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Why I Started Eating More Omega 3

Shannon Harvey

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.

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