long-chained omega-3s in your blood-brain barrier, the placenta (in pregnant women) and likely also in your liver, which transport these molecules in a very precise way into the cell membranes where they belong
- Regulate communication within the cell and between cells
- Play a role in helping your body properly utilize sunlight
- Have a profoundly important influence on mitochondrial health
Get Tested Today
In terms of how much omega-3 fat you need, the best way to determine your required dose is to measure your omega-3 level with an omega-3 index test. This test has consistently been found to provide the most accurate measurement of the omega-3 level in your body. Ideally, your index should be above 8 percent. If you’re below 8 percent, increase your omega-3 intake and retest until you find the dosage that allows you to reach and maintain an ideal level. Ideally, you’ll want to wait three to six months between each test.
Rather than depending on recommended dosages, getting your level tested is really the only way to ensure sufficiency, because requirements for omega-3 will vary depending on your lifestyle; your intake of fatty fish, for example, and your level of physical activity. Athletes tend to burn off their omega-3 quite rapidly, as the DHA gets burned as fuel rather than being used as a structural component of their cell membranes. Hence, they will need higher dosages.
GrassrootsHealth has created a convenient and cost-effective combination test kit that measures both your vitamin D and omega-3 index. This third-party test kit is part of its consumer-sponsored research project. By gathering information on the population’s vitamin D and omega-3 levels, we will better understand how these nutrients impact health. The data (which will not include any identifying personal information) will also allow researchers to study the links between these two nutrients.
Ideal Omega-3 Sources
Seafood is your best source of long-chained omega-3 fats. However, it’s important to realize that all fish do not contain these fats. Tilapia, for example, contains no EPA or DHA. The fish needs to be harvested from cold water, as this is what triggers the production of omega-3 fats in the fish. Some of your best options for clean fats are wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies.
An excellent alternative, if you do not want to eat fatty fish, is to take a krill oil supplement. I firmly believe krill oil is superior to fish oil. Although both contain EPA and DHA, krill oil is bound to phospholipids, which allows the EPA and DHA to travel more efficiently through your bloodstream. Hence, it’s more bioavailable. This means you need far less of it than fish oil, as confirmed by a 2011 study published in the journal Lipids.
Researchers gave subjects less than 63 percent as much krill-based EPA/DHA as the fish oil group, yet both groups showed equivalent blood levels, meaning the krill was more potent. Phospholipids are also a principal compound in high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which you want more of, and by allowing your cells to maintain structural integrity, phospholipids help your cells function properly.
Meanwhile, fish oil is bound to triglycerides and methyl esters, which must be broken down in your gut to its base fatty acids of DHA and EPA. About 80 to 85 percent is simply eliminated in your intestine. Krill oil also contains natural astaxanthin, which prevents rancidity of these highly perishable oils. Regular fish oil does not contain this antioxidant, and is therefore far more prone to oxidation.
Algae — A Vegan Source of DHA
Not surprisingly, vegans will typically have half the omega-3 level of people who allow themselves some marine fats, and this can have serious health implications. If you’re die-hard vegan and refuse to eat seafood, algal oil, made from algae, is a vegan-friendly option.
Most recently, a 2014 scientific review concluded algal oil can be an effective alternative source of DHA for vegetarians and vegans, noting that many studies have found ALA from nut and seed oils are not converted to DHA at all, and therefore cannot be relied on. An earlier study, published in 2008, found that algal oil and oil from salmon appeared to be bioequivalent:
“We compared the nutritional availability of … DHA from algal-oil capsules to that from assayed cooked salmon in 32 healthy men and women, ages 20 to 65 years, in a randomized, open-label, parallel-group study. In this two-week study comparing 600 mg DHA/day from algal-oil capsules to that from assayed portions of cooked salmon, mean change from baseline in plasma phospholipids and erythrocyte DHA levels was analyzed and DHA levels were compared …
DHA levels increased by approximately 80 percent in plasma phospholipids and by approximately 25 percent in erythrocytes in both groups. Changes in DHA levels in plasma phospholipids and erythrocytes were similar between groups …
These results indicate that algal-oil DHA capsules and cooked salmon appear to be bioequivalent in providing DHA to plasma and red blood cells and, accordingly, that algal-oil DHA capsules represent a safe and convenient source of non-fish-derived DHA.”
Omega-3 Requirements Increase During Pregnancy
There is no set recommended standard dose of omega-3 fats, but some health organizations recommend a daily dose of 250 to 500 mg of EPA and DHA for healthy adults. If you’re pregnant or breast-feeding, your body will likely require additional omega-3. I know from experience that eating a can of sardines and salmon roe for a few months put my omega-3 Index at 10, which is very healthy.
The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada recommend pregnant and lactating women (along with all adults) consume at least 500 mg of omega-3s, including EPA and DHA, daily. The European Commission recommends pregnant and lactating women consume a minimum of 200 mg of DHA, in particular, per day. Again, if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy, now is the time to get your level checked to make sure you’re not deficient.
More than 90 percent of the omega-3 fat found in brain tissue is DHA, making it very important for your child’s brain development. Studies have shown omega-3 fats lowers the risk for learning disorders, behavioral disorders, ADHD, autism, and dyslexia. Omega-3s are also needed for proper eye development, and for the prevention of premature delivery. Low levels of DHA may increase the risk for a reduction in cognitive processing speed and poor eye-hand coordination by age four.
Other Health Benefits of Animal-Based Omega-3
Aside from heart and brain health, omega-3 fats are also important for:
Setting the Record Straight on Plant- and Marine-Based Omega-3s
To recap, it’s important to realize that you cannot trade animal-based omega-3 for plant-based omega-3. Even if you take large amounts of plant-based omega-3 it simply will not provide you with the raw materials you need for a healthy body and brain. It doesn’t work because your body cannot convert enough ALA into DHA and EPA.
So, if you’re vegan, you simply must figure out a way to compensate for the lack of marine animal fats in your diet. Keep in mind that while studies suggest algae appears to be an effective alternative, the only way to verify this is to get your omega-3 level tested. Pregnant women are also urged to test their vitamin D and omega-3, as these two nutrients are vital for healthy fetal development and can rather dramatically reduce your risk of pregnancy and delivery complications.
I firmly believe an omega-3 index test is one of the most important annual health screens that everyone needs. Please note I make no revenue from these tests. I merely supply them as a convenience for my readers. It’ the same price whether you buy it from me or directly from GrassrootsHealth.
*Article originally appeared at Mercola.