Let me introduce you to my medicines. I use the term “medicines” to mean any chemical, food, herb, or spice that helps your body heal and be healthier. This could be a prescription pill or even a nutrient in food.
Remember, one of the most famous medical doctors, Hippocrates, called food “medicine.” My favorite medicine is omega-3s. And the good health omega-3s give you is what I call the omega-3 effect. They are the safest, most healing and health-producing medicines that I prescribe. First, here are some fat facts you must know.
The best fats are smooth, soft, and flexible. The worst fats are stiff and sticky. As you will later learn, most illnesses are caused by an accumulation of stiff and sticky fats in your tissues, such as the brain and heart. Here is the simplest explanation of illness and wellness you’ve ever heard.
I call it my sticky stuff cause of disease: You put stiff and sticky fats in your mouth, you get stiff and sticky stuff in your tissues – illness. You put smooth and flexible fats (omega-3s) in your mouth, you get smooth and soft tissues – wellness.
You can tell a lot about how fats will behave in your body by how they appear in food. Some fats are stiff, like lard and the marbling in steak. When you eat them they behave the same way in your body, making your arteries stiff. Older folks (and even kids) get hardening of the arteries after years of eating stiff fats.
What makes omega-3s so healthful is that these fats act in your body like the fish swim in the sea: they are soft and flexible. Omega-3s keep your tissues soft and smooth.
Fat molecules are like a necklace. Each bead on the necklace is a carbon atom. In general, the longer the necklace, or the more carbon atoms, and the more “hinges” the molecule has, the more soft, flexible, and healthful the fats. Here’s another little omega-3 secret: Besides being longer, the hinges on omega-3s are more flexible.
On the long-chain molecules, there are soft and flexible areas that bend like hinges. Actually, these hinge areas are called double bonds. The more hinges on the fat molecule, the more flexible these fats are in how the body can use them. Omega-3 EPA/DHA – I call them tall guys – have more carbon atoms (20-22 atoms) and more hinges (5-6 double bonds) than those shorter fats (18 carbons and 3 hinges), which I call short guys.
If we return to the idea of a fat molecule as a necklace, then we can think of the hinges like the string between the beads that holds the necklace together. String hinges are soft and flexible. But if the “string” is made of wire, the hinges can’t bend. They’re stiff. String hinges are called “unsaturated”; stiff wire hinges are called “saturated,” because hydrogen atoms fill (saturate) the double bonds, making them stiffer.
Remember, health and wellness means having soft and smooth tissues. Illness is usually caused by stiff and sticky tissues. This is why when doctors talk about the biochemical basis of disease they say: The tissue is the issue.
In the body omega-3s are known as quick-change artists. They can change shape and quickly become whatever your tissue needs them to be for growth, function, and repair. The hinges on omega-3 molecules help them assume all kinds of unusual shapes and wiggle into whatever part of the tissue needs more omega-3s.
Here’s some more lipid language you need to know. There is a reason for omega-3s’ name. They’re called omega (the last Greek letter in the alphabet) because most of their healthful qualities are at the tail-end of the molecule. The “3” refers to a soft spot, like a hinge, on the third carbon atom from the end.
For you deep thinkers who probably aced biochemistry class, here’s more biochemical stuff. While there will probably be more omegas discovered in the future, these are the three most popular omega-3s you should know about now.
Found in plants such as salad greens, and seeds such as flax and canola, this is the most abundant omega-3 fat in nature. ALA is a “short guy” in that it’s only 18 carbons long with 3 hinges. Since, for tissue health, the body and brain prefer “tall guys” (like the next two omegas, EPA and DHA), the body must use enzymes to convert ALA to EPA and DHA.
Enzymes are the body’s micromechanics that convert ALA into EPA and DHA, taking and fashioning them into the tissue the body needs to grow and repair. Conversions like these are very inefficient. Only between 1 and 4 percent of the omega-3 ALA oils you eat may be converted to EPA, and even less to DHA. And, people vary in how much their individual biochemistry can convert ALA into EPA and DHA.
The first hinge is in the third position from the end (omega), hence the term omega-3. This hinge makes the molecule soft, wiggly, and flexible. Secondly, remember the more hinges, the more flexible the fat. ALA has only three double bonds, or hinges.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid: eicosa is Greek for 20 carbon atoms. Penta means 5 hinges; enoic means double bonds). So, this “tall guy” omega-3, found mainly in seafood, is 20 carbons long and has 5 double bonds. The structure is similar to ALA, the first hinge is third from the end, but there are more hinges, and the more hinges, the more flexible the fat.
Also found mainly in seafood, this “tallest guy” has 22 carbon atoms and 6 double bonds.
Most of us need to eat more of these “three amigos” – ALA, EPA, and DHA. But there is one other type of omega fats you need to learn about – omega-6s.
