What's so Important About Nutrition?
Testing your nutritional status is one thing you can do to find out if your diet is truly delivering the nutrients that are supposed to keep you healthy. In fact, many consumers and doctors are interested in how to test nutritional status, which has prompted an influx of products assessing everything from vitamin D to omega-3 levels.
There are also the ever-popular genetic tests like 23andMe, Habit, and GenoPalate, which offer “personalized” eating and nutrition recommendations based on your DNA. These tests will do things like assess your ideal intake of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, and spit out a list of foods that have a nutrition profile that matches best with your genetic-based nutrition recommendations.
But nutritional blood tests like the Omega-3 Index are very different. First of all, there is no DNA involved at all. The Omega-3 Index looks at blood levels of the fatty acids commonly known as EPA and DHA. And having a certain range of these nutrients in the blood can predict your risk of certain health issues.
What's the Big Deal With Omega-3s?
While many people are aware of omega-3s, many are not sure exactly what they do. Let’s start with what they are first. There are three main omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
Only ALA is considered “essential” because it cannot be made by the body and must come from the diet. The good news is most modern diets provide plenty of ALA, so there is no real need to get more. Some popular food sources of ALA include avocados, walnuts, flax and chia, as well as soybean oil.
A small portion of ALA will be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but not enough that yields much protective benefit. In other words, consuming omega-3s EPA and DHA directly from fish like salmon or supplements is really the best way to obtain these types of omega-3s.
Although they are not necessarily considered “essential” like ALA, most modern research has focused on EPA and DHA because they seem to offer the most protective benefits for the heart, brain and eyes.
There is a lesser known omega-3 called docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), but the research on this fatty acid is still in its infancy regarding its particular health benefits.
Why Do I Need Both Omega-3s and Omega-6s?
People generally consider omega-3s to be good and omega-6s to be bad. However, we think this may be too simplistic, even if biologically omega-6s and 3s are pro- and anti-inflammatory, respectively. Still, there is research showing that higher levels of linoleic acid, which is an omega-6 fatty acid, are linked to better outcomes in terms of cardiovascular health and diabetes.
So rather than focus on lowering your omega-6s, increasing your omega-3s will automatically balance out this ratio and is something that is easier for most people to accomplish successfully.
How Do Omega-3s Work?
On a cellular level, omega-3s alter the structure and function of cell membranes. The shape of the DHA molecule, in particular, actually alters the flexibility and fluidity when it gets incorporated into cell membranes throughout the body.
This changes the way that forces (i.e., chemicals) outside the cell are sensed inside the cell, which changes how cells respond to a changing environment.
EPA also is important because it can be converted into certain types of molecules that don’t “scream loudly” at the cell — or at least as loudly as their omega-6 cousins do — resulting in a softer intracellular response.
Omega-3s can also control when some genes are turned on or turned off, and some of those genes code for proteins that are proinflammatory or that make fats (i.e. triglycerides). So EPA and DHA can slow the intracellular production of inflammatory molecules.
As far as specific heart health benefits, EPA and DHA have been shown to lower blood triglyceride levels and blood pressure. They also stabilize the heart’s electrical system and quiet down the body’s inflammatory response, allowing it to come back to normal after the initial inflammatory episode more quickly. Further, they reduce the chances of blood clots forming and make the blood vessels less stiff and more flexible, which helps facilitate normal blood flow to the tissues.
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