Omega 3, Where do I begin?

foxiest-comic-babes

So my super hero metaphor can’t be a total babe? Who’s blog is this anyway ūüôā

So this article is going to dive right into omega-3 fatty acids. Oh I know what you’re thinking, but there’s¬†really nothing funny about fatty acids. In fact, I was a little disappointed that after hours of back-breaking¬†research (which I gathered from PubMed, Wikipedia, and a 3 page brochure I found in the parking lot) I¬†was unable to find a single connection of the name “omega-3” to any known marvel comic super hero¬†created by Stan Lee. Stan if you’re reading this, the world is waiting for a hero, buddy.

Once upon a time (called two weeks ago) I touched on saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Feel free to glean¬†through that article now and sing its praises on facebook and twitter if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.¬†Let’s get to it!

Oh yeah, that's right.

Oh yeah, that’s right.

So let me start by saying that omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that our body needs, and not in that Motown
“oh baby, I need your loving” kind of way, but in that “get these in your diet or else” kind of way. Anytime¬†you see “essential” mentioned in nutrition it’s typically referring to something the body needs but can’t make¬†effectively on its own. Babies¬†who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from mom during pregnancy can develop nerve and vision problems. ¬†A deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can lead to fatigue, a crap memory, skin like the Mojave desert, heart issues, and a bad case of the blues (mood swings, depression).

There are many types of omega 3 but the nutritional heavyweight title goes to DHA (docosohexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentanoic acid). These are derived almost exclusively from marine life (fish, fish oil, algae) and eggs.

Omega3Sources

There is another fancy omega 3 called ALA that we get from plant sources like flaxseed, olive oil, and walnuts but we only like it because it can be converted into DHA and EPA. Medical eggheads believe that DHA and EPA hold more nutritional punch, and as far as clinical research goes, they have a little more street credit. With that being said, if you’ve got some mouth-watering sources of ALA in your pantry don’t hesitate to tap that. Moving on…

What’s in a name?

So in reality there are about as many variations of fatty acids out there in the wild as Law & Order episodes. To distinguish between them the cool kids (scientists) describe them by the number of carbons they have and the location of the double bonds.
Remember that it’s the double bonds that make unsaturated fatty acids so kinky. The omega business is¬†referring to the location of the first double bond that happens in the fatty acid chain, starting from the end¬†(or omega) of the chain. So an “omega 3” fatty acid means that the first double bond is 3 carbons from the¬†end of the fatty acid chain.

poly1

just remember to count 3 carbons from the end to the 1st double bond.

That’s it. No, don’t think any harder on that. No, look at me…let it go.

Omega 3 what have you done for me lately?

When a healthy level of omega 3 fatty acids are supplied from your diet they have the jedi ability to help lower our LDL cholesterol levels and help encourage higher, healthier HDL cholesterol levels in our blood stream. Now omega 3 has a more abstract role reducing inflammation throughout the body. Research has shown that DHA and EPA inhibit inflammation by suppressing inflammatory cytokines which are like cellular text messages that trigger cell responses.

What did inflammation ever do to us?

Well Inflammation is our body’s natural healing response when it comes to injury and infection. However, sometimes, not unlike a good friend (you know who you are), it can get a little out of hand. From an immunity stand point inflammation increases the fluid volume in the vessels and make blood vessel walls accessible for white cells to pass through in order to migrate to the source of an infection and kick ass. It also involves increased plasma flow allowing crucial proteins open access. This typically causes swelling, redness, heat, and in many cases, pain and discomfort. Fluid increases around the tissues and those tissues are surrounded by nerves usually. So as your tissues swell it pushes on the nerves and causes pain. This like many natural responses requires checks and balances. There are an [EXPLETIVE] ton of conditions involving chronic inflammation, a classic example being rheumatoid arthritis that tends to involve the small joints of the body.

So when an infection or injury is resolved you would probably like the inflammation to mellow out. Some researchers believe that part of our body’s ability to keep inflammation in check is largely associated with a balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. By “balance” of course they mean get more Omega 3 into the diet. I personally hate this kind of health debate with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. Both omega 3 and 6 are essential to our diet and another group of researchers in the same FRIGGIN room will say that having to balance the two is shenanigans (technical term). So my advice is make like the Eskimos (Inuit to be polite) and just eat your oily fish! If you’re on the fence about any of it just stick to eating a diet lower in saturated fat and cholesterol which will help reduce your chances of heart disease no matter which way your omega door swings.

