When your body is busy creating new brain, skin, immune, and other cells, it draws from your diet as well as what’s already stored within you. What is it about omega-3 fats that make them such great construction materials? What makes them “essential”?
Let’s be scrupulously honest. Human bodies can make omega-3s from certain dietary fats, like those in nuts and seeds. It’s hard work, though, and our capacity to perform this chemical feat is small. Because of this, it turns out we need to get certain omega-3s directly from food sources, just like our ancestors did.
One really unique thing about omega-3s is their long and limber shape. Their natural design happens to be optimal for creating supple cell membranes. This allows your cell membranes to be physically flexible but also to effectively act as gatekeepers to protect cell health.
The other big boast omega-3s can make is that they are even more flexible in their function than they are in their shape. Your body uses them in construction as well as for healing, yet hidden within certain omega-3s are messages that are decoded by your immune system.
One great example comes from immunity. That’s because immune cells have special enzymes that convert omega-3 fats into messenger substances called pro-resolving mediators (PRMs). PRMs are mission-critical for keeping immune function effective and yet balanced amid the many stresses and challenges life presents.
We all need omega-3s, yet some of us have a higher requirement for them. According to some studies, being overweight makes it especially important to get enough omega-3 fats. Growing kids and pregnant and nursing women clearly need plenty as well. Yet they are no less precious to anyone experiencing high levels of stress, because omega-3s help the body maintain a smoother flow of energy from the foods we eat, and they do so during the processes of aging, too.
Measuring your omegas
So how can you know if you’re getting enough omega-3s? It’s easy — just ask your RBCs!
RBCs are red blood cells, and some clever research has discovered that these oxygen carriers are really good at gauging your omega-3 stores. RBCs faithfully gather and share oxygen wherever you need it, and omega-3s help them speed through your bloodstream — even in the tiniest capillaries feeding delicate structures in your eyes and vital organs. Measuring the omega-3s in your RBCs can tell you how well you’re keeping up with your omega-3 needs.
Many medical labs now offer a blood test called the Omega-3 Index, which is available through many healthcare providers. The Omega-3 Index is simply the total percentage of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the cell walls of your RBCs. A value of above 8% is linked to better long-term heart and blood vessel function, while a level below 4% is associated with greater cardiovascular risk. The Omega-3 Index can be a great tool for ensuring that you’re getting enough of these highly functional fats.
For a deeper dive
Interested in heart rate variability (HRV), and how it reflects your stress resilience? Here’s a study in healthy males that found that having a better Omega-3 Index score may contribute to quicker heart rate recovery after intense exercise.