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• June 2, 2011   |   0 Comments   |  

Fish Oil – The Most Important Nutritional Supplement

For most Americans, the most important nutritional supplement we can take is high quality fish oil.  How can we substantiate this claim?

The first test of the importance of a supplement is how essential its nutrients are for good health.  Countless research trials over several decades document that both vitamin C and calcium are vital for human function.  A deficiency of either leads to disability, degeneration, and disease.  Similarly, thousands of clinical studies demonstrate that fatty acids in fish oil, especially the omega-3s EPA and DHA, play absolutely essential roles in human development from the moment of conception until one’s final breath.  Deficiencies of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docohexaenoic acid) increase our risks for:  strokes and cardiovascular disease—including  heart attacks, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis; nervous system and psychiatric disorders—including learning disabilities, memory impairment, dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s; degenerative musculoskeletal, autoimmune, and skin diseases—such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, psoriasis, eczema, and acne; inflammatory respiration disorders—such as asthma, allergies, and bronchitis; and a host of other American health problems, including obesity, diabetes, premature births, impaired infant development, and eye disorders.  It may seem incredible that such an extensive and varied group of serious diseases can be causally related to deficiencies in just one class of nutrients.  However, hundreds of controlled studies verifying the far-reaching negative effects of omega-3 deficiency are catalogued at www.omega-research.com

The second measure of the importance of a supplement is whether or not its nutrients can be manufactured by our own bodies or, if not, can be obtained readily from the foods we eat every day.  For instance, our bodies cannot make vitamin C; we must obtain it from external sources.  Fortunately, we can absorb much of the vitamin C we need everyday simply by eating several servings of apples, citrus, kiwis, and other fresh fruits and vegetables, all easily purchased for reasonable prices in most markets.  Likewise, we can obtain much of the calcium our bodies need every day from milk, yogurt, cheese, kefir, almonds, and other foods rich in this mineral.  Therefore, our needs for vitamin C and calcium supplements are reduced significantly by eating the right whole foods.

Fish oil capsules - the most important nutritional supplement

As with vitamin C and calcium, our bodies cannot manufacture omega-3 fatty acids.  Unfortunately, although ocean fish such as sardines, anchovies, and salmon are rich in EPA and DHA, there are at least three compelling reasons why we cannot obtain sufficient amounts of these omega-3s by eating whole fish.  First, major expanses of our oceans are densely polluted with mercury, PCBs, dioxin, and other toxins that are concentrated in the tissues of most species of fish.  Eating several servings of seafood each week could be more detrimental than beneficial to one’s health.  Second, much of the fish available today has been farm-raised on diets of grains high in omega-6s.  Such fish contain dramatically lower amounts of EPA and DHA than do their wild counterparts.  Third, compared to fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, fresh wild fish is very expensive, making it more economical to obtain the majority of the EPA and DHA we need from supplements rather than whole fish.   The preceding three factors, which severely restrict our access to EPA and DHA in natural foods, are reasons why fish oil is among the most important of all nutritional supplements.

The third test of importance for a supplement is how efficiently its nutrients can be absorbed and utilized by human beings.  Some vitamin C and calcium supplements are absorbed very poorly.  In x-rays of the pelvic region, for instance, images of cheaply made calcium tablets can be observed nearly fully intact, meaning the supplement was swallowed but its nutrients were not absorbed.  In omega-3 supplementation, flax oil and walnuts are often cited as alternatives to fish oil.  Unfortunately flax and walnuts are not direct sources of EPA and DHA, but rather another omega-3 fatty acid, ALA.  Our bodies can convert a small percentage of ALA into EPA and almost none to DHA.  Therefore, although some plant-based supplements do contain significant amounts of omega-3s, they do not supply sufficient amounts of the most essential ones, EPA and DHA.

How Much Fish Oil Do We Need?

If we accept the research substantiating the importance of obtaining EPA and DHA through fish oil supplements, the next question is:  How much do we need?  Each of us should answer this question in a manner consistent with our own personal health needs.  We can accomplish this by choosing one of three levels of EPA/DHA supplementation—minimal, moderate, and optimal.  Note that these levels are specifically for EPA and DHA and not just omega-3s.

1.   Minimal EPA/DHA supplementation is approximately 500 – 600 milligrams per day, the equivalent of ½ teaspoon of cod liver oil or 2 fish oil capsules, or eating ¼ can of sardines.  The effect of this level of supplementation is simply to avoid a deficiency.  This dosage is sufficient for teens and young adults who have no signs of inflammatory health disorders.  It is insufficient for most American adults.

2.   Moderate EPA/DHA supplementation is 1000–2000 milligrams per day, equal to 1 to 2 teaspoons of cod liver oil, or 4 to 8 regular-strength capsules of fish oil, or eating ½ to 1 can of sardines daily.  The American Heart Association recommends this level of EPA/DHA intake for those who have confirmed heart disease. This is conservative. Young adults with no muscle and joint aches should consider taking 1000 mg. per day.  Those of us who do have mild to moderate muscle and joint problems and/or even mild signs or symptoms of cardiovascular or respiratory disease should consider taking up to 2000 mg. per day.

