What’s your omega-3 status?

omega3bargraph

Lipid Technologies bar graph

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard of fish oils, or omega-3 fats?  We all know about them, and we understand that omega-3 fats are healthy.  But what exactly does that mean, and how much should you consume?  Standard blood tests don’t look at omega-3 levels.  Much of the research on omega-3 fats doesn’t even look at blood levels.  The studies just try to compare health outcomes with omega-3 intake from food.  And the data on food content of omega-3 isn’t very accurate.

Here’s another thing we don’t know much about: exactly what blood level of omega-3 is associated with improved health: lower risk for diseases, less inflammation, better health?

Back in 2012, I had an omega-3 blood test done by Lipid Technologies LLC.  I’d been taking omega-3 supplements, and was curious about how they were affecting my blood levels.  The results were encouraging.  My results were better than typical values found in the USA: higher EPA and DHA, lower arachidonic acid* and a much lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.  In the two years since then, I’ve changed up omega-3 supplements occasionally, hoping to improve my health.  Early this year, I decided to get another test to see if those changes improved my results further.

Result: no improvements.  In fact, some of my omega-3 results weren’t quite as good, although I was still above the typical US averages.  And my omega-6 values hadn’t budged, despite my avoidance of the common sources of omega-6 fats in the typical diet: salad dressing, fried foods and processed foods.

I asked Lipid Technologies president, Dr. Doug Bibus, PhD, what this meant.  First off, he said “I wish everyone we tested had numbers like yours!”  In his opinion, small variations in some of the values was less important than the Big Picture: my values put me in the Low Risk zone for heart health.  This risk is based on a ratio called “Omega 3 in HUFA”, developed by Dr. Bill Lands.  HUFA stands for Highly Unsaturated Fatty Acids, or the total of omega-6 + omega-3 fats in blood.  Omega-6 fatty acids generally contribute to more severe inflammatory responses, while omega-3 fats modulate inflammation.  A person with a higher percent of omega-3 fats might have a lower risk for inflammatory-based diseases.  In fact,  Dr. Lands found that populations with an omega-3 percent at 50% or higher have reduced risk for death from heart disease; at a level of 70% risk is very low.

HUFAchart

heart disease mortality risk vs %omega-3 HUFA

The typical US value for omega-3 HUFA is 20%, which corresponds to a high mortality risk from heart disease.  My level this time around: 42%, not quite up to the ideal 50% level recommended by Dr. Lands, but better than the average.  In fact, my risk level is closer to that of people in Spain, who eat a Mediterranean style diet with significant fish and nuts.  People in Japan and Greenland eat lots of omega-3 fatty acids and have the highest % omega-3 HUFA and lowest risk for heart disease mortality.

Another way to measure omega-3 is as a percentage of all fats in the blood sample: long chain, short chain, saturated, mono unsaturated, poly unsaturated.  In Japan, where omega-3 intake from diet is high, that number is about 15%.  In the US, the average is less then 5%.  My value was almost 8%, although previously it was 9%, which Lipid Technologies considers a good target value.  The heart disease risk levels associated with different omega-3 % values are shows in a colored bar chart, with the individual’s risk level highlighted by a star (see above).

So I was disappointed that my numbers didn’t improve.  Dr. Bibus noted that daily intake can affect the omega-3 values short term, so foods or supplements eaten in the previous day or two would have influenced my results.  In general, everything was in the same range as 2 years ago.  Focusing on consistent higher intake of omega-3 sources might boost my values.

*a long chain omega-6 fatty acid that plays a key role in inflammation

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