Why I Started Eating More Omega 3

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Since I released my film in October 2014, I’ve had the privilege of attending countless screenings and speaking to people afterwards. After each screening people inevitably have questions. How has the medical community responded to the film? How do I learn to meditate? When will it all start working for me?

 

I am also asked at every screening what diet I follow and why. This has been the one topic that I have been reluctant to speak about. The reason is that diet is such a touchy topic. There’s a reason why the mainstream media refers to it as the ‘diet wars.’

 

Not even leading researchers agree on the their findings when it comes to diet. There are vegans and vegetarians, omnivores, carnivores, flexi-tarians and veg-aquarians. Low carb vs low fat, high carb vs high protein, slow cooked vs raw, organic vs fresh, preservative free, gluten free, dairy free, sugar free…whatever diet people choose, there is a wealth of scientific reasoning and an abundance of anecdotal stories that can spark fiery debate.

 

For me, getting sick with an autoimmune disease marked the beginning of years of experimenting with my diet that still continues today and while I know that what we think and feel influences what we eat and drink, and that what we eat and drink influences how we think and feel, I have made the focus of The Connection film and blog largely on the latest research showing the role of the mind when it comes to sickness and health. That’s because the starting point on the road to recovery for me was getting my mind right. The rest (ie; diet, sleep and exercise) came next.

 

But recently, after a health set back which I’ve written about here, I’ve been more thorough in my research on diet. You may have noticed I’ve written recently about the second brain in your gut here and about the microbiome here and here.

 

In this post I’m going to delve a little into dietary specifics, because there is an area of nutrition that I’ve been researching in the last few months that I feel is worth highlighting, especially for people suffering with a chronic illness. It’s an area I think few of us have any idea of and over time could potentially see big improvements in your health.

 

I’m talking about essential fatty acids.

 

Omegas 3 and 6 are called essential fatty acids because they are crucial for your health. Your body can’t make them. You have to consume them in your diet. Think of them like vitamins. They have a number of important jobs in your body, including forming the walls of cells and influencing the functioning of cells.

 

While both Omega 3 and Omega 6 are critically important, a growing body of research is showing that for many of us eating a standard modern diet, Omega 3 is greatly lacking and this may contribute to increases in major illnesses like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and autoimmune disease. We also know that Omega 3 is crucial for brain health, with research showing that a type of Omega 3 called DHA can boost cognitive and behavioral performance. This study for instance found that babies whose mothers supplemented their diet with omega 3 rich cod liver oil during their pregnancy and while they were breastfeeding in the first 3 months, had higher mental processing scores when they were 4 years old.

 

Science journalist Susan Allport has written a book called The Queen of Fats, in which she traces the history of Omega 3 and explains how the discovery of its importance came too late to compete with the rise of commercial food processing that saw it stripped from our diet. Omega 3 is abundant in greens and seafood, two food groups that are not often prioritized in standard modern households. Omega 3 also doesn’t have a long shelf life so it’s not ideal in this fast/convenient food world.

 

Unfortunately the disappearing Omega 3 story doesn’t stop with the rise of processed foods. Recent research shows that chickens and livestock that are raised on processed grains using commercial farming methods have significantly lower levels of omega 3. This study for instance showed that the eggs of pastured hens had twice the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids per egg than the eggs of caged hens. Considering this, the expression that ‘you are what you eat, eats’ really starts to hits home.

 

I’m particularly interested in Omega 3 because I have an autoimmune disease. At times, my immune system gets overactive, doesn’t switch off and causes arthritis in my body. Research shows that Omega 3 plays a role in quietening down the immune system so I wanted to work out the best way to take advantage of what science shows.

 

Studies like this, which looked at 7000 heart disease patients showed significant benefits for people who took Omega 3 supplements. Studies like this on the other hand, which followed more than 3000 women with breast cancer, showed that women needed to eat the Omega 3 via fish rather than supplements and when they did, they significantly reduced the chances of reoccurring cancer.

