Article by Ariane Monnami, Ph.D., nutritionist with degrees in Micro-nutrition and Neuro-nutrition.
“Tired skin today, tired brain tomorrow” — this phrase was one of my professors’ favourite — a somewhat amusing way to say that what is visible on the outside reflects deeper problems on the inside, especially with our brain and body.
What exactly are Omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids, just like Omega-6 fatty acids, are polyunsaturated fats. This seemingly ‘foreign’ word simply means that the fatty acids are made of multiple “double bonds” giving them a particular ring structure.
The number ‘-3’ or ‘-6’ indicates the distance of the first ring relative to the end of the molecule. In practice, this structure gives polyunsaturated fatty acids two particular characteristics:
- A certain degree of flexibility
- An increased fragility to oxidisation
Essential fatty acids
Our body is not able to produce Omega-3 and Omega-6 and can only be manipulate them, for example in order to lengthen them.
Just like with vitamins, it is therefore essential that we obtain these fatty acids from our diet. Upon discovery, polyunsaturated fatty acids were in fact named ‘Vitamin F’.
An impressive and complex structure
Long and short-chain fatty acids
Fatty acid molecules can be both short and long; the longer the chain, the more advanced the molecule. In order to create them, an entire mechanism involving a number of minerals and vitamins is needed.
Over the years, this mechanism tends to falter and finds it increasingly difficult to function efficiently. Our body therefore finds it harder to transform short-chain fatty acids present in vegetable oils, into long-chain fatty acids, naturally present for example in oily fish.
Competition between Omega-3 and Omega-6
Not only does the production mechanism tend to slow down with age, there is also ‘competition’ between the mechanisms used to produce Omega-3 and Omega-6, as they both make use of the same ‘resources’.
Whilst our Palaeolithic ancestors consumed both Omega-3 and Omega-6 in equal amounts, our current diet tends to contains ten to twelve times more Omega-6 than Omega-3. This then causes a number of imbalances and disruptions in the functioning of our body!
Which foods are rich in Omega-3?
Vegetable oils such as rapeseed oil, walnut oil, camelina and linseed oil which all contain short-chain Omega-3 fatty acids.
Oily fish, in particular cold-water oily fish which contain long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids.
Watch out for oxidisation!
As mentioned in a number of my articles, the molecular structure of ‘Omega’ molecules means that they are more vulnerable to oxidisation. This is the reason for the particularly strong smell of grilled sardines and the oxidative rancidity of Omega-3-rich vegetable oils.
In order to avoid oxidisation, manufacturers tend to play around with these polyunsaturated fatty acids to make them more stable, and at the same time removing all of their health benefits. These esterified oils, often found in margarine and in industrial bakeries, must be avoided at all costs.
What are the uses of Omega-3?
Increased membrane flexibility
The ‘flexibility’ of Omega-3 molecules is passed on to the cell membranes in which they are integrated.
For our skin, this means:
- a more supple and ‘hydrated’ skin (a more ‘hydrated’ skin which is in well-oiled).
- a more effective barrier against loss of moisture.
- a smoother skin which is less vulnerable to flaking, cracking and peeling.
For our brain:
- an improved nerve impulse conduction.
- a more effective release of neuro-mediators; the molecules acting as ‘messengers’ between neurones.
For our red blood cells and blood vessels:
- red blood cells with greater flexibility and malleability.
- blood vessels with greater elasticity and flexibility.
These two particularities also enable better blood circulation.
Other health effects
Omega-3 fatty acids also have other effects on our health, which we will touch upon in future articles. These include:
- Increasing ‘good’ cholesterol, or HDL cholesterol.
- Diminishing platelet aggregation.
- Decreasing the risk of mortality following heart attacks and strokes.
- Providing an indirect anti-inflammatory action.