The first hinge of omega-6 fats is number 6 from the end. There are two kinds of omega-6s: linoleic acid (LA), found mainly in seeds and oils, and arachidonic acid (AA, sometimes abbreviated ARA), found mainly in meat and dairy products.
Most people across the world have an insufficiency of omega-3 EPA and DHA, but enough, or even an excess of, omega-6s. Therefore, most people need to eat more omega-3 fish oil, but rarely need to eat more omega-6 oils.
While there are other omegas in food, these are currently the most important ones for you to know.
Suppose you go to your doctor for treatment of various complaints. Your doctor takes a nutritional history, noting your omega-3 intake, and measures the level of omega-3s in your blood. Surprisingly, she says, “You suffer from the leaky cell membrane syndrome.” You have no idea what that is but “leaky cell membranes” doesn’t sound good.
Cell membranes are like flexible bags that protect the energy-building and genetic material inside the cell. In fact, there is a medical truism: your body is only as healthy as each cell in it. That makes sense since our bodies are composed of trillions of cells.
Omega-3s are called the membrane molecules because they make the cell membrane healthier. Cell membranes are selective, which makes them protective. They let good nutrients seep through the bloodstream into the cell while keeping the bad stuff, like toxins, out.
If you think about the marvelous structure of a cell membrane, and appreciate its design, you’ll want to eat more omega-3s. Imagine a cell membrane. It is in contact with liquid on two sides: on the outside it touches blood and other body fluids.
On the inside, it’s in contact with fluid cell contents, which it must protect, since the inside of each cell is the body’s growth, repair, and energy network. A cell membrane needs to be selectively permeable, allowing good nutrients to seep through while keeping toxins out.
Each cell membrane contains millions of miniature entry doors, called receptors, that let delivery trucks unload nutrients to the “doors,” transport them into the cell, which uses these nutrients, and then sends the waste back out through different doors into the bloodstream.
Healthy cell membranes are the perfect balance of stiff (saturated) fats and flexible fats (omegas). If you suffer from an omega-3 dietary deficiency, your cell membranes are stiff and leaky. Omega-3s, the flexible fats, help fashion the fluidity of the cell membrane, enabling it to adjust to its ever-changing environment.
Omega-3s also act like the membrane’s maintenance engineers by producing chemical messengers, called prostaglandins, that protect it from harm and enable it to transport the nutrients it needs.
To give an example, people with type-2 or insulin-resistant diabetes have stiff and leaky membranes. If the cell membrane is omega-3 deficient, the doors, or receptors, on the cell membrane are stiff and less receptive to insulin.
These flexible fats, omegas, are also known as HUFAs (highly unsaturated fatty acids). Remember: HUFAs are healthy. Popular publications are obese with misinformation about fats, such as “good fats,” “bad fats,” “low-fat diets.” All three of these terms are misleading. For clarity, all fats naturally found in foods that grow in the sea or feed off the land are “good” fats.
The fake fats made in factories (e.g. hydrogenated oils) are bad fats. Sometimes it’s the excess of good fats (e.g. too much saturated or animal fats) that can be bad for you. Most people need to eat a right-fat diet rather than a low-fat diet. Enough said for now.
Fishermen believe that the omega-3 fats in krill and other seafood that fish eat keep their muscles and blood vessels flexible, even in freezing water, and that omega-3s seem to have the same tissue effects on humans, even though we don’t reside in freezing water.
Suppose you were an omega fatty acid applying for a job in any cell of the body. You approach the CIA, Cellular Intelligence Agency: “Hi, I’m a HUFA, a highly usable, flexible agent. I can do any job you need me to do. My specialties are I help you grow, heal, and protect.
“Come right in, we really need you,” the cell says. “Each day we’re attacked by stiff and sticky stuff that humans call food."
This is one of the healthiest and most needed dietary changes a person at any age can make. Making at least one oil change can help you think smarter, feel better, and live longer.
This is the healthiest oil change you can make. Even if you just make this one oil change you are likely to feel healthier from head to toe. Yet, to enjoy an even greater omega-3 effect consider adding a second dietary oil change:
In recent years, there has been a growing number of trusted scientists and health educators who propose that while eating more omega-3s is most important for optimal health, some people need one additional oil change: Eat less omega-6 oils.
They propose that omega balance should be the ultimate goal. New insights reveal that the imbalance of excess omega-6s and insufficient omega-3s in tissues may be the root cause of many chronic diseases, especially inflammation or “-itis” illnesses.
Besides eating more omega-3 oils, especially omega-3 EPA/DHA fish oils, eat less chemically-modified oils like hydrogenated oils. Replace much of the saturated fats in your diet with omega oils to prevent “omeganemia,” or omega oil insufficiency. These are the “oil changes” that all nutritionists and omega-3 scientists agree upon and science most supports.