 

After spending the last few months reviewing the seemingly irrefutable argument that treatment for the major chronic illnesses crippling our health care system should be seriously viewed with Omega 3 in mind, I was left confused as to why my doctors have only ever mentioned it as a side note, if at all.

 

It turns out, there’s a good reason. Scientists don’t all agree with one and other. This paper for instance, which got a lot of media attention, suggested that high levels of certain types of Omega 3 were associated with prostate cancer in men and this review study showed that in people with heart disease, supplementation with Omega 3 was not associated with a lower risk of heart attacks or sudden death or stroke.

 

Over the next few months I’ll continue sharing my investigation into the Omegas and I’ll talk to a few researchers in the field to try and get to the bottom of what we can take away from all of this.

 

My initial conversation with Professor Peter McLennon, a leading Omega researcher from the University of Wollongong’s School of Medicine has determined that the central issue is that different researchers are using totally different quantities and varieties of Omega 3s resulting in totally different conclusions. He also said that many of the trials aren’t taking into consideration that people being studied are probably consuming differing amounts of Omegas in their natural diet.

 

When I asked him what his ultimate conclusion is, his advice was simple. Eat more fish.

 

In terms of my own conclusions, I’ve been concentrating on getting more in my diet by eating more fish and leafy greens. While a study of one person would hardly stand up to scientific analysis, I have been feeling good on this diet and have noticed two significant physical changes. My fingernails have become stronger (I’ve always had flaky finger nails) and I have needed far fewer drops for my chronic dry eye condition.

 

I’m interested to know of any reader experiences with Omega 3, so feel free to comment below.

 

I also want to highlight that I have been supplementing with two tablets a day, but some recent digging I did uncovered that these supplements may not be what they seem so I wouldn’t rush out to the health food store just yet. More on this soon.

  • Lynn

    THANK YOU Shannon. This whole topic drives me nuts because everything contradicts itself and everyone who writes about it is rigid and rather zealot like in their philosophies -so I try an approach for a while find it too restrictive and it doesn't ring true for me. So I try to focus more on the mind exercise angle which for me makes intuitive sense and seems so simple. I wrote in an earlier post that I could not tolerate fish,flaxseed,borage OIL. However I recently found I can tolerate actual ground flaxseed-1t at a time-1T makes my eyes flat and I feel lethargic. Weirdly super sensitive. On the eat more fish-can u shed some light on that craziness -eat fish-no only salmon-no-yes-only wild. Well finding wild USA salmon is not easy, and gets expensive and boring . REALLY looking forward to your forthcoming blogs as your willingness to dig and find a balanced scientific approach gives me hope. I REALLY wish u would write about the process of your healing someday. I am such a perfectionist I think the healing process is linear and fast even tho I intuitively know that's probably not right. And symptoms probably come and go over a lifetime. Take care and thanks I appreciate your efforts.

  • Janine Marsh

    Hi Shannon. I went to a talk by a nutritionist called Dr Marilyn Glenville last month and he recommends you take 770mg EPA a day and 510mg of DHA a day, Both these compounds are in Omega 3. Some products on the market are no where near that so I agree with your advice to not rush out yet. I suffer with fibroids and since going to this talk I have cut back on sugar and added more vits to my life as well as eating more fish and avocado and leafy greens. Looking forward to finding out what you research. THANK YOU!

