Welcome back to Self Care Sunday! In our search for a better understanding of healthy oils for eating, let’s now delve in to the world of oil supplementation. Supplements are a way for us to “supplement” our diets with key elements that we know our bodies need, but are missing in our regular diet. We typically think of supplements as vitamins, but certain oils can be taken as supplements as well. Let’s take a look at some of the most common oil supplements and how they affect our bodies.
Fish oil is probably the most common form of oil supplementation, and most of us have tried it or heard of it; but we may not fully understand the benefits of fish oil. To comprehend why fish oil is healthy for us, we must first be well versed in two fatty acids: Omega-6s and Omega-3s.
Omega-6 vs. Omega-3
Omega-6s and -3s are polyunsaturated, essential fatty acids. Our bodies do not make them, so they must be a part of our diet for our bodies to obtain them. The difference between omega-6s and -3s is found in their chemical structure. The term omega-6 indicates Omega minus 6. It indicates where the carbon-carbon double bond is in relation to omega, or the end. Omega-6s are characterized by having a carbon-carbon double bond as the 6th bond from the methyl end, while omega-3s have a double bond at the 3rd carbon atom from the methyl end.
In our bodies, the two generally perform almost opposite functions. For example, while Omega-6s increase inflammation, omega-3s act to decrease inflammation. Both are necessary and healthy for the body, and ideally should be found in a 1:1 ratio. The problem is that most of us have intake levels that are very high in omega-6s and very low in omega-3s.
How did our levels get out of whack, and how does this affect our bodies? Well, let’s take a closer look at the sources and benefits of omega-6s and omega-3s.
Omega-6s are found in seeds and nuts, and the oils extracted from them. The main form of omega-6s in our diets is linolenic acid (LA), which is converted in to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) in our bodies.
We discussed vegetable oils, and how they have proliferated in the American diet in last week’s Self Care Sunday. These vegetable oils (soy, canola, corn, etc) are the oils that are high in Omega-6s. These are also the oils that are found in processed foods such as crackers, cookies, fast food, snack foods, etc. The USDA’s study of our nutrient supply reported that Americans now receive almost 20% of their calories from soybean oil. (Source)
20% of our calories! That is a major portion of our daily intake. It is no wonder that our omega-6 levels are so much higher than our omega-3 levels.
Omega-6 fatty acids are beneficial to our bodies by helping to stimulate skin and hair growth, regulate metabolism, maintain the reproductive system and maintain bone health. Some omega-6s promote inflammation, which plays a role in our immune system.
The University of Maryland Medical Center reviewed studies on the impact of omega-6s on the following health conditions: diabetic neuropathy (may reduce symptoms of nerve pain), rheumatoid arthritis (may reduce symptoms but will not stop disease progression), allergies (women prone to allergies have shown lower GLA in blood), ADHD (children with ADHD generally have lower levels of both -6s and -3s), high blood pressure (may reduce high blood pressure with or without omega-3), menopausal systems (inconclusive fingdings), osteoporosis (can boost bone density when combined with omega-3) and PMS (inconclusive findings). (Source)
The two main types of omega-3s are EPA and DHA. These fatty acids are the building blocks our bodies need for hormones that control proper immune function, blood clotting, cell growth and the components of cell membranes. Omega-3s are highly concentrated in the brain and are thought to be important for cognitive and behavioral function. Omega-3s have been shown through research to reduce inflammation and possibly lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
The highest amounts of EPA and DHA in a food source are found in cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and cod. A precursor omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in vegetarian sources such as walnuts and flaxseeds. The problem with the vegetarian sources is that our body must convert the ALA to EPA and DHA, but this process typically only converts a very small portion of the ALA. In healthy females, only around 21% of ALA is converted to EPA and 9% is converted to DHA. In healthy males, only about 8% of ALA is converted to EPA, and 0-4% is converted to DHA. (Source)
The University of Maryland Medical Center reviewed studies on the impact of omega-3s on the following health conditions: high cholesterol (higher levels of omega-3s = higher HDL – the good cholesterol and better heart health), high blood pressure (may lower blood pressure in people with hypertension), may help prevent heart disease, diabetes (may help lower triglycerides and apoproteins), rheumatoid arthritis (reduces symptoms but does not slow disease progression), depression (some studies show that adding omega-3s helped improve symptoms), ADHD (children with ADHD typically have low levels of DHA), scientists believe DHA is protective against Alzheimers and dementia, IBD (results are mixed), asthma (results are mixed), macular degeneration (less risk with more omega-3s), menstrual pain (less pain), colon cancer (seems to reduce risk of colorectal cancer), breast cancer (may lessen likelihood to develop breast cancer, but more research needed) and prostate cancer (may help prevent development of prostate cancer). (Source)
How to Balance our Omega-6:Omega-3 Ratio
While Omega-3s are now touted as “good” and Omega-6s as “bad”; that really is not the case. Both -6s and -3s play important roles in our bodies, and they are both necessary for proper function. The problem is not with -6s or -3s; the problem is that we have chosen to eat a diet way too high in -6s, which has thrown our -6:-3 ratio off balance. Remember, our bodies can not make these types of fatty acids, we must obtain them in our diets; and the ratio has gone out of balance due to the choices we make about what we eat. The typical American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s.
