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From the American Heart Association to the President of the United States, a lot has been said recently about the benefits of omega-3's. In the early 1980's, researchers noticed that tribal people native to Greenland had an astoundingly low incidence of inflammatory conditions like psoriasis, colitis, and diabetes. A study was conducted and scholars determined that the secret to the health of these people lay in their diet, which is rich in coldwater fish and, more importantly, the omega-3 fatty acids found in these fish. In the intervening years, omega-3's have been linked with not only reducing the severity of psoriasis, eczema and other skin conditions, but a host of health benefits ranging from reducing cholesterol to combating depression!
Omega-3's are part of a group of essential fatty acids which our bodies are unable to synthesize on our own. Simply put, we are unable to produce omega-3's, so they must be acquired from outside sources. In nutrition, important omega-3's include α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both DHA and EPA are commonly found in fish oils, while good sources for ALA include seeds such as flax and pumpkin, as well as walnuts.
It is also important to understand the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in cereals, bread, baked goods, and some vegetables and, when overconsumed, can actually increase inflammation and allergic response in some individuals. Though some omega-6 is certainly necessary, it is thought that most Western diets contain far too much of it in relation to omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids tend to have the opposite effect on the system, reducing inflammation, and may counter the effects of too much omega-6 in the body.
A.P. Simopoulos of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health has found information that suggests that humans evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids of approximately 1:1. The modern-day ratio is ranges anywhere from approximately 10:1 to 25:1! This indicates that Western diets are seriously lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, compared with the diet on which genetic patterns were established and humans evolved. Consumption of omega-3 through supplementation or eating certain plants and fish is known to modulate the balance of lipid inflammatory mediators, and can thereby make a valuable contribution in the treatment of inflammatory skin disorders. Modern nutritional science has developed new insight into the relation between food intake and health, and consumption of omega-3 fatty acids appears to be biologically relevant for optimal skin health.
Inflammatory skin conditions such as psoriasis often greatly improve when the proper amounts and concentrations of essential fatty acids are consumed. Omega-3 many contribute to reduction in the number of flare-ups as well as the severity of scaling and redness. In general, omega-3 supplementation usually improves skin moisture and appearance, as well as dry skin and eczema.
Numerous studies and trials have been conducted to test the efficacy of omega-3's on skin health and psoriasis. Here are just a few that illustrate the promising results of this amazing fatty acid!
The results of these and many other studies clearly demonstrate the link between skin health improvement and omega-3's. The scientific community is still trying to find a direct link between omega-3 fatty acids and psoriasis. Several studies have actually found little or no improvement from the use of omega-3. Notwithstanding, most researchers and practitioners would agree that adding omega-3 to your diet is a wise choice. When choosing a supplement, it's important that you consider a high-quality pharmaceutical-grade product such as that contained in DermaEssentials™.
Additional benefits of omega-3 fatty acids
Scientists hypothesized that DHA and EPA would prove to be a useful tool in helping reduce inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis when they started studying the benefits of omega-3's. As studies continued, their expectations were confirmed, but they also discovered that omega-3's were beneficial for a wide range of other afflictions. Heart disease, inflammatory conditions, and some neurological afflictions also have a positive response to omega-3!
Omega-3's are particularly good at reducing inflammation in the body. A study conducted on patients with intestinal disorders such as colitis and Crohn's disease found that subjects taking fish oil supplements required far less potentially harmful steroids to treat their conditions than those taking a placebo. Most holistic practitioners are keenly aware that the state of the intestinal tract directly affects the state of many other tissues—including skin health.
Not only do omega-3's have the potential to reduce inflammation around the heart and in the veins and arteries, but they have also been shown to significantly diminish the incidence of heart attacks and strokes when taken as recommended. Omega-3's relax the arteries and encourage blood to move more quickly through them. Hypertension can also be reduced, and omega-3's are also suggested for assistance in lowering blood pressure! Cholesterol levels are also affected by omega-3 consumption: individuals taking them often experience a drop in LDL levels and an increase in HDL or "good" cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends that when possible, people should include omega-3's in their diet as a preventative measure against heart disease.
Individuals suffering from schizophrenia often have difficulty processing fatty acids, and frequently show low levels of DHA and EPA. Omega-3's may also reduce the amount of interleukin-2, a substance that may cause schizophrenia-like symptoms in some individuals. Rates of depression in countries where people regularly consume lots of fish, and therefore omega-3's, are far lower than those in countries where lesser amounts are eaten. Recent studies have also linked omega-3 to a reduction in severity and regularity of attention deficit disorder in children.
