In my last article on whether or not to take supplements, I said that I would talk about any other supplementation beyond a multivitamin. The more accurate term is really “multi-vitamin and mineral” or MVM for short, because it contains both the vitamins and the minerals (like calcium, boron, iodine, etc).
Remember I mentioned that beyond a good quality multivitamin, supplementation should be targeted and for a specific purpose, and you should know why you’re taking it and for how long. Over-dosing on supplements can be just as problematic as not getting enough nutrients.
Before I embarked on my nutritional therapy studies, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this, but now that I know what I know, I recognise that there are essentially two groups of supplements – those that are safe to self-supplement on a daily basis, and those which should only be taken with professional guidance.
The supplements that are safe for supplementing every day are the MVM we already talked about, and possibly, an omega-3. Please always check with your doctor beforehand. What I’m sharing with you here is educational, and in no way, is it personal advice for you.
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that have been found to support the nervous system, skin health, brain development, cardiovascular function and much more.
They are called “essential” fatty acids, because we cannot make them in the body and must consume them through our diet. They are polyunsaturated fats, found naturally in oily fish, like sardines, mackerel, tuna and salmon, and these omega-3s are called eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanioc acid – much easier to say EPA and DHA.
Omega-3s may also be obtained through plant foods, such as flaxseeds, chia seeds or walnuts. These omega-3s are called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and although they can be converted by the body into EPA and DHA, the conversion rate is both variable and low, ranging from 0.2% to 20%. This means that it can be potluck whether you’ll get the healthful benefits of EPA and DHA if you are relying solely on plant omega-3s. Hence, oily fish is the best way of getting omega-3s.
But wait, there is another omega fatty acid that is also an essential fatty acid, and must be consumed through your diet. It is omega-6, which is found, for example, in nuts and seeds, poultry and eggs and vegetable oils. It can therefore also be found in many foods cooked or made with unhealthy vegetable oils.
Hence, omega-6s are far more widely and easily found in our average foods than omega-3s, and thus, most people eat proportionally more omega-6 than omega-3. It is thought that with our modern diet, we likely consume a ratio of between 15:1 or 20:1 of omega6:omega-3. However, an ideal ratio would be in the region of 4:1.
Why are omega-3s important?
Dietary fat is used by the body as a building block within your cell membranes. To put it another way, when you eat fat, your body builds your cell membranes from that fat. So, the more saturated fat that you eat, the higher the proportion of saturated fat that is incorporated into your cell membranes, which make them stiffer. On the other hand, the more unsaturated fats (such as omega-3 and omega-6) you eat, the higher the proportion of unsaturated fats that get built into the membranes and the more flexible your membranes become.
We don’t want our cell membranes to be too fluid or too stiff, because this can affect the ability of molecules to pass in and out of our cells, and hence impact on our body’s ability to work effectively.
Further, omega-3 has a primarily anti-inflammatory effect in our bodies, while omega-6 has a mostly pro-inflammatory effect in our bodies, as they influence chemical messaging. We need both. We need the omega-6 to help promote inflammation when it is needed, for example, when we incur an injury. However, we do also need a balance of omega-3 in order to help counter inflammation, and here’s the crux; both omega-3 and omega-6 are converted by the same enzymes, so they compete for it in our body. Too much omega-6 and omega-3s lose out.
A certain amount of omega-6 is important for our health, but as most people already get enough omega-6 in their average diet, and may not be eating enough oily fish (two to three times a week), then taking a fish oil omega-3 supplement may be beneficial, as it can further help them to get EPA and DHA directly.
It is interesting to note that our brain is made up of some 60% fat, and fatty acids (DHA, in particular) are crucial for our brain’s integrity and ability to perform. They are involved in the production of brain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and have been found to help protect brain nerve cells. Indeed, observational studies have linked imbalanced intake of fatty acids to reduced brain performance. Perhaps this is why, as a child, my mother always said that fish was good for the brains, and why some people consider fish to be a “brain food”.
That’s a good reminder that it’s always, “food first,” and supplements are not a substitute for a good diet. So consider whether you may already be getting enough omega-3 in your diet, and whether you are taking any medications that omega-3 supplements could interact with (for example, antihypertensive or anticoagulant drugs), and always check with your doctor first.
Then, if you are going to supplement, make sure that it is a high quality omega-3 (fish oil) supplement. Check the expiry date and use it before that date. Oils can easily go rancid (technical term – they become oxidised), so keep it in the fridge. Getting a smaller bottle also helps you finish it sooner and allows less time for it to oxidise. If it tastes or smells bad (not “fishy” but off), then ditch the bottle.
Simopoulos, A.P. (2016). An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity, Nutrients Vol. 8(128).
Chang, C.Y., Ke, D.S. and Chen, J.Y. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurologica Taiwan. Vol. 18(4): pp.231-41.