  • Neri

    Hi Shannon
    I have the same diagnosis as u and my naturopath got me onto the omega 3 and Dha's
    Expensive and one of best brands appear to be Metagenics.
    One of the dry eye solutions is so simple you ll fall off your chair laughing . Organic coconut oil dabbed on the boney socket underneath. With in a week doing this 3 times a day I noticed a difference.
    I was in agony burning itchy sandy sensation affected my vision. All manner of drops creams sprays didn't help.
    I also started using Aust bushflower eye cream . Had to stop wearing any eye make up for over a year – just starting back. Warning sometimes the coconut oil blurrs the vision if too liberal. I learnt more is not necessarily faster healing! Also diagnosed with MTHFR genetic mutation so don't absorb folic acid or the Bvit group. Experimenting with Thorne Methyl-guard tablets again as got terrible rash first time. I'm healthier now so starting again.
    Enjoying retrain your brain series and lend out your Cd regularly.
    Love hearing how you are doing
    Nerida

  • Kemal Nami

    Hi Shannon. Professor George Jelinek, whom you featured in The Connection, has thankfully done extensive evidence-based research on the significance of Diet (plant based low saturated fat plus seafood diet), Meditation, Vitamin D & Omega 3 supplementation and Exercise – known as the 'Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis' (OMS) program. One significant aspect of the program is in relation to Omega 3. In addition to the recommendation of eating oily fish at least 3 times a week, the program recommends flaxseed (linseed) oil supplementation (1 tablespoon morning and evening) as a great source of Omega 3 (in addition to other benefits). I have been on the OMS program since diagnosis (June 2014) and am appreciating the benefits.
    Thank you for your continued support and empowerment via your blog.
    Be well,
    Kemal

  • Roger Matthews

    Hi Shannon

    As Kemal observes, George Jelinek has looked at this in his Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis book. You can find more on the OMS website at http://www.overcomingmultiplesclerosis.org/Recovery-Program/Supplements/Essential-Fatty-Acid-Supplements/

    Since his book was published, Prof Jelinek and colleagues have provide more evidence through the HOLISM study. A paper on Omega 3, confirming the value of flaxseed oil, can be found here http://informahealthcare.com/doi/full/10.3109/00207454.2013.803104

    As a person with MS, I personally aim to eat oily fish around 3 times a week while taking flaxseed oil daily.
    Roger Matthews
    Stratford upon Avon, UK

  • Cecilia Peter Freeman Strous

    Hi Shannon,

    You may wish to consider:
    1. That before delving into detail like e.g. omega 3s, we should work out if we are omnivores, carnivores or herbivores from a health perspective. Looking at detail first we might confuse ourselves as we will be missing the context, the big picture, that the results of our study into detail should be seen in. That is where our Western culture really has got it wrong I believe.
    I.e.
    we talk about omega 3s, sugars, fats, proteins etc but we do not eat that way. We eat processed food, animal based food and plant based food. The associations of the omega 3s, sugars, fats, proteins etc. might
    well matter and will be ignored if we are looking at detail.
    E.g. the omega 3s in greens might not be the same as the omega 3s in fish. And they are not. The fish version comes with cholesterol, animal hormones, animal proteins, highly concentrated oils, is high in calories lacking of vitamins. Greens are low in calories and abundant in vitamins.
    You may wish to consider that the populations eating traditionally a lot of fish (Inuit and Japanese) had their own health problems: a high number of strokes. Up till 1981 strokes were the leading cause of death in Japan till westernisation helped to put cancer and heart disease on the first place. I believe that it is through the
    assumption of us being omnivores that mankind (including our specialists) are all confused. Assuming things is not good science but unfortunately it drives a lot of commercial interests which is another enormous issue. – I hope this makes some sense.

    2. Meat and Dairy food clogs up the arteries and make it harder for the blood to flow, fish + omega 3s thin the blood making it easier again for the blood to flow. But so does warfarin (rat poison). Balancing one bad thing with the opposing bad thing still upsets the natural health balance.

    For references see: http://users.tpg.com.au/freestro/heartdisease.pdf

    3. Roy Swank, the grandfather of successful MS treating diets, in his The Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book writes about experiments on animals that induced auto immune diseases: Injecting them with tissue from the
    nervous system from another animal caused the immune system to attack its own nervous system. As far as I understand that is the only way we have induced auto immune diseases in experiments.

