If you’re fascinated by ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin’s work with the shamans in the Amazon Rain Forest to learn about and preserve their age old indigenous cures, you’ll also be interested in this award-winning documentary, THE SACRED SCIENCE.
In this 2011 documentary, eight people afflicted with serious illnesses (Parkinson’s, breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, depression, prostate cancer, a rare neuro-endocrine cancer, alcohol addiction) leave everything behind for 30 days and embark on a natural medicine quest into the heart of the Amazon jungle. Working with indigenous healers, each participant uses a combination of time-tested plant medicines and intense spiritual ceremonies to restore their health.
Five of them will return with real results, two will return disappointed, and one won’t come back at all.
In THE SACRED SCIENCE, Nicholas J. Polizzi and his team take their brave group of patients straight to the source of this ancient plant wisdom.
If you don’t know them already, I also highly recommend ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin’s 1993 book TALES OF A SHAMAN’S APPRENTICE: An ethnobotanist searches for new medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest.
and the 2001 award winning film about his work, THE SHAMAN’S APPRENTICE.
Plotkin has become an expert on rainforest ecosystems. He is an advocate for tropical rainforest conservation, working in partnership with indigenous people and The Amazon Conservation Team to protect the Amazon, its people and plants.
The story of Omega-3 versus Omega-6 fatty acids for our health stated in its simplest form (Gunnars, 2014):
A diet low in Omega-3s but high in Omega-6 but low in Omega-3 produces excessive inflammation.
A diet that includes a balanced amount of each reduces inflammation.
People eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) are consuming a much higher level of Omega-6s relative to Omega-3s and the excessive inflammation resulting from this imbalance causes a whole range of serious health problems – including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimers, many types of cancers, and others.
Metabolic Syndrome: Conditions occurring together (high blood pressure, high blood sugar level, excess fat around the waist, abnormal cholesterol levels) that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 essential fatty acids are poly-unsaturated types of oils the human body doesn’t have the enzymes to produce for itself so we must get them from our diets or supplements.
These types of fatty acids differ from most other fats in that they are not simply used for energy. They are biologically active, playing essential roles in processes such as blood clotting and inflammation.
Without both Omega-3s and Omega-6s in proper ratio, we are highly likely to become sick.
BENEFITS OF OMEGA-3 ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS (Watson, 2014)
Omega-3 essential fatty acids support heart, brain and mental health; reduce cancer risk and help cancer patients recover; help prevent and ease arthritis; reduce the risk of eye problems; and keep the skin and scalp healthy.
OMEGA-3s FOR HEART HEALTH
Help lower cholesterol levels
Reduce triglycerides (unhealthy fats in the blood) by as much as 30%. High triglyceride levels are linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Decrease the risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats) which can lead to sudden death
Can help prevent blood clots from forming, breaking off and blocking an artery to the heart (causing a heart attack) or an artery to the brain (causing a stroke
Can slightly lower blood pressure – high blood pressure is another risk factor for heart disease.
Reduce inflammation all over the body, helping prevent blocked arteries.
Prevent the re-narrowing (re-stenosis) of coronary arteries after angioplasty surgery.
OMEGA-3 AND CANCER
Fish oils, high in Omega-3 fatty acids, have been found to suppress the grown of certain types of cancers in animals.
May reduce the risk of hormone-fueled cancers such as breast cancer
May inhibit the growth of lung, prostate and colorectal cancers.
May help cancer patients survive their disease
Since there is a known link between excessive inflammation in the body and the development of certain cancers, Omega-3s likely reduce the risk of developing all cancers.
OMEGA-3 AND MENTAL HEALTH
Omega-3 fatty acids promote blood flow in the brain and are essential for brain health.
People getting insufficient Omega-3s in their diet are at increased risk of developing dementia, depression, ADD, dyslexia and schizophrenia.
Omega-3s keep the synapses (tiny gaps across which nerve impulses must pass) in the brain working properly. Nerve impulses need to get through the membrane surrounding the neurons in the brain – and the cell membranes are made mostly of fats, including Omega-3s.
