Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for proper health. They reduce inflammation and are required for optimal immune, heart, eye and brain health.
That’s why various health organizations, including the World Health Organization, recommend consuming sufficiently high amounts of omega-3-fatty acids.
Unfortunately, many people do not take in enough omega-3 fats, often even when consuming fatty fish twice per week.
We therefore recommend eating fatty fish at least four times per week, as well as taking supplements and fish roe, as we explain below.
However, it’s important to know that there are various problems with omega-3 supplements. The main problems are the following:
- Often omega-3 fatty acid supplements are too oxidized
- Some supplements don’t contain enough EPA and/or DHA
- Often supplements contain less ideal forms of omega-3 fatty acids
- Supplements and various foods miss out specific forms of omega-3 fats, such as phospholipid and lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC)-based omega-3 fats.
Problem 1: Most omega-3 supplements are too oxidized
Most omega-3 supplements — and we really mean almost all of them — are not of good quality. They are too oxidized.
This should not really come as a surprise given omega-3 fatty acids are very prone to oxidation.
Oxidized omega-3 fatty acids are unhealthy, and can lead to oxidation of other molecules in our cells.
There are very few brands that have cracked the problem of oxidation of omega-3 fatty acids.
Most brands try to add antioxidants to their omega-3 fatty acids, like vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) or rosemary extract, but they often do that when it’s already too late, when omega-3 fatty acids have been too oxidized already.
So, despite adding these antioxidants, for most supplements the TOTOX values (Total Oxidation) are too high.
There are not a lot of brands that try to keep TOTOX levels as low as possible. Some examples of brands that offer high-quality omega-3 fatty acids are (not sponsored) Omega3 Innovations or Nordic Naturals.
Some scientists believe that omega-3 fatty acids derived from krill are less oxidized than omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil.
Krill are tiny shrimp-like animals that contain a strong antioxidant called astaxanthin which protects their omega-3 fatty acids against oxidation. However, further research still has to bear this out.
Problem 2: not enough EPA and/or DHA
There are 3 main forms of omega-3 fatty acids:
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
EPA and DHA are often animal-derived (e.g. found in fish or krill), while ALA is often plant-derived (e.g. found in nuts and seeds).
EPA and DHA are more powerful than ALA. Also, the body does not always properly convert ALA into EPA and DHA, especially in the brain.
So we recommend taking supplements containing EPA and DHA. EPA is classically viewed as especially good for the heart, and DHA for the eyes and the brain (up to 10 percent of fats in the brain consist of DHA).
Some supplements contain only EPA, or only DHA, or mainly one specific form (EPA or DHA). It’s important to take a supplement that contains both EPA and DHA, in about the same amounts.
Problem 3: Less ideal forms of omega-3
Not all omega-3 fatty acids are the same. There are different forms of omega-3 fatty acids, namely:
- Triglyceride-based omega-3 fats: this is omega-3 fat as it occurs in fish and algae. It consists of 3 fatty acid tails (which can be EPA or DHA) connected to a glycerol backbone (see image further down).
- Ethyl-ester-based omega-3 fats: the fatty acid tails (EPA or DHA) are not connected to a glycerol backbone, they are individual branches. It’s a more “unnatural” version, given in nature omega-3’s are mostly found in triglyceride or phospholipid form.
- Phospholipid-based omega-3 fats: this kind of omega-3 fat consists of two fatty acid tails (EPA or DHA) connected to a backbone that contains glycerol, phosphate and a molecule which can be choline, ethanolamine, inositol, or serine. These kinds of fats are found in nature, especially in krill (see image further down).
- Lysophosphatidylcholine (LPC)-based omega-3 fats: this kind of omega-3 fat is similar to phospholipid-based omega-3 fats, only the tails (DHA or EPA) of lysophosphatidylcholine-based omega-3 fats are swapped compared to standard phospholipid-based omega-3 fats (see image further down). Fish roe contains very high levels of lysophosphatidylcholine-omega-3’s.
A lot of people, including omega-3 selling companies, say that all of them have similar effects.
However, it’s not that simple. Different forms of omega-3 fats can have different rates of absorption, different ways of being processed by the body, different distribution in tissues, and different effects on the body and our health.