I hope this guides you in the right direction. Stay curious, stay classy, and never stop learning my friends.

inuit2

was going to make a joke about Inuits and fish but…what a beautiful culture. Oh well

Saturated Versus Unsaturated…Fight!!

Ok, it’s time to put on our grownup organic chemistry pants. Yes, I know they’re snug and just a little itchy, but to fully understand saturated and unsaturated fats you gotta get down on the molecular level.¬†Are you ready to get down? That’s the spirit! I like your energy.

dork pants

Don’t tell me you don’t have chemistry pants. You’re 2000 and late!

What is fat besides something you pay a monthly gym membership fee to get rid of?

In order to keep that crazy dance called living going the body needs protein, vitamins, carbohydrates, and lipids. Huh, Lipids…? Let’s chat about molecules for a second. Lipids are a broad category of molecules to include cholesterols, phospholipids, and triglycerides. Your cholesterols can be supplied by your diet and tend to make up things like cell walls and some hormones. Don’t worry, I wrote another article about them. Phospholipids, like all lipids, have the curious property of being hydrophobic, a portion of the molecule refuses to mingle with water (haters are gonna hate) which creates a situation where long chains of phospholipids will form structures that contort and close in on each other to keep the water out. This makes the molecule ideal for forming things like cell membranes and vessicles.

membrane_f1

WARNING this content is rated “Mature”

Now what we call fats are another name for that subgroup of lipids called triglycerides. They look
something like this…

triglyceride (1)

Do you see this madness up there? That’s a triglyceride (fat) molecule….well the atomic formula for one. It has a glycerol unit that connects 3 fatty acids like the handle to a 3 pronged Afro pick. Oh don’t turn your nose up to this diagram. This is where we need to play. You see all those happy little hydrogens? There’s something you need to know about the element carbon. It loves attention, how else do you explain an atom that can bond up to 4 atoms at once. It’s more high maintenance than a bitter, Hollywood Hills¬†divorc√©e.

trophy wife

Carbon is cruel mistress

Carbon has a deep and real connection with Hydrogen and will give all of her time (bonds) to it but she will also bond with another Carbon if there’s a space left. She’s…um…adventurous. Anyway, when carbon and hydrogen are exclusive they like to form these really long chains that are structurally uniform. They look something like this…

triglyceride

eww gross, I hate chemistry. I can just feel this diagram mocking me.

When carbon has a space free (unsaturated) and or double bonds to another carbon it forms a kink in the chain and that structure changes the way that fat will now behave.¬†Saturated fats contain chains of carbon bound exclusively to every available hydrogen. So they are¬†“saturated” with hydrogens. Unsaturated fatty acid chains are a little friskier, molecularly speaking, and¬†have kinks in the chain as a result of one or more missing hydrogen pairs.

lipid-molecule

now that’s kinky stuff

These structural changes affect the way the molecule behaves and it’s the behavior of molecules that we really care about. So how do they behave?

Well since saturated fats are so DANG uniform, the triglyceride molecules they form can stack on top of each other really well like Lincoln logs…oh wait, were you born after the 80’s? I mean they stack like Jinga blocks. So saturated fats tend to form solids at room temperature like butter, A.K.A the Golden God, or like the bacon fat you watched cool in the frying pan that one time and for a second you thought to yourself “is that what it’s doing in my arteries?” Yes, that’s exactly what it’s doing. You knew what you were doing, but you didn’t stop did you…DID YOU?!

Because unsaturated fats are so kinky (tee hee) they don’t stack as well and thus tend to remain fluid at room temperature. These are the olive, cannola, vegetable oils that are far better for your ticker (heart healthy). When they describe these fats as mono or polyunsaturated they are referring to whether or not there is one (mono) or more (poly) hydrogens missing from the fatty acids.

Trans fats (when fats attack)

Yeah, unsaturated fats are great and all but since they’re a little light on the hydrogens, stray elements like sulfur like to wander in every now and then and make those oils go rancid when left unattended. So they tend not to have a great shelf life and they don’t exactly spread or bake like butter. Trans fats happened because manufacturers partially hydrogenated (added hydrogens) to unsaturated fats. As a result, you can eat honey buns that have been in the vending machine since the Clinton Administration but they’re about as healthy for your heart as crude oil.

I hope that clears a few things up. Stay curious, stay classy, and never stop learning my friends ūüôā