Omega-3 fatty acids improve learning and memory.
They improve mood in people who are depressed.
They fight age-related cognitive decline due to dementia.
Infants require DHA so their brains develop properly, especially during the first two years of life.
A study found that babies born to mother with higher DHA blood levels scored higher on tests of attention and learning than those whose mothers had lower DHA levels.
Another study found that children of mothers who had taken fish oil supplements during pregnancy had higher IQs than the children of mothers who took a placebo.
OMEGA-3 AND ARTHRITIS
Arthritis is the result of the immune system’s autoimmune (abnormal) response to the body’s own joints – as if they were infectious agents, foreign invaders needing to be destroyed. The resulting inflammation produces swollen, stiff, painful joints.
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation throughout the body.
The body also converts Omega-3s to even more potent anti-inflammatory compounds such as resolvins (a family of bioactive products).
Arthritic patients taking Omega-3s have been able to reduce – or even stop – using corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
OMEGA-3 AND THE SKIN
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially eisosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are essential for healthy skin and hair. EPA helps regulate oil production, keeping the skin hydrated.
Omega-3s protect the skin from damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. UV exposure produces harmful substances called free radicals, which damage cells and can lead to premature aging and cancer. Omega-3s act as an antioxidant protecting the body from these free radicals.
Omega-3s also help repair skin damage by preventing the release of enzymes that destroy collagen.
Research suggests that Omega-3’s help prevent certain types of skin cancer.
The anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3s help relieve autoimmune responses expressed through the skin – such as rosacea, psoriasis and eczema.
Insufficient Omega-3 levels can cause the scalp to get dry and flaky (dandruff) and the hair to lose its luster.
Omega-3s can also be given to pets to improve their skin and coat health.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are most important, as they bring balance to our hormones, reduce inflammation, regulate our blood sugar, prevent blood clotting, keep our cholesterol and triglycerides in balance, relax our blood vessels, and and make our cells healthy and resilient.”
– The Natural Hormone Makeover by Phuli Cohan
TYPES OF OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS FOUND IN NATURE
The principal Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid ( DHA), primarily found in certain fish. α-Linolenic acid (ALA), another Omega-3 fatty acid, is found in plants such as nuts and seeds.
Wikipedia’s entry for Omega-3 fatty acid lists these as the most common Omega-3 fatty acids found in nature (Wikipedia, 8/28/2014):
FOODS NATURALLY HIGH IN OMEGA-3 ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS
Foods high in Omega-3s are naturally delicious to the palate.
Foods Rich in Omega-3s:
FRESH PRODUCE CONTAINING ALA OMEGA-3s:
Vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are rich in ALA, a form of Omega-3 fatty acids. Although ALA isn’t as powerful as the other Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, these vegetables also have fiber and other nutrients, as well as Omega-3s.
OILS CONTAINING ALA OMEGA-3s:
Cod liver oil
Here are some charts to help you make good choices.
Vegetarians and vegans can obtain adequate levels of Omega-3s without eating fish or fish oil-based supplements.
The table below summarizes some of the basic relationships between Omega-3s and types of diet:
ALA Food Sources
EPA and DHA Food Sources
sea plants; possibly land plant foods when fermented with the help of certain fungi
Generally vegetarian but including fish
many plants and most fish
eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt, especially when obtained from grass-fed animals but in varying amounts depending on additional factors; possibly land plant foods when fermented with the help of certain fungi
Generally vegetarian but including eggs, cheese, milk and yogurt (without fish, sea plants, or meat)
many plants; eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt
most fish; sea plants; possibly land plant foods when fermented with the help of certain fungi
Plant-eating and meat-eating (but without fish or sea plants)
many plants; many meats
many meats, especially when obtained from grass-fed animals, but in varying amounts, depending on additional factors; possibly land plant foods when fermented with the help of certain fungi
Elevated Omega-6 intakes are associated with an increase in ALL inflammatory diseases – which is to say virtually all diseases. The list includes – but isn’t limited to (Kresser, 2014?):
Type 2 Diabetes
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
All Autoimmune Diseases
For more information on the role of inflammation in the development of disease, see INFLAMMATION. For a list of 80 autoimmune and autoimmune related diseases, see AUTOIMMUNE DISORDERS.