Omega balance means eating sufficient omega-3 and omega-6 oils in the proper balance. You may read that the optimal ratio of omega-6s:omega-3s is around 3:1 (the standard American diet is 10:1 or more). But the problem with “ratios” is you could be deficient in both, especially omega-3s, yet still have the “right ratio.”
Proponents of omega balance teach that we should not only eat more omega-3 fish oils, but less omega-6 oils (such as corn, soy, and cottonseed oils, which are making up as much as 20 percent of the SAD). However, I’m concerned that this theory leads consumers to believe that omega-6s are “bad fats,” which is not true.
For example, nuts are real food with a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio. To bad mouth nuts simply because they have a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio and compare them with factory-made foods with a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, such as potato chips is, shall we say, nuts!
Omega-6s are good fats, essential to the health of every organ in the body, and a partner to omega-3s in preventive medicine. As I’ve said before, fats that Mother Nature makes are “good fats.” It’s their excess that cause them to behave badly in the body.
Tissues, especially cell membranes, need both omega-3s and 6s. These two omegas are like friends who play together and build together. When they play nicely and one doesn’t try to overpower the other, they build healthy tissues. But when there is an excess of omega-6s, they tend to bully and overpower the omega-3s, especially ALA.
Within the cell membranes are built-in biochemicals called enzymes. Like bricklayers, these enzymes assemble these two fats together to build and maintain a structurally sound cell membrane. These enzymes, one is cleverly called elongase, also convert ALA into EPA and DHA.
Many scientists believe that there are only so many tissue enzymes to go around. As I mentioned, when we eat too many 6s, commonly found in the standard American diet (SAD), they use up most of the enzymes, leaving too few to help the cells use the omega-3s and convert ALA into DHA/EPA. When tissues have an excess of omega-6s and a deficiency of omega-3s, the body will have an inflammatory imbalance, meaning that wear and tear takes over repair.
In a seashell, the excess omega-6 effect dilutes the omega-3 effect. A very important point made at our omega-3 effect roundtable: if you eat sufficient omega-3s, you will automatically decrease your tissue levels of excess omega-6s.
One evening pioneer omega-3 researcher Dr. Bill Lands and I were sharing fish stories. I recalled the time I went swimming in a pool of tame stingrays. Their soft, smooth feel and their floppy wafer-like glide through the water reminded me of red blood cells traveling through our vessels.
Dr. Lands, whose passion is omega balance, injected his wisdom into the stingray swimming scene: “If the stingray tissue did not have the right balance of omega-3s and 6s, it would bloat up and no longer have that graceful glide.”
Other scientists believe that it’s only EPA/DHA deficiency that’s the issue, not omega-6 excess. They have concluded that if you just eat enough omega-3 EPA/DHA oils, you won’t have to worry about eating less omega-6 oils.
They base their belief on eating sufficient omega-3 EPA/DHA automatically lowers the level of omega-6s (especially arachidonic acid – the most pro-inflammatory omega-6 in the body) much more than if you simply ate less omega-6s. These scientists say that the inflammatory effects of excess omega-6s won’t occur if you simply eat more omega-3 EPA/DHA.
Omega-6 oils have gotten a bad rap because of the company they keep. Many food processors load up their chemical foods with cheap omega-6 oils, like soy, corn, and cottonseed oils, the darlings of the food industry.
True, Americans are eating more of these chemical foods and getting fatter and sicker, but is that because of the omega-6 oils, or the fact they’re put in so many junk foods? I believe that the omega-6s have become guilty by association. Besides advising to eat more 3s and less 6s, I would add: Eat more real foods; eat less factory-processed foods. In making this oil change, you will automatically eat less omega-6 fats.
Following our “the tissue is the issue” theme, here’s another reason I personally started eating more omega-3 and less omega-6 oils. When fish-farmers grain-feed their fish a high omega-6 diet, the amount of omega-6s in the fish flesh go way up.
So, their tissues no longer enjoy an optimal omega balance. I don’t want my tissues to get the pro-inflammatory effect of the high omega-6 diet like the farmed fish that were fed fake food. So, I eat like a wild fish: more omega-3s and less omega-6s.
Based upon my detective work and interviewing “expert witnesses,” my omega-3 effect expert panel, I conclude that in order to achieve omega balance, you should:
** These are not “bad fats” as they are often portrayed; rather the fake food they’re put in is bad. Enjoy these oils in moderation.
*** High oleic versions are better because of the added effect of lowering sticky blood fats, and it adds shelf-life.
**** Coconut oil is making a comeback as a healthy oil. Best is virgin coconut oil.
***** Because canola oil is high in omega-3 ALA (not EPA and DHA), some would put this healthy oil in the “best” category. See www.AskDrSears.com/oils for an update on these oils.
This omega balance is crucial to full body wellness, and Dr. Sears' oil change is a great way to support our bodies!
This is an excerpt from The Omega Effect, written by Dr. Bill Sears. Used with permission.