Omega-3’s – Counting on Good Health

For some reason, whenever I hear the word omega, I think of alpha and omega; the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha (A) and omega (O).  Alpha and omega loosely translated relates to the expression from “A to Z”… front to back, start to finish, the beginning and the end, and everything in between.

It reminds me about good health, and that each day has a beginning; and each day has an end.  What you put into your health between a.m. and p.m. is up to you—and for most people, what you get out of it is also up to you.  So we try to ‘put in’ lots of good stuff, like quality foods, vitamins, minerals, lots of sleep and so on.  Many people are now including Omega-3 fatty acid supplements in their daily round, usually in the form of fish oil, with both traditional and alternative practitioners often recommending it.

But what—my curious mind just has to know—is Omega 3?  What is Omega-6?  Why not Omega-2?  Or Omega-1?  Why not Omega-25?  Well, just like there’s a meaning behind alpha and omega, there is also a meaning behind these ‘Omega terms.’ 

In the world of biochemistry, a fatty acid (not the same as fat) is an acid that is an important source of fuel for the human body: some are naturally manufactured by our bodies; and some we can’t make in sufficient quantity—the essential fatty acids—but our bodies still need them, so we snatch them from the foods we eat.  So this fatty acid forms itself into a strand-like fashion, called a tail or a chain.   When our bodies get access to this fuel through metabolism, they provide huge quantities of energy (called ATP) needed by the core of each of our cells to produce cellular energy—our life force energy, the kind of energy that keeps us alive, keeps us moving and in good health.

So fatty acids have two ends, and the tail end is the omega end.  The tails, or the chains of these fatty acids, are composed of carbon atoms, and they come in different lengths, usually called short chain, medium chain, or long chain.  Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) have tails of fewer than six carbons; medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA) have tails of 6–12 carbons, which can form medium-chain triglycerides (relates to cholesterol…sound familiar?); long-chain fatty acids (LCFA) have tails longer than 12 carbons; and very long chain fatty acids (VLCFA) have really long tails, longer than 22 carbons!

So when you think about Omega-3 fatty acids, envision the location of this atom on this chain—it’s number three on the link of the carbon chain; hence the name.  Following this nomenclature of logic, there is an Omega-6, which is number six on the chain link; and so on—and yes, there is even an Omega-25, which is a very long chain fatty acid (VLCFA)!!  Enough of the chemistry, already.

Omega-3 fatty acids are fats (good fats) commonly found in marine and plant oils. They are polyunsaturated fatty acids with many health benefits and they are essential fatty acids—essential to our health, and we have to get them from an outside source, like food or in supplements.  Common sources are fish oils and some plant oils, like flaxseed oil.

Omega-6 fatty acids are fats, and yes, they’re in line as player number six on that chain; however, our diets are often too high in this player, since they come from foods like corn oil, soy oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil.  The ratio of Omega-3’s to Omega-6’s is important, and if we have too much Omega-6, they can dominate, and we can end up with deficiency of Omega-3—the one we want.

The list of afflictions associated with a deficiency of Omega-3 fatty acids is a long one; ranging from A to….well, V in this case: acne to vision disorders.  Symptoms can include:

• Fatigue
• Poor memory
• Immune weakness
• Dry skin, eczema, or hair loss
• Heart problems
• Reproductive problems
• Mood swings or depression
• Poor circulation

If your diet is deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids, you could experience symptoms such as these.  Increasing your consumption of Omega-3 eggs, canola oil, walnuts, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, soybeans, and cold-water fish such as mackerel and sardines can help relieve these symptoms and balance out the ratio of these powerful fatty acids.

Sometimes it’s hard to eat enough of these foods, so many of us take fish oil capsules.  There’s a bonus to this: in addition to preventing Omega-3 deficiency, getting enough Omega-3s can also reduce inflammation, decrease joint pain, fight obesity, reduce exercise-induced asthma, and lower blood pressure.  So it’s worth making sure that you’re getting enough Omega-3s in your diet.

It’s important to point out that fish oil dosage varies with age, weight and diet. There is no exact dosage for everybody. For example, if you eat a lot of processed foods, especially grains and grain oils (all Omega-6 fats) they counteract Omega-3 fats and you will have to take more Omega-3 to balance your Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio.  This clearly points to the need to avoid processed foods, excess grains, and grain oils—and get plenty of Omega-3’s.

So next time you hear about Omega-3’s and good health, you’ll have a better understanding of this ‘chain of information’ and why it’s so important to your health.   Remember, good health stems from what you put into your health, every single day—from start to finish, the beginning and the end, and everything in between.

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