3.  Optimal EPA/DHA supplementation is 2000–4000 milligrams daily, equivalent to 2 to 4 teaspoons of cod liver oil, or 4 to 8 capsules of concentrated fish oil, or eating  1 to 2 cans of sardines every day.  An individual with elevated blood lipids, a personal or family history of cardiovascular or respiratory disease, diabetes, arthritis, or any other systemic inflammatory condition should consider this dosage.  This level of EPA/DHA supplementation may be ideal for those who aspire to optimal health and to prevent the onset of premature senility.

Note: All recommendations in this newsletter are general in nature and must not be considered as specific advice to any one individual. Consult with your healthcare provider to determine all of your personal nutritional needs.

Why Do We Need So Much EPA/DHA?

It seems preposterous that every day most Americans need to consume EPA and DHA in amounts equivalent to what is found in 1 to 2 cans of sardines.  There is a clear reason. Until the latter decades of the 19th century, human beings consumed foods containing roughly equivalent amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Such balance is important because normal function of each cell in the human body depends upon a synergy between these two classes of essential fatty acids.  For instance, most omega-6s stimulate inflammation while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory.  This balance was destroyed by extreme changes in food production and processing during the Industrial Revolution.  Increasing mechanization led to a geometric increase in the production of grains and oils high in omega-6s and a corresponding decrease of omega-3 fats in the American diet.  Omega-6 fats continue to dominate our food supply.  We consume them directly in grains and oils, such as corn and safflower, and indirectly by eating animals and fish raised on omega-6 grains instead of wild plants in their native diets.  As a result, we now consume 20 to 30 times as many calories from omega-6 fats as from omega-3 fats.  In addition, the Industrial Food Complex has created new synthetic fats, such as hydrogenated oils and trans fats, that further alter the activities of human cells.  The extreme shift in our diets toward omega-6s and synthetic fats and away from omega-3s degrades the membranes of our cells and causes them to function in highly pro-inflammatory ways. Inflammation is a common denominator among the chronic vascular, coronary, respiratory, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, nerve, mental, and skin diseases that plague Americans.

Today, due to the insanely excessive presence of omega-6 and synthetic fats in the American food supply, most of us have EPA/DHA deficiencies that are greater than for any other vital nutrients. Because human health depends upon a balance between omega-3s and omega-6s, a small amount of EPA/DHA intake each day is not sufficient to correct these deficiencies. Such extreme deficiencies are the primary reason why high-quality fish oil is the most important nutritional supplement.  The only way to restore balance to the fatty acid composition of our individual cells and, thus, to lower inflammation throughout all of our bodily systems, is through substantial consumption of foods or supplements rich in EPA and DHA.  As we have seen, worldwide pollution of our oceans has made it economically difficult to accomplish by eating whole fish.

What Qualities Should We Consider in Purchasing a Fish Oil Supplement?

First, fish oil must be certified as pure and free from contaminants.  The label on a bottle of a  high-quality fish oil supplement identifies the testing organization that guarantees the purity of the product. The words “Molecularly Distilled” are often used to describe the process by which it has been purified. Do not purchase mega bottles of fish oil at low prices from drugstores, food warehouses, or online.  Buy it only from sources that consistently emphasize natural and organic foods and supplements. A one-month supply of a high-quality fish oil supplement will probably cost $20-40, depending on how much you take and whether you take it as a liquid (much cheaper) or in capsules. Check the expiration date to insure that the product you buy is fresh. Bottled fish oil should not smell or taste bad, cause a fish burp, or have an aftertaste. Most liquids now come in delicious flavors. Once a bottle is opened, it should be refrigerated constantly and consumed within a month.  Fish oil capsules should also be refrigerated after opening, but can last up to two months.

Second, read the back label to determine the exact amounts of EPA and DHA in each serving, not simply the amount of omega-3s. A label boasting of 1000 milligrams of omega-3s per serving probably has about 500-600 mg of EPA/DHA. Determine how many capsules or, in the case of liquids, teaspoons constitute a serving.

Finally, read what species of fish are used and where they live. The best sources are small fish such as sardines, anchovies, and herring from cold and relatively clean ocean waters.  These small fish are abundant and not endangered at the current time, although we must continue to be as vigilant for the survival of these species as we are for our own.

For all of the reasons cited above, taking a high-quality, pure fish oil supplement in the appropriate quantity is one of the most cost-effective health steps we can take.  Unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs, high-quality fish oil has no negative side-effects.  Its beneficial effects—from reducing joint and muscle pain, to decreasing the risks of heart disease and cancer, to improving neurological function—are nothing less than sensational.  At a cost of about a dollar per day, taking purified fish oil will save each of us thousands of dollars every year by preventing diseases that otherwise could disable us or require pharmacological drugs and expensive medical procedures. It is one way in which all of us can take better care of ourselves and thereby make personal contributions to true national healthcare reform.

Category: Nutritional Fitness, Supplements

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