Our action is to decrease omega-6s in our diet, and to increase omega-3s. Working to reduce and eliminate processed foods and vegetable oils will help to reduce our omega-6 intake. Increasing omega-3s can be trickier, since most of us are not able to source healthy cold water fish and eat it several times a week. This is where supplementation can really be helpful. Unless you can add a bunch of wild-caught fish to your diet, then fish oil supplements may be the right option for you.
Fermented Cod Liver Oil with Butter
Fermented cod liver oil has seen a lot of publicity and converts since the work of Weston A. Price is making its way more in to the mainstream. Dr. Weston A. Price was a Cleveland dentist at the turn of the 20th century, who traveled the world seeking out isolated people groups to study their diets and its effects on their teeth and general degeneration. He studied how when traditional diets were changed to modern ones, oral health plummeted. One of his biggest finds was the great effects of fermented cod liver with butter for oral and overall wellness. His work began entering the mainstream probably due to Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, a book originally published in the 90s that explores traditional diet and health vs. modern diet and health. Sally Fallon Morell is the founding President of the Weston A. Price Foundation. The idea behind her book and the foundation is the promotion of healthy fats, including FCLO.
Fermented cod liver oil is just like it sounds, the oil made from fermenting cod livers. It is touted because the process of fermentation allows the fat soluble vitamins to remain intact within the oil, making it a good source of both omega-3s and vitamins D and A. In his work, Dr. Price found that fermented cod liver oil on its own was not enough, high-quality butter had to be added for the most benefits to be seen.
My only hesitancy with FCLO is that for someone like me, who is susceptible to candida, fermentations of any kind are not my best option. Some people feel great drinking kombucha and eating fermented foods, while others end up with yeast infections. There is no one size fits all when it comes to foods, even healthy foods. I took FCLO with butter for over a year, and never saw any of the benefits. My blood work showed no improvement in vitamin D levels either. As soon as I stopped taking it, I actually felt better. I do much better on a regular fish oil supplement, than the FCLO. But, I do think it is worth trying. This is the fermented cod liver oil with butter that I took.
Vitamin E Oil (Tocopherol)
Vitamin E oil is more commonly found in skin care treatments, but it can also be used as a supplement. Vitamin E is an essential antioxidant that we get from our diets. Vitamin E oil is considered a lipophilic antioxidant. “Lipo” means fat, and “philic” means loving. In this case, lipophilic means fat-soluble. Vitamin E combines with and works as an antioxidant specific to other oils in the body. It helps to protect the other oils we consume. The polyunsaturated omega-6s and omega-3s are considered unstable oils due to their double bonds. Unstable oils are prone to oxidation, which can be damaging to our cells and cell membranes. Vitamin E oil helps to protect against oxidation and to fight free radicals. It is known for aiding the body against aging, improving vision, balancing hormones, repairing damaged skin and more.
As more research is being done on vitamin E, different isomers have been found and seem to have different impacts on the body. Most of the vitamin E available focuses on tocopherols, but more recent research has shown the benefits of tocotrienols.
Vitamin E is found in plant sources such as wheat germ, sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts and in much smaller amounts in mangos, avocados, broccoli, spinach, kiwi and tomatoes. It is a fat soluble vitamin, meaning that it can be stored in the body.
The problem with vitamin E oil as a supplement is that most of it is sourced from soy. It is difficult to find a version that is well sourced and contains different isomers. In this case, adding more vitamin E containing foods to the diet may be the best option.
Evening Primrose Oil & other Sources of GLA
Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) is a plant-based form of Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA). EPO is most often used by women searching for relief from PMS and menopausal symptoms. The research is not specifically clear that EPO directly helps in either of these areas of our lives. You can certainly find personal testimonies of women who use EPO and find it helpful. However, keep in mind that it is an omega-6, and most of us are already overloaded in omega-6s, so supplementing with one should be fully considered.
GLA is also found in borage oil, black current seed oil and spirulina (the blue-green algae).
Essential oils are not fatty oils like the other oils we have been discussing together. Some essential oils can be used as dietary supplements, but this topic is so large that it really deserves its own post. Perhaps we will have that discussion another day?
And that brings us to the end of our discourse on oil supplements. Join me again next Sunday, and we will explore the skin-specific uses for different oils. We are going to look at oils for scarring, cleansing, anti-aging and more!
Have you tried fermented cod liver oil? What was your take on it? What other oils do you use as supplements?
Resources & Further Reading…
- Nutrient Content of the US Food Supply 1909-2004: A Summary Report. https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/nutrient_content_of_the_us_food_supply/FoodSupply1909-2004Report.pdf
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