I’m writing about omega-3 fatty acids today because, despite all you hear in passing about them, does anyone know exactly how they can help? I myself didn’t realize their full impact on my body until I went off my fish oil regimen for three weeks recently. I was taking three trips in quick succession, and since I take my omegas in oil form, I couldn’t easily bring it with me. (I didn’t think that a broken bottle of fish oil would make my suitcase innards smell or feel all that great—maybe that’s just me.)
Anyhow, I wasn’t noticing any changes in my body at first, and it even crossed my mind that I could stop with the oil entirely once I got home. After a number of days though, things changed. My forty-eight-year-old knees felt sore after running, and though the soreness abated by the following day, it didn’t really go away. My hips felt generally achy and uncomfortable. And my skin, hair, and nails were really dry. I chalked these changes up to the cold mountain air, but then I found myself in the tropics feeling no different. What was up?
The day I finally got home for good, I resumed my omega regimen. In my case—and this isn’t a commercial!—I take 1–2 tsp of Carlson’s lemon-flavored fish oil daily, which I keep in the fridge. It actually does not taste bad—as nauseating as the notion of fishy, lemony oil by the spoonful sounds. It took close to a week to start noticing improvement, but, sure enough, it came. My hips felt comfortable again, as did my knees, even after running and spinning. My skin and hair improved. I just felt better, more youthful, and more like myself.
Why? Very simply, it’s because we need the right balance of omega-3 fatty acids in our bodies to prevent inflammation. The vast majority of us do not get adequate omega-3s, and we get too many omega-6s; we need both, but in the proper ratio. 6s come from the foods that Americans eat most: meat and poultry, refined carbohydrates, and bad fats (such as those that are hydrogenated). By moving to a diet that is more about fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, and less about food products from a package with long, unintelligible ingredient lists, you are already moving in the right direction. But even someone like me who has really strived for the past fifteen years to maintain a mostly plant-based diet with almost no refined foods, needs a boost when it comes to 3s. My joints and skin made that very clear. Rather than going to a physician who might talk to me about quitting running or even someday considering knee or hip surgery, I addressed the issue at its root.
Regarding dosage, if you want to try adding omegas to see how they might affect your health, Dr. Joel Kahn, a holistic cardiologist and friend, suggests the following: “You can meet all requirements for essential fatty acids with 2 tbs daily of ground flax. Rather than focus on increasing omega-3, decrease the extra omega-6 in your diet in processed food and factory farmed meat.” (Flax seeds should be ground up in small batches, by the way, to maintain their freshness and potency. I use a well-cleaned coffee grinder, and keep the ground flax in a small glass jar in the fridge.) Dr. Kahn says that if you’re looking at fish-based omega-3 products, avoid the cheaper brands that may be contaminated with PCBs and other toxins. The American Heart Association recommends 1,000 mg a day combined EPA and DHA (two of the omega-3 acids required, in addition to ALA, which is found in plant sources such as flax and hemp seeds, and walnuts). Dr. Kahn offers a lot more information here. All of this applies to your kids as well, though the dosage will be less. I find Nordic Naturals products very palatable to my own, and I sprinkle ground flax on their yogurt and cereal.
Don’t expect overnight change; give yourself two full weeks and then check in with your body. You might also notice improvements in your level of alertness and brain fog. Low-level, chronic inflammation has been implicated in everything from Alzheimer’s and arthritis to depression and cancer.
Picture yourself accidentally hitting your thumb with a hammer and watching it turn red and puffy and inflamed as your immune system attends to its healing. Now imagine your insides looking that way for decades from an unbalanced diet, and imagine how that might tax, weaken, and age your immune system, arteries, and organs. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to helping tamp down this internal fire. I was lucky enough to find out how first hand; it’s a mistake I will not repeat.