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Do you know how to choose the best omega-3 supplement for you?
Yes, you probably already know about the absolute necessity for omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. After all, almost 20 million people in the United States take an omega-3 supplement. That makes it the number one natural product used by adults.
But it’s a bad idea to just buy some “fish oil” and call it a day. You must be certain the supplement you have chosen is the safest and most beneficial product available.
“Fish oil” is a source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is associated with numerous health advantages for people of all ages, which is the main reason for its popularity.
However, you must be savvy when purchasing omega-3s, since the supplement market is not tightly monitored. It’s easy to be fooled into buying inferior products made with poor quality ingredients and other issues that could not only fail to deliver hoped-for benefits but also harm your health as well.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are classified as “essential” because they are required for human health, but your body is incapable of manufacturing them. That means you have to get these nutrients from food.
The three main types of omega-3s (aka, polyunsaturated fatty acids) are EPA, DHA, and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). ALA is found in plant foods such as nut oils, soybeans, walnuts, algae, and flaxseed.
Both EPA and DHA are “long-chain” fatty acids and readily available to the body. ALA is a “short-chain” fatty acid that is a precursor to the longer-chain fatty acids, and must be converted to EPA and DHA for use. This conversion is not very efficient, as an estimated 8 to 20 percent of ALA is converted to EPA and 0.5 to 9 percent is transformed into DHA. Therefore, most experts recommend getting EPA and DHA from fish oil while also enjoying foods that provide ALA.
Why are omega-3 fatty acids essential?
Your body uses omega-3 fatty acids for a number of functions. From the moment of conception, DHA is especially critical for vision and nerve development, and both EPA and DHA continue to be important throughout life for brain function (as well as another omega-3 called DPA).
Getting enough omega-3 helps maintain normal heart function, normal inflammatory response, and has a beneficial effect on mood. If you wanted to name the “specialty” of each omega-3, you could say that EPA is better for inflammation while DHA is critical for brain function and nerve cell health.
Overall, however, if you experience fatigue, if you want healthy circulation, if you have dry skin, or if you want to maintain healthy heart function, and normal memory and mood, an omega-3 fatty acids could be exactly what you need.
Can’t I get omega-3 fatty acids from fish?
Certain fish, such as tuna, salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel, are excellent food sources of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, I always encourage you to enjoy these and similar fish from unpolluted sources. However, most people don’t eat enough fish on a regular basis to get the minimum recommended amount of EPA and DHA.
What is the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids is per day? There’s a wide range of omega-3 dosages that help maintain your health. Yet surprisingly, experts have not agreed on a standard dose.
The American Heart Association suggests healthy adults eat at least 7 ounces of fish per week, and those choices should be toxin-free (i.e., from PCBs and mercury; see below). But this suggestion does not specify the amount of EPA and DHA.
The World Health Organization has recommended 300 to 500 mg EPA and DHA daily and 800 to 1,100 mg of ALA. As we’ve seen, even taking that much ALA isn’t going to give you much additional EPA and DHA, which you’ll need, because 500mg of even highly bioavailable omega-3s is not enough for human health.
Most doctors in the know ask you to get from 2 to 3 grams a day.
How can I be sure my fish oil is free of toxins?
Purity is critical when purchasing omega-3s sourced from fish oil. Reputable manufacturers will use a process called molecular distillation to remove toxins from their fish oil. Nearly all products will say they meet international standards for levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, furans, and heavy metals, but you want a manufacturer who can verify that claim. Verification should be in the form of a Certificate of Analysis (COA), which shows that an independent laboratory analyzed the supplement’s ingredients. The lab should be accredited, have an impeccable reputation, or by sponsored by a government agency.
Although no fish oil supplement will be 100 percent free of toxins, you can expect a best effort. There are industry standards for fish oil manufacturers to follow. The standards of the Council for Responsible Nutrition are representative of the industry and are as follows: for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, 100 parts per billion (ppb); total PCBs, 90 ppb; dioxin and furans, 2 parts per trillion (ppt). Reputable supplement makers will reveal their testing results for each lot of product.
