It doesn’t really matter what we eat because the body can make anything it needs from what it gets, right? Well, not exactly. If the raw ingredients aren’t there, the body can’t operate properly.
Essential fatty acids, which fuel the brain and keep the heart healthy, are commonly missing ingredients that the body cannot make on its own. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, “Clinical signs of essential fatty acid deficiency include a dry scaly rash, decreased growth in infants and children, increased susceptibility to infection, and poor wound healing.”* It also impacts memory, neurological function, and coronary heart disease. And it’s far from rare. A Harvard study named omega-3 deficiency as one of the top 10 causes of death in the US, causing up to 96,000 preventable deaths per year.
Essential fatty acids are mainly thought of in two types. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetables, nuts and seeds, common in household cooking oils, as well as processed and fried foods. They are important for immunity, and have been shown to help reduce inflammation and symptoms of many chronic diseases. However, omega-3s (DHA and EPA) are not so prevalent, only available in fatty fish and shellfish in any appreciable amount. They are crucial to building cell membranes.
The issue at stake is that omega-6 oils from plant foods must be kept balanced with omega-3 oils from fish, and most people don’t eat enough fish to make an impact. Actually, it would be very difficult to accomplish. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be in the range of 1:1 to 4:1. Most people are in the 10:1 to 25:1 range. This is why omega-3 supplements have become big business.
But the minute you go to buy a bottle at the store, you’re confronted with choices: Omega-3 EFAs, Fish Oil, Krill Oil, or Cod Liver Oil. Which do you choose?
Omega-3 EFAs can be vegan, made of seed and nut oils (ALA), which must be converted by the body into the DHA and EPA it uses for brain development and activity. Flaxseeds are the best source of ALA, but it takes twice as much flaxseed as fish to get the same amount of omega-3s. Since only 3% of ALA are synthesized into what you need, it’s not overly efficient. I’m a huge fan of flaxseed oil – just not for balancing omega-6s. Check the label for what it truly is.
Fish oil is omega-3s that are derived from various fish, usually herring and mackerel, which tend to build up EPA and DHA in their flesh. Since many fish also build up mercury in their flesh, there is a risk in the oils derived from them. All omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated, which makes them very vulnerable to rancidity. They should always be processed quickly and without heat or chemicals to avoid destroying them. When the type of fish is unspecified, it may be a cheaper form of supplement, subject to cheaper and harsher forms of processing. Not necessarily, though; take the time to research your source and ensure that you have a high quality one.
Krill is a type of shellfish, which is important for people who follow a biblical diet or have shellfish sensitivities. Krill oil contains astaxanthin, a pigment which has anti-inflammatory properties and fights free radicals, as well as stabilizing the oil somewhat. Unlike other fish oils, the omega-3s in krill are bound to phospholipids, a type of lecithin, that are said to reduce fish burps and increase absorption. Many makers of this supplement do not divulge their extraction process, however, which may be chemically based and impacts its purity and freshness. This is a “buyer beware” supplement, a mix of great benefits with possible negative aspects. Do your research.
Cod Liver Oil comes from (obviously) the liver of the codfish, which is a concentrated source of EPA and DHA combined with vitamins A and D. These vitamins work synergistically with the fatty acids to help absorb calcium and thereby build strong teeth and bones, as well as promoting eye health. Compared to fish oil, there is less omega-3 per serving, but the integrated vitamins improve utilization in the body. The amount of vitamins A and D is high, which may be desirable in light of studies indicating that vitamin D deficiency is also very common. Cod liver oil is a time-tested supplement (the Vikings used it extensively) that builds a strong immune system and improves longevity. Tests have shown that it improves cognitive development, reduces depression, improves wound healing (even when used topically), and reduces upper respiratory illness in children.
Personally, I have used all of them, rotating supplements to get the benefits that each offers while offsetting the drawbacks. Take note of which one makes you feel the best – that’s your winner!