Alpha-Linolenic acid

April’s Nutrition Hot Topic: Anchovy Love In the Pill Aisle

Better late than never. Right?

This past week, Dr. Jennifer Sacheck from Tufts University came to guest lecture in one of my classes.  Her lecture topic was The Nutrition-Exercise-Inflammation Connection: Impact on Health and Disease. Interesting, right?  I feel like inflammation has become a buzz-word in the health media these days. We talk a lot about preventing it or treating it. You can’t feel inflammation.  There’s no anti-inflammation drug out there. So why do we care? Better yet – what the heck is it?

Inflammation is a biological response of vascular tissues to an irritant, think toxins/pathogens/damaged cells. It’s really just a protective response our body sends out to remove the damaging stimuli and initiate the healing process within tissue(s). In an acute situation (i.e.- healing wounds and infection) there’s an increased movement in plasma and white blood cells to injured tissue.  It’s a process that our body tightly regulates but if uncheck or excessive can lead to chronic inflammation and your body no likey.

So what’s the golden pill?  There isn’t one.  Stop eating meat! Cut out dairy! Drink orange Fanta before bed! I love realistic solutions.  Some researchers seem to think omega three fatty acids are the answer.  While there is some conflicting research out there, it’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Fish oil.  Why are people obsessed with supplements?  Is Terry Hatcher behind this movement?  Should I get renters insurance?  If you’re like me, these three questions all ran across your mind just now.  You’ll notice on most food labels, under total fat, fat grams are broken down into saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fat.  It’s the mono- and polyunsaturated fat you want to consume. More specifically though, polyunsaturated fat can be further divided into its two essential fatty acid forms: omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids.  They are called essential because our bodies cannot make them and therefore, must be consumed through our diet. Also referred to as alpha-linoleic (omega 6) and alpha-linolenic (omega 3), both play an important role in maintaining healthy skin, nerves and cell membranes.  They can also play a role in our body’s ability to regulate blood pressure, blood clotting and, you guessed it, inflammation.

Alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3) can be converted into two other important compounds, that for the sake of simplicity we will call DHA and EPA. Research has shown that these two compounds can reduce one’s risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The most common sources of  alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3) are fish and flaxseed. The American Heart Association recommends consuming at least two servings of fish per week, which averages out to be 0.5 gram daily, to obtain these omega 3 fatty acids.  FYI: a serving of fish is 3.5 ounces, cooked. The fattier the fish, the better.  So if you want to hit your omega three goals, reach for salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, anchovies or tuna.

What about omega 6s you ask? Well, these are the less than favorable omegas.  While still essential for brain function and normal growth, they have been shown to have pro-inflammatory effects when consumed in excess. Therefore, it’s important we consume these omegas in the right ratio. In 2003, it was recommended by Haag et al., that a 2:1 to 3:1 ratio of omega6/omega 3 be consumed.  In reality, Americans are consuming a diet that is four times lower than the current recommended amount.  Haag and company recommended that us peabrains increase our omega 3 consumption in an effort to improve this actual consumption ratio. This is one of the many reasons I hate nutrition researchers.  They always find stuff we’re doing wrong.  You can find nutrition researchers somewhere between Al Gore and Sigmund Freud.  True story. 

It’s important to note that more isn’t always better when it comes to omega threes either.  Typically only achieved through supplement use, consumption of more than three grams daily can lead to elevated LDL cholesterol, blood glucose and increased risk for excessive bleeding.  Be careful out there kids and talk to you doctor first before you dive head first into the supplement world.

By now I am sure you all must be reaching a manic-like desire to know if I take fish oil.  I do. I am not endorsing it and I am not telling you all to go out and purchase bottles of this stuff.  After speaking with my doctor, I decided to start taking it because I am dirt butt poor and cannot afford to buy fish twice a week.  I like to think I see improvements in my skin, but I’m sure that’s more of a placebo effect.  So allow me be your moral health compass and say you’re never too young to be worried about heart disease.

To those who can afford fish – buy it.  Eating the actual food is always more beneficial than taking a supplement. The take home here is this – fish oil is not a bad thing to supplement but it’s not imperative either.

For more information on fish oil visit the American Heart Association website.