Four major food oils (palm, soybean, rapeseed and sunflower) provide more than 100 million metric tons annually, yielding over 32 million metric tons of Omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and 4 million metric tons of Omega-3 alpha-linoleic acid (ALA).
A distorted ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is a hallmark of the Western diet – and one of its most damaging characteristics. The Standard American Diet (bearing the apt acronym ‘SAD’) has us consuming huge amounts of Omega-6s and way too few Omega-3s.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) – too little Omega-3 and way too much Omega-6
Our Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio tends to be 25 times higher than it should be. Small wonder we are ill with ailments from allergies to heart disease to cancers. (Kresser, 2014?)
Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory. Omega-3s are neutral. Diets containing a lot of Omega-6 and little Omega-3 increase inflammation. Diets containing a lot of Omega-3 and little Omega-6 reduce inflammation.
The human body requires both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to perform many essential functions.
Omega-6 is found mostly in plant oils such as corn, soybean, and sunflower oils as well as in nuts and seeds. The American Heart Association recommends we consume about 5-10% of our food calories from Omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3s come primarily from fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel as well as from walnuts and flax seeds. The American Heart Association recommends that people without coronary heart disease have at least two servings of fatty fish per week. They recommend that people with known coronary heart disease eat more, about 1 gram of EPA and DHA daily, preferably from fatty fish. (Jaret, 2014)
This chart shows how Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation in the body and how Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Omega-6 contains linoleic acid (LA) while Omega-3s contain alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) yielding EPA and DHA.
Linoleic acid (LA), the shortest-chained Omega-6, is an essential fatty acid. Arachidonic acid is a physiologically significant Omega 6, the precursor for prostaglandins (mediator cells with a variety of regulatory functions in the body), endocannabinoids (a group of neuro-modulatory lipids), and other physiologically active molecules.
Excess Omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils interfere with the health benefits of Omega-3 fats, in part because they compete for the same rate-limiting enzymes. A high proportion of Omega-6 to Omega-3 shifts the physiological state in the tissues to become pro-thrombotic, pro-inflammatory and pro-constrictive – and hence push bodily tissues toward the development of many diseases. (Wikipedia, 7/19/14)
A chart showing the Omega-6 versus Omega-3 contents of various food oils – you can see that fish oils are the healthiest (anti-inflammatory) for us while safflower and sunflower oils are the unhealthiest (inflammatory):
The graphic below provides an inkling of how our diet is making us sick: Industrially produced eggs deliver 20 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 while the ratio for range-fed eggs is much more balanced. Industrially produced beef delivers 21 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 while the ratio for grass-fed beef is considerably better.
Add to that the vast amounts of potato chips, French fries, micro-wave popcorn, margarine, most salad dressings, frying oils, and processed foods we consume and it’s not at all surprising that chronic, degenerative diseases pervade our culture.
Joseph Hibbeln, MD, a researcher studying Omega-3 and Omega-6 intake at the National Institute of Health (NIH) observed about the rising intake of Omega-6:
The increases in world linolaic acid (LA) consumption over the past century may be considered a very large uncontrolled experiment that may have contributed to increased societal burdens of aggression, depression and cardiovascular mortality.
Omega-3 supplements must be taken in a form that delivers the fatty acids in a bio-available form or your body won’t be able to get the benefits.
These are some high quality Omega-3 supplements recommended by my health care providers to augment my Omega-3 intake from foods:
Carlson’s Super Omega-3 Fish Oil Concentrate 1,000mg soft gels
The dose for me is 1 soft gel 2x/day.
NutraSea 2X Concentrated 1250 mg EPA + DHA
The dose for me is 1 soft gel 3x/day.
This company also makes a vegan version. It’s a liquid, not a soft gel. I don’t know the dosage.
Integrative Therapeutics’ Eskimo-3 Fish Oil gel caps