So – what are “essential fatty acids”? What’s the buzz about Omega 3’s?
First, let’s take a step back and explain what fatty acids themselves are. Fatty acids in general are basic molecules used in lots of different places in our bodies. They can be used for instance, as energy and fuel sources, as structural components in cells and proteins, and to assist in digestion, in addition to many other uses. Our bodies can make lots of these fatty acids on their own, but some types have to be acquired from the environment in foods that we eat. These are what we call Essential Fatty Acids.
Essential fatty acids exist in a few varieties, but so far only two are currently thought to be required for humans. These are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3’s are perhaps the most commonly known, and this is what we’ll be looking at for the rest of this discussion.
Omega-3 fatty acids fall under the category of polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. There are actually three separate types of omega-3 fatty acids seen in human physiology. The first, alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA is found in plants. Sources of this type of omega-3 fatty acid include seeds such as chia, flax and soybeans (the full list is much longer).
The other two forms of omega-3 fatty acids are found in marine sources. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is often seen in cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna, bluefish and sardines. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is found in fish as well, including cod liver, herring, salmon, and mackerel. While these acids can of course be ingested by eating fish, they are also available in a variety of supplemental products, such as fish oil gelatin tablets.
Many studies show that omega-3s can be beneficial in the treatment of chronic health complaints including asthma, depression, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, and autoimmune diseases, such as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.
So what role do omega 3-fatty acids play in the treatment of pain and disease, or in overall health maintenance?
"All these diseases have a common genesis in inflammation," says Joseph C. Maroon, MD, professor and vice chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Omega-3's reduce the inflammatory process in the body that leads to many chronic conditions.
Studies from the University of Michigan show that fish oil significantly diminishes the production and effectiveness of various prostaglandins, naturally occurring hormone-like substances that can accentuate inflammation and thrombosis.
In another controlled study of the anti-inflammatory effects of Omega-3s by Dr. Maroon, the results showed that compared to ibuprofen, omega-3 EFAs demonstrated equivalent effect in reducing arthritic pain. Sixty percent of the participants in the study reported improvement in their pain levels, and no side effects were reported. Omega-3 EFA fish oil supplements appear to be a safer alternative to NSAIDs for treatment of nonsurgical neck or back pain.
In short, Omega-3 fatty acids have the effect of reducing inflammatory processes in the body. They are a beneficial supplement for management of chronic pain and certain diseases, and are also a valuable tool in preventative wellness care. I recommend choosing a high quality fish oil, tested for purity and free from contaminants, such as Standard Process Cod Liver Oil, or Tuna Omega 3 Oil. As always, consult with your healthcare practitioner before adding any new supplements, and feel free to contact me with any questions!
Allison Blaisdell, MSTOM, Lic.Ac. is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist in private practice at Maverick Square Acupuncture in Boston, and also at Massachusetts General Hospital. She offers private and community acupuncture treatments, as well as online holistic health coaching and consultation. Her mission is to educate and empower her patients to achieve their best possible health.