It is not news that most Americans eat too much fat and need to reduce their intake of saturated and trans fats, but there is at least one kind of fat that consumers do not generally get enough of - omega-3 fatty acids.

Dr. Lauren Bramley offers a professional insight into the wide range of health benefits that these good fats, found in oily fish, certain nuts, seeds and oils, can provide.

Most people are now aware of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in terms of heart disease and stroke. These fatty acids are essential for warding off heart attacks and stroke in that they lower LDL or "bad cholesterol" levels, thin the blood, lower blood pressure and stabilise heart rhythms.

The connection between omega-3 fatty acids and heart disease is most evident amongst the Eskimo and Japanese populations who have the highest fish intake in the world, in particular, deep, cold water fish. What most people are unaware of are the benefits of omega-3 for a whole range of other diseases, both physical and behavioural.

Omega-3 fatty acids were once known as "Vitamin F" and are essential to health. Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential but are much more common, being found in animal fats, most cooking oils, margarine and soy.

What is critical to optimal functioning is the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Historically, omega-3 has been much more prevalent in the diet. Being found in algae, it was abundant up the food chain that fed on algae and in the animals and crops raised near the sea.

Since domestication and the altered diets of livestock, the quantity of omega-3 found naturally in the diet has reduced approximately 30 fold over the past 200 years. Consequently, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids has shifted from the optimal 1:4 to as low as 1:20 in the typical American diet.

This shift is thought by many researchers to have contributed to the epidemic of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and insulin resistance, depression and anxiety as well as ADD, poor vision, osteoporosis, asthma, infertility and skin cancer.

Given that these essential fats are the precursors to hormones, a suboptimal amount will contribute to lower levels of thyroid hormone, sex hormones, insulin and serotonin. This results in a slower metabolism, weight gain and decreased well being and mood.

How does one restore the ratio to improve mood and well being, concentration and metabolism?

Change your oil. Just like a car, oil needs to be changed. Shift the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in your body back to the optimal 1:4 ratio. The brain is likely to function best at a 1:1 ratio instead of the 1:8 ratio seen today.

Firstly, increase your dietary intake by eating more fish, egg yolks, flax seed, nuts and canola oil. This will ensure that your cell membranes become more fluid, hormone levels are adequate, insulin works correctly to allow sugar to be used as fuel instead of stored as fat, serotonin levels stay up to keep you happy and calm, and the oil that insulates your skin doesn't sizzle in the sun and contribute to skin cancer.
As a powerful anti-inflammatory, omega-3 ensures that vessels are kept smooth and less likely to clog, that bones are kept dense and therefore less likely to break, and that the brain is insulated properly, making it easier to concentrate and learn.

Secondly, decrease omega-6 fatty acid intake. Unless you are a strict vegan, most of us are consuming too much of it. Throw out your corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and margarine (except canola oil margarine which is high in omega-3). Switch to canola oil, olive oil and butter.
Be very aware of store bought baked goods and processed foods which have a very high content of the omega-6 oils which are often hydrogenated (trans fat) making them even worse.

Lastly consider a supplement. Unfortunately, eating enough omega-3 can be very difficult, especially for those who don't eat a lot of fish or are vegetarian.

Some people may be depleted of omega-3 especially during and after pregnancy when the developing foetus uses up the mother's omega-3 supply and afterwards it is used to make breast milk. Interestingly, some research explains post partum depression as mainly an omega-3 depleted state and some of the most convincing studies for mood and omega-3 have been seen in post
partum depression.

In Australia, omega-3 is now put in some prenatal vitamins for its ability to improve foetal brain development and the IQ of the child, as well as to ward off post partum depression and improve weight loss after childbirth.

In Europe, and more recently in Canada and the US, omega-3 fatty acids are now often put in baby formula. To help treat conditions which may have already developed such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression or simply to boost mood and well being, consider a supplement of omega-3.

Interestingly, omega-3 supplementation has also been shown to markedly reduce the withdrawal symptoms of coming off SSRI antidepressants such as "electric shocks", headaches and agitation. Some antidepressants currently being developed will contain omega-3, thus making them more effective and making it easier to stop them when the time is right.

Unless you are a strict vegan it is not necessary to supplement with omega-6 or omega-9, so avoid the "Omega 3-6-9" supplement. Most omega-3 supplements also contain GLA (which is the least inflammatory of the omega-6s, also known as evening primrose oil), but they should not contain other omega-6s.

Most supplements will list EPA, DHA and GLA in the ingredients. In pregnancy, however, GLA/evening primrose is not recommended.

It is also advised to stop intake of omega-3 two weeks before and after surgery to lower the risk of bleeding due to its blood thinning properties. People on blood thinners (not including aspirin) are advised not to take omega-3.

Make sure your supplement has been tested for mercury and PCBs. Some brands are far less likely to cause a fish aftertaste than others, as this often signifies the freshness of the oil. Doses and ratios of the fatty acids vary depending on the condition.

Take it earlier in the day as omega-3 can be so energising it keeps some people awake. More randomised controlled trials are needed before claims for omega-3 can be undisputed. In my practice I have seen dramatic improvements in depression and overall mood through using high dose EPA and DHA.

I have also seen dramatic improvements in pre-diabetes and insulin resistance and weight loss using omega-3 and GLA, and I have seen acne and psoriasis improve greatly.

I have also heard from parents that their child's concentration, immunity and happiness improved with a better diet and/or omega-3 supplementation. I have seen far less post-natal depression since we started recommending DHA in pregnancy. I have watched patients avoid needing an antidepressant medication or finding it easier to come off one with omega-3.

Try it and you just may feel it in your hair, skin, physique and outlook. No one thing can be a cure-all but if it can help and do no harm it is worth a try.

Resources: The Omega 3 Connection The groundbreaking antidepression diet and brain program. Andrew L. Stoll, M.D. Simon and Schuster. 2002 ISBN 0684871394 All the latest omega research news: