Omega-3 update: interview with Stuart Tomc

image: Nordic Naturals

image: Nordic Naturals

It’s something of an understatement to say Stuart Tomc is passionate about omega-3 fatty acids.  He works for Nordic Naturals, a producer of omega-3 supplements, and he spoke with me recently about a wide range of issues, including:

  • recommended dosages
  • blood tests
  • the state of the omega-3 supply chain
  • research protocols
  • brain effects
Stuart Tomc

Stuart Tomc

The key point that came up over and over is the controversy about the ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fatty acids in our food supply.  It’s no secret that our intake of omega-6 fats, from vegetable oils, has skyrocketed over the past century.  Organizations like the American Heart Association believe that’s a good thing.  As Tomc points out, their mantra is “keep eating lots of omega-6 and just add a bit more omega-3”.  But Tomc and many omega-3 researchers believe that’s the wrong strategy for health.  When omega-6 fats flood the metabolic system, omega-3 fats can’t do their job.  And they have a variety of very important and unique jobs to do, from mediating inflammation to brain structure and function.

Tomc discusses one of the main ways current research methods may inadvertently lead to incorrect conclusions about the effects of omega-3 fats:

lack of control over the subjects’ diets

This is a very big deal in research.  In most cases, omega-3 is merely assessed using a check list of foods eaten in the past several months.  Blood tests to measure actual omega-3 status are not used.  Omega-6 intake is not controlled.  And since the typical intake of omega-6 fats is very high, that could interfere with omega-3 metabolism and utilization.

Tomc discusses a study, published in 2013, that did control those parameters.  Researchers studied the effect of omega-3 on headache occurrence and severity in people who suffer from frequent debilitating headaches.*  Why headaches?  Omega-3 fatty acids are metabolized into inflammatory mediators that impact pain pathways, and so could potentially affect headache incidence.

For 12 weeks, the subjects all ate a diet low in omega-6 fats.  Half the subjects also increased omega-3 intake.  Blood tests measured omega-3 and omega-6 status.  Results: the people eating increased omega-3 fatty acids had significantly fewer headache hours per day, fewer headache days per month, increased markers for omega-3 metabolites and decreased markers for omega-6 fats in blood.

photo: Nordic Naturals

photo: Nordic Naturals

Tomc points out that t’s relatively easy to measure headache occurrence in a short term study.  It’s not so easy to assess the impact of higher omega-3/lower omega-6 intake on heart disease, cancer or inflammatory diseases.  Those studies would have to go on for years, and few people would be willing to have their diets tightly controlled for years.

What does the future hold for omega-3?  Tomc is excited about new research on the effect of omega-3 fats on brain chemistry, but emphasizes that the studies must be designed to control omega-6 intake and measure actual omega-3 status.  He also believes the supply chain of omega-3 must be expanded, so that everyone — not just a few wealthy people in developed countries — can benefit from adequate intake of this important nutrient.  In addition to fish, the supply chain of the future might include algal sources and plant foods that are engineered to produce more long-chain omega-3 fats.

Here is a glossary of some of the terms Tomc uses in the interview:

  1. Linoleate (LA): refers to the 18-carbon omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, found primarily in vegetable/seed-based oils.  Modern diets are very high in linoleate.
  2. HUFA: Highly Unsaturated Fatty Acids, the long chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, both of which can be metabolized to certain hormones.  HUFA can be measured with a blood test.
  3. Stearidonic acid: a form of omega-3 present in soy oil, which can be metabolized to EPA and DHA
  4. EPA: the 20-carbon omega-3 fatty acid
  5. DHA: the 22 carbon omega-3 fatty acid
  6. ALA: the 18-carbon omega-3 fatty acid found in plant foods.  Can be metabolized, at low rates, to the longer chain omega-3s.
  7. Arachidonic acid (AA): a 20-carbon omega-6 fatty acid.  Linoleate can be metabolized to AA, which can then be metabolized to hormones and inflammatory mediators that generally act in opposition to those derived from DHA/EPA.

*Ramsden CE et al. Targeted alteration of dietary n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for the treatment of chronic headaches: A randomized trial. PAIN (2013).

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