You might know about omegas for heart and brain health, but what role do they play for your immune health?
We’ve known about the power of omega 3’s for supporting immune health for the last 30 years. They’re one of the most studied natural health ingredients to date and a trend that’s taken off...and is here to stay.
This family of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (aka PUFA’s) and Omega 3’s, along with their derivatives, are needed for the health of all human cells. They play critical roles in the structure and function of every cell. Additionally, they can support cell-to-cell communication (woah!). Think of it like this…a human body without omega 3s is like a laptop without working applications and wifi.
In this same light, omega 3 PUFA’s are deemed essential because they are necessary for health and cannot be made by our bodies. So, it's important to consume them regularly to reap their many benefits.
Omega-3 fatty acids have wide-reaching benefits and are particularly important for your immune system. These amazing fatty acids are essential to several critical bodily processes, including supporting immune health, heart health, mental wellbeing, and brain function. Omega-3 deficiency has been associated with many health conditions.
Without omega 3’s, our immune system struggles to go into defence for us when we need it most, in the depths of the cold winter months when winter ills and chills are hard to avoid.
What’s important to look for in the omega you choose?
The devil is always in the details... While omega 3’s are essential fats that provide us with several health benefits, not all omega 3s are created equal. Technically, there are several types of omega 3’s, but only alpha-linolenic acid ( ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have been examined in scientific research for their health- supporting benefits.
ALA is mostly found in plants and is considered the most essential fatty acid, simply because the human body can make EPA and DHA (subsequently) from ALA via the liver (primarily). However, our ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA is poor with reported conversion rates to be <15% at best.
For this reason, studies on the health benefits of ALA are incomparable to that of EPA and DHA - it is EPA and DHA that appear to foster the majority of the health benefits that come with omega 3’s. Given the known health benefits of these predominantly animal-derived sources of omega 3’s and our biological barrier to making an abundance of EPA and DHA - it is fair to say that EPA and DHA are the optimal essential fatty acids of the omega 3 family. This also highlights that the only practical way to increase our levels of EPA and DHA is to consume foods or dietary supplements rich in these specific omega-3’s.
Like all health support options, benefits can only be reached when both quality and quantity are accounted for. For example, if research shows that 3 x 60-minute sessions of reformer pilates per week is beneficial for improving strength, flexibility, and body composition, the same outcome is unlikely to be achieved from 3 x 10-minute sessions of reformer pilates per week. Nutrients and natural health ingredients are no different; to be effective, we need the same quality ingredient and amount touted in the research to reach the desired effect.
When it comes to omega 3’s, a minimum of 1.2g of total EPA and DHA is what appears to be the most supportive for most people, most of the time. It is good to keep in mind that there are situations in which less and more omega 3’s is needed to reach a desired effect.
Which omegas are best for your immune system?
When it comes to supporting our immune health, EPA is the omega-3 of choice. It has the power to support the activity of both our innate and adaptive immune systems and is used by the body to produce signaling molecules called eicosanoids. These eicosanoids play numerous physiological roles and are known for their ability to fight free radicals and support balanced immune function.
Chronic challenges with immune function, activity, and balance are known to contribute to several modern-day health challenges that appear to be on the rise. Various studies have demonstrated the ability of EPA to support the body’s responses for poor immune balance and an inability to fight free radicals. For example, a study on menopausal women noted the ability of EPA to support temperature balance and emotional wellbeing. Our ability to easily convert EPA to DHA makes it an essential item to have in your general wellbeing and winter wellbeing toolbox.
What are the best omega food sources?
Variety is the spice of life - and it is good to keep this in mind when looking at any aspect of nutrition. When looking to add more omega-3-rich foods into your life, aim for a variety of sources each week. This should include a selection of EPA, DHA, and ALA food sources.
The best sources of EPA and DHA are oily fish and fish oil supplements. The omega-3 content of fish varies widely but cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, anchovies, and sardines contain the highest amounts. The omega 3 content in a fish is dependent on the amount of omega 3 consumed by the fish which is why farmed fish and those that grow in food-controlled environments, can have higher levels of EPA and DHA than wild-caught fish.
EPA and DHA can also be found in certain brands of eggs and algae-derived omega supplements. This baseline of EPA and DHA can be topped up with ALA food sources like organic grass-fed beef, flaxseed (linseed), chia seeds, and walnuts.
Bonus lifestyle tips to foster healthy immune function during the cooler months
- Get outside every day - it's not the cold that gets us during the colder months but rather our inclination to spend more time indoors that withers away our winter wellbeing.
- Eat for microbiome diversity - this means eating lots of plants and as many kinds as you can. Think of each mealtime as an opportunity to see a food rainbow on your plate.
- Exercise - it's the kind of immune support you have to work for but it's hands down one of the most effective ways of keeping your immune system on its toes. Take time to rest at the first sign of feeling “under the weather” - early rest makes for a faster recovery and less time feeling poorly.
- Nutrify - our immune system needs lots of nutrition. If you feel like your dietary efforts are just not cutting it, adopt a daily health insurance practice by taking a quality multivitamin, omega 3s, and a good source of pre and probiotics.
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Always read the label and use as directed. Supplementary to a balanced diet.