    So in our human case why do we get auto immune diseases? It looks like a "leaky gut" sometimes allows undigested animal proteins to get into our bodies and that starts the process off. If we ate only food containing high vitamin levels per calorie (i.e. plants) the gut will be in optimum condition and there will be minimum or no animal proteins in the diet that could induce an auto immune disease or make it worse again.

    Best of health,
    Peter.

  • Margie Hall

    As I myself have MS, which was only diagnosed in 2013. I stay away from processed foods and eat naked as much as I can. I think everybody should eat raw organic fruit and vegies, after all we are hunters and gatherers. George Jelinek's book Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis is a must read for everyone, whether you have MS or not. I have 2 tablespoons of Flax Oil everyday, my skin is so much healthier, my finger nails are very strong, my hair is not as dry and I don't have a dry eye problem anymore. I also have Vitamin D3 drops and a B12 spray under the tongue and a probiotic. I recently had my annual MRI Scan of brain and spine, the results were fantastic. The lesions on my spine are gone (hence I'm able to walk properly again and I'm a lot more active), and the brain scan was stable with no progression. I would never have believed that just through a simple change of diet that I would achieve such results. I personally don't have meat, dairy, gluten, sugar, eggs, coffee. Sorry, I lie I do eat fish twice a week (salmon wild caught). You probably think this is all pretty boring, but you would be amazed at some of the yummy food that you can eat, and know that it is healthy for you. Don't let your gut rule, go with what your head is saying. Exercise the mind and body with daily meditation even if it's only 10 minutes, it's better than nothing at all. Our bodies are an amazing machine, we just need to keep it well oiled and eat the right food for optimum health. Marg.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Margie,
    Thanks for sharing your amazing story. I am so glad to hear how well you're doing on the OMS program. Wonderful.
    Shannon

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks so much for this well informed post. I am reading extensively at the moment and diving into the detail of the studies. My starting point was in fact Professor Jelenik's chapters on diet in his book Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis. I've since read 3 others on immunity and am half way through two others written by investigative journalists on diet generally. I've also now done two interviews with leading Omega researchers and I'll keep the blog updated as I come to my own realizations, but for now I will wholeheartedly agree with you when you say that when we get bogged down in the detail, we can sometimes loose sight of the bigger picture. Thank you for taking the time to write so extensively.
    Shannon

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Thanks Roger,
    I am an avid reader of the work that Professor Jelinek has published. Thanks so much for adding the links for other readers and for contributing to the discussion.
    Shannon

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Kemel,
    As I've mentioned above, Professor Jelinek's excellent chapters on nutrition in his book Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis was in fact my starting point for this research on Omegas. His extensive experience as a medical researcher, academic and doctor, as well as his own exeprience with an autoimmune disease for which conventional medicine has little to offer, and the fact that people following his program are getting good health outcomes, certainly gives a lot of weight to what he has to say about diet. I'm diving deep into questions around diet at the moment and will continue to share my findings in the blog. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Thanks for the coconut oil tip Nerida. I'll check it out. So glad to hear you had a good naturopath you put you onto Omega 3.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Janine, Great to hear about your own investigations into diet. Keep us all posted as to how cutting back on sugar and increasing vitamins changes things for you.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Lynn, thanks for your enthusiastic response. I'll be posting more on Omega's soon – and will endeavor do do some digging for you about fish. I'm currently writing a book too which will include a little more about my own health journey. I'll keep you posted on progress through my email newsletter and this blog.

  • Neri

    Hey Marg great results I think I've halted auto immune progression by diet and omega 3 increases. When I diverge the problems surface pretty quick Nerida

  • Rob

    I would like to share a couple of things with you that I have read about after going down the "rabbit hole" of reading research on Omega 3 oils.
    1/ Most of the cheaper capsules of "Fish oil" have small amount of EPA & DHA in them so the balance of the capsule is cheap "filler" oils. Therefore look at the label and if the front of the package says "1000mg of Fish Oil per capsule" turn to the back and read the small print and you will probably see that if you add the EPA & the DHA together you will get 300mg (30%) or less of the Fish Oil so the balance of the 1000mg (700mg or more) will be cheap filler oils.
    The better quality products (also more expensive) will give you a total of up around 60% of EPA + DHA of the total mg in the capsule.
    Better still get a liquid supplement which is deodorised and flavoured (fruit punch) so no fishy smell or taste as the liquids are better value and seem to have higher ratios of the EPA + DHA.

