Fish oils contain a special type of healthy fat, called Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s). Of particular benefit are two compounds called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and these are found in abundance in oily varieties of fish.
Omega 3 fatty acids have been quite extensively studied in recent years, and have been shown to be beneficial for many health conditions, including:
- Helping us form healthy cell membranes - which we need for our cells to work effectively to maintain fluid balance and allow beneficial compounds such as oxygen and nutrients into the cells, and wastes out.
- Contributing to healthier brain function (right from the time we are a fetus through to maintaining cognitive function in our older years) and mental health. Higher Omega-3's have also been shown to have a beneficial effect on depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD.
- Playing a role in maintaining eye health - having higher levels of omega-3's has been shown to be related to better vision development and a lower rate of macular degeneration.
- Slowing the ageing process, and people with higher Omega-3 levels have a higher life expectancy than those with low levels.
Obviously, as the name suggests, fish oils come from oily fish! These can include salmon and herring, and to a lesser degree, flounder, trout and seafood such as crab or prawns. So if you are eating these several times per week you are going to be receiving a good dose of healthy fats.
For those of us who don't eat these types of fish often, or who are concerned about pollution of our seafood, we are lucky to have access to fish oil supplements as a convenient way to meet our quota.
But Are Your Supplements Doing You Any Good?
I find that many people arrive in my clinic for their first appointment already taking a fish oil supplement. This is great, as it shows that people are aware that fish oils are good for the body, and that they can be a simple and economical way to address many common health conditions, as well as help prevent serious issues such as heart disease.
However, there are a few things that you need to be aware of when it comes to getting an over-the-counter fish oil product:
- Dosage. When it comes to Omega 3's, the dosage of the active constituents (EPA & DHA) is incredibly important. The reality is that many of the common over-the-counter products do not contain enough EPA or DHA to make a difference to the body - and when I explain to patients that they actually need to be taking 10 or 12 of their current capsules to address this, they are quite shocked. Also, one or the other of the compounds may be better for a certain condition - for instance, EPA has been shown to be more beneficial for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, whereas DHA is indicated as the main player in supporting brain function.
- Pollutants. It would be great to say that fish come from a perfectly clean environment but we know in this day and age that our seas are becoming increasingly polluted. Heavy metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium can all be found in fish oils, particularly if they have come from a large species of fish such as tuna, as larger species can accumulate higher levels of toxins over time. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) such as DDT and dioxins, as well as residues of pesticides can also contaminate your supplement. Whilst here in Australia we have standards regarding fish oils that are manufactured and sold here, these still stipulate an 'allowable' level of these pollutants, which in my opinion, is not good enough. In the clinic, I choose to use products that are sourced from small fish (using sustainable fishing practices) and which go far beyond the Australian standards for acceptable levels of contaminants. This means that my patients receive the cleanest, purest product.
- Oxidation. Another quality issue regarding fish oil supplements is that in some cases they can actually be bad for you! Depending on the manufacturing process, your oil has the potential to become damaged by exposure to oxygen (rancid). When this happens, they lose their benefit, and switch to being potentially harmful - meaning that you are better off not taking anything at all if this happens. Again, with the Australian standards there is an 'acceptable' level that has been stipulated is allowed in all supplements. The oils I use in the clinic have been specially prepared so that they have minimal oxygen exposure in order to maintain the quality of the oil. If you want to check the quality of the fish oil that you have at home - simply bite into one of your capsules. It shouldn't taste fishy or 'off' in any way - if it does, it may be better off in the bin than in your body.
Are You Getting The Right Dose of Omega 3's For Your Needs?
In the clinic, we can easily check whether you are getting enough Omega 3 fatty acids for your needs, with a simple and accurate test called the Omega 3 Index Test. This gives us a great snapshot into the levels of Omega 3's you have in your cells, your ratios of Omega 3 to Omega 6, as well as whether you have unhealthy levels of trans fats that may be contributing to your current health issues. This insightful test is available as part of an in-clinic appointment, or can be sent to you if you are working with me online.