This is very important: If the manufacturer can’t or won’t provide a COA, don’t buy their product.
To help ensure product purity is to buy fish oil that is made from anchovies and sardines, which are on the lower end of the food chain. These fish are less likely to have a high concentration of toxins.
Which additives can be found in omega-3 supplements?
There are plenty of additives in many kinds of these supplements, which is why you want a supplement that is as pure as possible. What you don’t want are any of the following ingredients: artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives; sugar, dairy, wheat, gluten, corn, yeast, soy, salt, tree nuts, or genetically modified organisms.
How can I determine freshness of omega-3s?
Did you know that it’s possible for omega-3 supplements to go “rancid”?
Rancidity is critical because once an oil has undergone oxidation (and become rancid), it can promote inflammation and cellular damage when you ingest it. To say the least, this is not the health result you want when you are trying to promote normal inflammation.
Since EPA and DHA are highly susceptible to oxidation, they can easily become rancid.
The two best ways to determine freshness of omega-3 supplements is to check their peroxide value and to smell them. A supplement’s peroxide value reflects a level of rancidity that can occur in the oil while it’s in storage. This value should be noted on the COA and ideally should be less than 5 meg/kg.
If the peroxide value is satisfactory, the second way to check freshness is to break open a fish oil capsule. If it smells like rotten fish, reject it. A fish oil supplement that has a strong citrus aroma may be an attempt by the producer to camouflage rancid oil. You want a fish oil product that has a pleasant scent, like an ocean breeze.
How can I determine the potency of omega-3s?
Yes, some supplements are more potent, and will deliver to your organs and cells more of the benefits you are looking for.
For maximum potency, a fish oil supplement must contain enough EPA and DHA. The term “enough” is relative, depending on whether you are taking omega-3s to support overall health. For example, for the heart, joint discomfort, or cellular health, you need more omega-3s than if you just want to maintain your already-good health.
Generally, the ratio of EPA to DHA in omega-3 supplements is around 3:2. I suggest an omega-3 supplement that provides you with about 1,080 mg of EPA and 720 mg of DHA daily in no more than three doses for health support.
How can I get the best bioavailability from omega-3 supplements?
Once you bring your omega-3 supplement home, you want to be sure your body can effectively utilize its components. A supplement’s bioavailability, or the ability to absorb its ingredients, is based on the molecular structure of the fatty acids.
The general principal is, don’t mess with nature. The more natural the cellular structure, the better you can absorb and utilize the nutrients. Therefore, you want your fish oil purified, but not overly processed. That’s as close as you can come to eating whole fish without doing so.
To improve bioavailability even more, you should take your omega-3 supplements with a meal high in healthy fat (e.g., avocados, olive oil, fatty fish). In fact, research shows that men who consumed a high-fat meal (44 g total fat) and natural fish oil had a significant improvement in absorption of EPA when compared with a low-fat meal (improvement of 69% to 90%), while the absorption of EPA and DHA from distilled and concentrated fish oil was only 60 percent when taken with a high-fat meal.
Which omega-3 supplements are from sustainable sources?
Our oceans are being overfished and devastated by predatory fishing practices. As a result, many fish oil products are made from endangered fish. Be sure to choose products made from fish that have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, the Sustainable Seafood Certification, or the Environmental Defense Fund.
Although none of these organizations is 100 percent perfect, they are managing a desperate situation concerning sustainable fishing and a potential environmental disaster when it comes to world fish populations. If you choose to take omega-3 fatty acid supplements, choosing one that is environmentally friendly is a responsible, sustainable choice.
Clearly, choosing the best omega-3 fatty acid supplement requires some investigation. However, I hope I’ve relieved you of most of the extra effort so that all you have to do is follow this short guide that will lead you to a product that can benefit your heart, brain, immune system, nervous system, and overall health. And that’s effort well spent.