    2/ Try to get a supplement that has much more EPA than DHA as we get enough (sometimes too much) DHA in our everyday diet.
    If you look for a ratio of 2EPA to 1DHA you are heading in the right direction.

    3/ It seems we need around 3000mg per day of EPA + DHA combined which equates to 1 x 5ml (a teaspoon) of the liquid preparation that I use. This gives me 2827mg out of the 4600mg dose which equals 61%
    Some practitioners may actually prescribe double that amount to treat Arthritis.

    I hope the above is of some help to understanding what to look for when purchasing Fish Oil and what dosage you may need.

    However I suggest you "walk your own path" and do some research of your own to confirm what I discovered about Fish Oil to see if you need to supplement with it.

  • Ted

    Shannon,

    Thank you for this interesting information on Omega 3's. I have read enough information to convince me that the average western diet is deficient in Omega 3's. I do eat fatty fish (salmon and tuna), but not enough to get my full load, so I also take supplements.

    As far as what is the "best" diet and what is not, it seems this debate can go on forever. So, it seems wise to study which population groups live the longest, with the least disease load, and learn from them. One such study is called the Okinawa Centenarian Study (which spurred the book called The Okinawa Program). Okinawa has (or had, before western lifestyle crept in) one of the largest number (per capita) of healthy and active centenarians. According to the study/book, the reasons are several, including: eating less (the average body mass index of Okinawans is 20.4 – lean is 23), active lifestyles, less meat (not vegetarian, but much less meat protein and more vegetables), more soy protein, much less sugar, close connections with others (family and friends), and a healthy psycho-spiritual approach to life. Yes, genetics plays a role in Okinawan longevity, but according to the study, those Okinawans who moved away and adopted western lifestyles, also adopted western diseases and shorter lives.

    FMI: http://www.okicent.org

  • Neri

    That's helpful I've been caught before. Current capsules are E 647 D253
    It's get what one pays for and always read the small print

  • Jenniferlb

    Hi Shannon. You really should read Dr. Terry Wahls books on eating for your mitochondria. Whilst I can't agree with everything in her diet. She advocates eating animal organs.
    Her transformation and her patients transformations are incredible. She also has raised the first EVER funding for clinical trials on her nutrition program and secondary progressive MS.
    As a traditional doc she went from wheelchair bound to fully functional.

    Her books are on diet and autoimmune diseases not just MS. She researched thousands of Pub Med trials looking for answers in diet to save her life.

    One of the keys are the MCT s in coconut oil which she believes are more important to brain functioning and nervous system than omega 3.

    Also key is seaweed which has high concentrations of iodine that many people miss in their diets as we don't eat iodised salt anymore. Important determinants of thyroid and autoimmune function. Thirdly of course are green leafy veggies.

    She advocates 9 cups of veggies per day organic if possible.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Thanks for the suggestion Jennifer. I've been looking at a few of Dr. Wahls videos online and will spend some more time looking at her recommendations in the coming months. I'll post on the blog when I feel like I've thoroughly checked it out. There's something about her huge plate of daily leafy greens I find very compelling.

  • Ella

    Hi. I have been using chia seeds in my diet recently, as they are rich in Omega 3 , I believe. I'd be interested in your take on them , in relation to potential harm of consuming too much Omega 3. I think I'll continue for the moment, as, like fish, I'm guessing, Omega 3 in a natural form is better than concentrated supplement form. Thanks for all the info and look fwd to reading more.

  • Paul Davidsung

    Interesting suggestions . I Appreciate the info , Does anyone know if I could get a template SBA 1993 example to complete ?

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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