If you are taking certain heart medications or suffering from a bleeding disorder (such as hemophilia or von Willebrand's), you should not be taking DHA/EPA supplements except under the advice of a physician. Supplements containing EPA are not recommended for infants or small children without healthcare provider surveillance because they can upset the balance between DHA and EPA during early development. This suggests that pregnant women should also be cautious about taking fish oil supplements and clear their use with their OB/GYN or nurse midwife. Fish oil may be associated with side effects such as abdominal discomfort and loose stools. In addition, they may lengthen bleeding time slightly. Those taking blood-thinning medications should discuss the use of fish oil capsules with their medical professional. Consumption of DHA/EPA may also increase antioxidant requirements in the body. Taking extra vitamin E along with omega-3 may be helpful. Consult your healthcare provider before adding any new herbs or supplements to your existing medication regimen.
Adverse effects can include the following:
Plant sources of the essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA)
|Flaxseed oil, 1 tbsp (14 g)||57||8.0||16||0.28:1||The richest known source of ALA. Flaxseed oil is highly unstable and should not be heated.|
|Flaxseed, whole, 2 tbsp (24 g)||57||5.2||16||0.28:1||Keep at room temperature.|
|Flaxseed, ground, 2 tbsp (24 g)||57||3.8||16||0.28:1||Best kept refrigerated or frozen.|
|Greens (mixed), 1 cup (56 g)||56||0.1||11||0.19:1||Fat in greens is >50% ALA; however, because total fat is so low, they are not significant contributors to intake for most people.|
|Hempseed oil, 1 tbsp (14 g)||19||2.7||57||3:1||One of the few foods that contains GLA (1.7% GLA).|
|Walnuts, 1 oz (1/4 cup; 28 g)||14||2.6||58||4:1||Highest n-3 content of any common nut; only the candlenut has more (30% ALA).|
|Canola oil, 1 tbsp (14 g)||11||1.6||21||2:1||Excellent n-6-to-n-3 ratio. To avoid the genetically engineered canola, buy certified organic.|
|Soybean oil, 1 tbsp (14 g)||7||0.9||51||7:1||Not the best choice for general use because of high n-6 content.|
|Soybeans, 1 cup cooked (172 g)||7||1.0||50||7:1||Can make a significant contribution to total ALA intake.|
|Tofu, firm, 1/2 cup (4.5 oz; 126 g)||7||0.7||50||7:1||Same as soybeans.|
From Davis & Kris-Etherton (2003). Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: Current knowledge and practical implications. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78 (3), 640S-646S.
Should you take omega-3's?
By now you might be wondering, "So why isn't everyone taking omega-3?" Well, unless an individual is suffering from a blood clotting disorder or taking certain heart medications, the answer is, they probably should be! In the interst of raising awareness for better health, the Bush administration asked the both the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to promote the inclusion of omega-3's in a healthy diet. The American Heart Association endorses their use to increase heart health. Whereas DHA is normally found in breast milk, baby formula-manufacturing companies are now adding it to infant formulas to promote increased health in bottle-fed infants.
While the FDA approves the use of omega-3's for improving health, they have yet to establish RDA's (recommended daily allowances) for them. Most researchers agree that a approximately 100-200 mg DHA and 200-400 mg EPA are sufficient amounts for most adults. But with certain conditions, individuals may need between 2-4 grams total per day of combined omega-3's to make an observable difference in those health concerns, such as a shift in the cholesterol profile or a reduction in inflammatory conditions like psoriasis. Most Americans are unable to include cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines in their daily diet, not coming close to the suggested three times per week. Many of us are also concerned about high levels of toxins found in the larger fish species. These issues can be circumvented by taking omega-3's in the form of a pharmaceutical-grade fish-oil supplement.
Flax seed vs. fish oil
You may have seen or heard that flaxseed oil is a good source of omega-3's and wonder if it has the same health benefits as fish oil. Although flax seed does in fact contain omega-3's, many leading experts still recommend fish oil as the best source. Plant-based supplements contain ALA, which our bodies are able to convert to EPA and DHA, but researchers are still unsure how effectively. In his book The Omega-3 Connection, Dr. Andrew Stoll explains, "Although the scientific literature is mixed on this issue, humans may be unable to convert enough ALA to EPA and DHA to achieve optimal levels of these long-chain omega-3's." Another problem with flax oil is its short shelf life. Flax oil needs to be used quickly or it oxidizes and becomes rancid, a quality that may have a pro-inflammatory affect. Because of its unstable nature, flax seed oil does not travel very well. Finally, most of the research on the positive uses of omega-3's has focused on the EPA and DHA obtained from fish oil.