Many people, for example, struggle to get enough of the essential omega 3
fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from their diet. The best sources are
nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flaxseed. Bread, spreads and milk are
increasingly fortified with small amounts of ‘added omega 3’ in
the form of ALA derived from vegetable oil.
Why do you need them?
Only around 5 per cent of ALA is converted by your body into the most
important omega 3s: EPA and DHA. That is why these are often classed as
essential, too. EPA and DHA are longer-chain omega 3s, used to make nerve
cell membranes and to damp down inflammation. These properties make them
vital for a healthy brain, heart, eyes and joints. Food sources of EPA and
DHA include oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, pilchards and
fresh (not tinned) tuna. They are also found in grass-fed wild game meats
such as venison and buffalo.
One of the most common signs of an essential fatty acid deficiency is dry,
scaly, itchy skin – an annoying problem that is often seen in older people.
Other signs associated with a lack of essential fatty acids include:
dehydration and thirst, acne, brittle hair and nails, hair loss, slower
wound healing and hormone imbalances.
Government recommendations suggest we get at least 450mg of the long-chain
omega 3s, DHA and EPA, per day. This is a smallest amount to prevent
deficiency. Higher intakes may be needed by those with inflammatory
conditions, such as painful joints. Here is our guide to the most popular
Evening primrose oil
Evening primrose oil (EPO) is a rich source of GLA (gamma linolenic or
gamolenic acid). It is one of the few omega 6 oils with an
anti-inflammatory action like omega 3s. Used in skin cell membranes, EPO
may help to improve skin softness, luminosity and hydration. It may also
help hormone balance, improving the severity of hot flushes and dry skin at
the menopause. In one trial involving women in their 40s, those taking
evening primrose oil experienced a twenty per cent improvement in skin
moisture, smoothness, elasticity and firmness within three months.
500mg-1,000mg EPO daily (providing 40mg to 80mg GLA). Higher doses of up to
3,000mg (providing 240mg GLA) daily can be used if skin is particularly
dry. Taking EPO with food aids absorption.
Starflower oil also know as borage oil is extracted from the seeds of the
herb. Like EPO, starflower oil has a high content of gamma linolenic acid
(GLA) and provides similar benefits in a more concentrated form.
1,000mg daily, providing 205mg GLA.
Flaxseed is an excellent, plant-based source of the essential omega 3, ALA.
It is often used as an alternative for those who prefer not to eat fish.
The fatty acids improve skin hydration and reduces roughness and scaling.
Research also shows that flaxseed oil reduces skin sensitivity and improves
the skin’s barrier function. Another benefit of flaxseed oil is its rich
content of oestrogen-like plant hormones, known as lignans. These are
beneficial for women experiencing menopausal symptoms.
1g (1,000mg) to 3g daily.
Omega 3 fish oils
Oily fish are a rich source of the long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and
DHA. Guidelines recommend that boys, men and women past reproductive age
should aim to eat one to four portions (140g each) of oily fish a week.
Girls and women of child-bearing age should only eat up to two portions of
oily fish a week. This lower amount is to reduce potential exposure to
marine pollutants. Few of us achieve these levels -On average, people in
the UK eat a third of a portion of oily fish (50g) a week, and an
astonishing seven out of ten people don't eat any oily fish at all.
If you don't like fish, or do not want to increase your intake, then
supplements are a useful alternative. Select one that is made to Good
Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards. This ensures they are virtually
free from marine pollutants.
1g to 3g daily. On average, one gram of high-strength fish oil contains
around 500mg of the important long-chain EPA and DHA.
Cod Liver Oil
The flesh of white fish, such as cod, contains little oil. Instead, as its
name implies, cod liver oil is derived only from the fish liver. Cod liver
oil is popular because it also contains high amounts of both vitamin A and
vitamin D, which provide extra health benefits. Vitamin D is especially
important during winter when we are not exposed to enough ultraviolet light
to trigger its formation in our skin.
1g daily. A 1g capsule of high-strength fish oil contains around 500mg of
the important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Those described
as high or extra high strength provide the highest amounts.
NB. If you take cod liver oil and a multivitamin, check the total amount of
vitamin A does not exceed 1,500mcg per day. Do not take cod liver oil if
you are pregnant, as excess vitamin A can be harmful to a developing baby.
Krill oil is extracted from a shrimp-like, Antarctic crustacean. As well as
supplying rich amounts of the long-chain omega 3s, EPA and DHA, it contains
two powerful antioxidants, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin. These pigments
are the same as those which give flamingos their attractive pink plumage,
and make krill oil an attractive red colour. The combination of omega 3
plus antioxidants make krill a popular ‘super-supplement’ for reducing
inflammation. Astaxanthin also has a beneficial effect on blood fats.
Studies suggest that krill oil can lower triglyceride, total cholesterol
and ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol with no change in ‘good’ HDL-cholesterol. This is
exactly what is needed in a heart-friendly supplement. Krill oil is also
used to help premenstrual syndrome and painful periods.
Sustainable supplements are available and endorsed by the Marine
Stewardship Council. These do not impact on the feeding grounds of marine
animals such as baleen whales, Antarctic Fur Seals and Adelie penguins.
500mg to 3g daily.
For vegetarians and those who are unable to take fish oil products, marine
algae are a great source of the long-chain omega 3s, DHA and EPA. A typical
capsule containing 250mg algae oil can provide as much as 100mg of DHA.
1g per day.
Because of their blood thinning effect, people with clotting disorders or
those who take blood-thinning medication should seek advice from their
doctor before taking a supplement. However, no significant increase in
blood clotting time is expected at total daily intakes of EPA and DHA of 3g
per day, or less.
[i] Blonk MC et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1990;52(1):120-7