Years of scaremongering against fat has had the unfortunate consequence that many women get too few essential fats in their diet, such as the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Since we humans are unable to produce them in the body, we rely on a steady supply from our diet. This makes them just as important as vitamins and minerals.
Woman who do not eat fish are three times more likely to develop heart disease. A large Danish research project has shown that women of childbearing age who do not eat fish, experience a nearly three times increased risk of heart disease compared to those who eat the most fish. The preventive effect of omega 3 fatty acids on cardiovascular disease is attributed to their anticoagulant and anti-arrhythmic properties, their ability to lower blood levels of fat (triglycerides) and to some extent also cholesterol. More generally omega 3 constitute an important fuel for the cells. Fats are needed to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in the body, and to transport a large number of signaling molecules and to form vital hormones. They are part of cell walls in the brain, eyes and skin and are essential for their function. Women with dry skin often lack omega 3 fatty acids.
Substitute or supplement
There are different types of omega 3 fatty acids. The two most important are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), where research has shown health benefits from supplementation.
Free Fatty acids
Normal fish oil comes in the form of triglycerides. Each triglyceride consists of a glycerol molecule attached to three chains of fatty acids.
Lipase and bile
Triglycerides are digested in the duodenum by means of bile and lipase (that breaks down fat). Lipase and bile decompose the fatty acids in glycerol. Triglycerides must be split into glycerol and free fatty acids in order to be absorbed from the intestine.
Free Fatty acids
A preparation containing free fatty acids does not require the presence of digestive enzymes (bile or lipase). The free fatty acids are readily absorbed from the gut - even by individuals with reduced fat digestion, weakened gallbladder or/and pancreas.
As fish is usually the richest source of omega 3 in the diet, fish oil supplements are ideal for compensating for low dietary intake of fish.
Important to know when buying fish oil supplements
Highly concentrated fish oil
Omega-3 in the form of free fatty acids which are absorbed quickly and efficiently in the digestive system. Unlike normal fish oil (as triglycerides), free fatty acids do not have to be decomposed by digestive enzymes in order to get absorbed.
Vitamin B reduces homocysteine
Fish supplements enriched with folic acid and B12 helps to decrease levels of homocysteine in the body. Homocysteine is a naturally occurring yet toxic amino acid that is generated as a result of normal metabolic activity. Both folic acid and vitamin B12 can transform homocysteine into healthy amino acids. Elevated homocysteine levels are seen in atherosclerosis and osteoporosis, among other things. There seems to be a positive interaction between folic acid, vitamin B12, and omega-3, in that all three components seem to have individual protective effects on cardiovascular disease.
Restoring fatty acid imbalances with omega 3 fatty acids
Too much omega-6 in the diet is known to promote inflammation in the body. A healthy balance between omega-6 and omega-3 in the diet, on the other hand, lowers the risk of many symptoms and diseases that typically affect women, including obesity, rheumatic diseases, cardiovascular disease, asthma, eczema, type 2 diabetes, menstrual pain, and breast cancer.
This is because omega 3 fatty acids are building blocks of signaling substances called eicosanoids which inhibit inflammatory processes that are often the underlying cause of so-called civilization diseases. A typical Western diet is estimated to contain up to 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3. This is also referred to as a 15:1 ratio. The optimal omega-3/omega-6 ratio has not yet been established, but research shows that women ideally need an omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 4:1 and perhaps even 2.5:1 in order to reduce the risk of all the diseases mentioned.
Fish oil supplements during pregnancy
During pregnancy, the need for omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA) is increased in both the fetus and the mother. This is particularly essential in the last three months where the child requires a daily 30-45 mg of DHA supply from the mother to support development of the brain and eyes.
After birth, breastfed infants continue to rely on DHA from the mother's milk.
Since many women fail to get enough omega-3 from their diet, it is recommended that they take supplements during the period of pregnancy and lactation. Not only does this support the development of the baby's brain and eyes, it also ensures a sufficient amount of DHA for the mothers.
During pregnancy and lactation, it is often recommended to avoid or limit ones intake of particularly fatty fish due to potentially elevated levels of mercury and other pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs.
Dosage for pregnant women
It is recommended that pregnant and lactating women get 200 mg of DHA daily to support the child's growth and development at the same time as maintaining their own well-being. The supplemental dosage should be taken in addition to normal recommended daily dose of 250 mg EPA + DHA.
Fish oil supplementation and overweight
Comparative studies between European countries have shown that women with the lowest intake of fat have the highest tendency to become fat, while women with the highest intake of fat have the least tendency to become fat. In European men, no correlation has been observed between fat intake and obesity.
Physician Walter C. Willett points out these observations in his book: "Eat, drink and be healthy. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating"
Walter Willett is Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.