Fish oil or fatty acid supplements: Do we need them?

Article by
Irene Black.

In this article Dr Irene Black discusses fatty acids and their relevance to our diet during the menopause. She explains how fish oils (Omega-3) have been shown to be beneficial at all stages of life for blood sugar regulation, hormone balance, heart health, circulation and joint flexibility. Plant Fat such as sunflower spread (Omega-6 ) can help some women with hot flushes and in the maintenance of healthy hair and skin. Dairy products (Omega-7) can help with skin dryness and vaginal dryness during perimenopause. Irene guides us through the reasons for these and considers different food supplement options.

Omega-3 is easily absorbed by the digestive system

Omega-3 is easily absorbed by the digestive system

Why would you as a woman travelling through a new developmental stage of your life take fatty acids?

Firstly, everybody must eat fat every day as part of a balanced diet, but what has been discovered is that the ratio of different types of essential fat we eat everyday can affect our health and wellbeing. One of the latest major nutrient health pushes has been to get everyone to eat less saturated fat and eat more polyunsaturated fat.

Types of Fat

Saturated fat is hard fat such as butter, lard and fat found in animal meat.

Polyunsaturated fat comes from plants or fish sources and is liquid.  Polyunsaturated fats are divided into omega-3 fish fat and omega-6 plant fat.

Monounsaturated fats are also liquid and are sourced in olive oil (omega-9) and omega-7 is found in dairy products, wild salmon, macadamia nuts and sea buckthorn berries.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

Essential fatty acids are the fatty acids that the body cannot make itself but are needed for biological processes such as hormone synthesis and fat digestion, therefore in order not to be malnourished, we must consume these essential fatty acids on a daily basis.

There are only 2 essential fatty acids:  alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 fat and linolenic acid (LA) which is an omega-6 fat.  All other fatty acids used to make hormones or other biologically functional chemicals are made from these two essential fatty acids.  However, at some periods during life, some other fatty acids may become essential and so they must be consumed.  Examples of such fatty acids are  amma-linolenic acid (GLA, omega-6) and DHA and EPA (omega-3).

Changes in the way we have started to consume Fatty Acids

Stone age man used to eat fairly equal quantities of Fatty Acids. The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 in the paleolithic diet was roughly 1:1.  The twentyfirst century diet however has a totally different balance of fatty acids.  It would not be unusal to find that we consume Omega-6 and Omega-3 in a  ratio of 15: 1 in our typical daily diet.  This higher consumption of Omega -6 has been linked with diseases such as Cancer, Coronary Vascular Disease and Auto Immune Difficiency.  When  Omega-6 and Omega-3 are consumed in a ratio of 9:1, then there is a noticable reduction in a person's risk of chronic ill health.

Correcting the Fatty Acid Ratio

So how can we correct this fatty acid ratio?

We can  reduce the saturated fat in our diet by cutting back on or eliminating butter, lard and other animal fats.  We also need to eat at least two helpings of oily fish per week (omega-3), include a variety of nuts and vegetables (omega-6)  and use olive oil (omega-9) or rapeseed oil  (omega-3 and 6) while cooking and in salads.  Even with these good dietary habits you may need to take a fatty acid supplement to balance your fatty acid ratio.

Which Fatty Acids might we need during and after the Menopause?

Omega-3 – Fish Oils and Flaxseed

These come from flaxseed, sometimes called linseed, and cold water fish.  Flaxseed contains the essential fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), however, it is less easily absorbed by the digestive system than EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) which are found in fish or marine algae.  EPA and DHA are longer chain fatty acids which have been shown to be involved in controlling chronic disease progression.

EPA has also been shown to maintain a healthy heart and circulatory system, help with joint flexibility, help with the body’s anti-inflammatory response and balance blood sugar levels.

DHA can help maintain positive mood and protect the eyes, brain and nervous system as well as the immune system.

There are many fish oil supplements on the market with good information detailed on the packaging. You may have issues with sustainability or purity so do check the labels carefully.

Omega-6 - Gamma Linolenic Acid

This is a fatty acid you may have been taking to help with  hormones involved in your menstrual cycle.  During this new stage in your life it has been found to reduce “hot flushes”.   It has also been shown to maintain healthy hair and skin, joints and hormone balance.

Omega-7 - Palmitoleic or Vaccenic Acid

This is found in sea buckthorn oil and is beneficial during peri-menopause by helping with skin and vaginal dryness. It also helps regulate how we metabolise fat and sugar.  Omega-7 fatty acids are found in dairy foods containing a minimum of 2% fat such as milk and most cheeses.  Too much omega-7 can result in an unpleasant smell, so do be careful when choosing your own dosage.

Omega-9 - Oleic Acid

This is found in olive oil and so forms part of  the “Mediterranean diet” which is known to promote a lower incidence of coronary heart disease.

What Does the Medical Research Say?

Although there are not many articles in medical literature regarding fatty acid supplementation and the menopause, it is generally concluded that the taking of fish oil supplements in conjunction with a healthy diet, can postpone the development of coronary artery disease, reduce onset of autoimmune diseases and protect against bone density loss in post-menopausal women.

Conclusion

There is a wide variety of fatty acid supplements on the market and we must choose the one that suits us best depending on our health concerns and symptoms.  Each of them have such health enhancing effects that maybe a mix of all in good proportions would be most beneficial.  The optimal doses seem to be at least 1000mg omega-3 (more EPA to DHA), 500mg omega-6, and 400mg omega-9.  Some companies have large doses of omega-7 and some have low dosages.

Articles Referenced in this text are:

Simopoulos AP.  The Importance of the Ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother 2002 56(8) 365-79.

Irene Black BAMod (Genetics) Phd (Clinical Medicine, Doctorate on Molecular Aspects of Fish Oil Metabolism) both from Trinity College Dublin

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