Firstly, we prefer more natural forms of omega-3, such as found in fish (e.g. triglycerides) and krill (e.g. phosphatidylcholine), instead of omega-3 esters. This is because the body has been using these forms for millions of years. Also, these omega-3 oils can also contain various other fats and molecules that can improve their absorption and function.
Other studies show that phospholipid-based omega-3 fats seem to be better absorbed than triglyceride based fatty acids from fish oil (R).
And then there is the importance of lysophosphatidylcholine-based omega-3’s.
Why LPC-omega-3 fats are (very) important
Lysophosphatidylcholine-based omega-3 fats (LPC-omega-3’s) are a special form of phosphatidylcholine-based omega-3’s. As mentioned before, their DHA tails are swapped.
LPC-omega-3 is the kind of omega-3 you find much less in fish; it is present however in very high levels in fish roe, like herring roe, salmon roe and lumpfish roe (fish roe from sturgeons is called caviar).
In fact, DHA as LPC-omega-3 increased DHA content more than twofold in the brain, while giving mice omega-3 DHA as ethyl-esters did not increase brain DHA (R).
LPC-DHA also markedly improved learning and memory in mice, while normal DHA didn’t have an effect (R). The mice that took LPC-DHA found an underwater-plateau 7 times faster than the control mice that received standard DHA.
Scientists believe that LPC-omega-3 can cross the brain-blood-barrier via a specific transporter (Mfsd2a), which can only transport LPC-omega-3 and not standard omega-3 (R).
That’s why we recommend, besides eating fish, to also consume fish roe which contains high amounts of LPC-omega-3.
So how to go about taking omega-3?
So how to make sure you consume enough omega-3, and of the right quality and form?
1. Consume four times per week fatty fish – at least
Firstly, we recommend consuming at least 4 times per week fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, anchovy, mackerel, or sardines.
That will provide you with lots of omega-3 fatty acids in their natural, triglyceride form, and will also provide you with various other healthy fats, such as furanic fatty acids.
If you are worried about bioaccumulation of toxins and heavy metals in fish, you can opt for small fish (like sardines and mackerel) which accumulate less toxins. However, almost all studies that demonstrate the health and longevity effects of high-fish consumption included all fatty fish, large or small ones, with or without toxins.
2. High-quality, low TOTOX DHA & EPA omega-3 supplements
We also recommend, besides regularly consuming fatty fish, taking a high-quality omega-3 supplement with low TOTOX values, which contains ideally natural forms of omega-3 fatty acids, like triglycerides and or phospholipids, and this in both EPA and DHA form.
Ideally, you take an omega-3 oil supplement that contains both fish-derived triglycerides and krill-derived phospholipids.
Examples of such brands are (not sponsored) Omega3 Innovations (sells fish oil with very low oxidation / TOTOX values) and Nordic Naturals.
Make sure the daily dose is high enough — it should ideally be at least 1000 mg (EPA + DHA) per day.
3. Fish roe
Furthermore, we recommend to consume also daily, or at least a few times per week, fish roe, such as herring roe, salmon roe and/or lumpfish roe.
These are high in a specific form of omega-3, namely lysophosphatidylcholine-based (LPC) omega-3. This form is especially important for brain health.
On top of that, consume daily walnuts (at least a handful), chia seed and/or flaxseed (you can add these seeds to your yoghurt or porridge for example), as these contain plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.
How about getting my omega-3 fatty acids not from animal sources but from plants?
Plant-based foods like walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds contain plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, called alpha-linolenic acids (ALA).
However, the problem is that ALA is not always sufficiently transformed into DHA and EPA by the body. DHA and EPA are the omega-3 fatty acids that are active in our cells.
Therefore we recommend making sure you consume sufficient amounts of animal-derived DHA and EPA via fatty-rich fish, fish roe and omega-3 supplements derived from fish, algae or krill.
Of course we still recommend consuming walnuts, flaxseed and chia seed on a daily basis, given they deliver extra omega-3, while containing many other very healthy substances.
As you can see, making sure you take enough omega-3 is not straightforward. However, it’s definitely very important given the many beneficial effects these powerful fatty acids have on our health, body and mind.
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