Omega 3 fatty acid – how much do we need and where will it come from?


  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), are long chain Omega 3 fatty acids  – essential for heart, vascular and other physiological aspects of our health but also absolutely essential to the proper functioning of the brain and our mental health.
  • The best way for humans to access them is via fish as by consuming fish, we get the fats ‘preformed’ or in the condition in  which we can access the essential nutrition they provide.
    (Although DHA and EPA can also be derived from vegetables [via ALA/alpha-linolenic acid] humans are very bad at making the conversion from ALA to DHA/EPA so very little of the Omega 3s that we ingest from seeds etc is actually converted by our bodies into DHA/EPA.)
  • Dietary recommendations for the consumption of EPA/DHA run from 2,000mg per day in South Korea to 200mg a day in the USA.
  • Our current consumption of DHA/EPA is so far below even the lowest recommendation that, ‘in the formal language of nutrition’, we would be said to be ‘malnourished’.
  • A recent trial which gave one  high-street EPA/DHA supplement to pregnant mothers in the midlands (cost 8p per day) reduced pre-34-week births by over 30%. (Cost of caring for very premature babies, pre 34 weeks, runs to many thousands of pounds per baby.) Do the maths….


Why does ‘someone’ (governments, health authorities, policy makers) not ‘do something about it’?….

Because, it would appear, long chain omega 3  fatty acids  and the crucial role they play in our mental and physical health, have not yet appeared on the radar of governments, health authorities and policy makers. So while they require foods to be fortified with iron, iodine, vitamin A and zinc, DHA/EPA do not feature in any government health programme.

Yet, someone has got the message as, after multi-vitamins, EPA/DHA are the most widely purchased supplements in retail and on line supplement stores.


Even if governments, health authorities and policy makers did get the message and took active steps to increase population-wide uptake of DHA/EPA to even non-deficiency, let alone optimum levels, is there enough DHA/EPA in the world to achieve this?


This was the burden of a fascinating talk given by Professor Jack Winkler at the AGM of the McCarrison Society in London last week  – and you can read the article on which the talk was based here on the FoodsMatter site – along with some further notes bringing the paper totally up to date.

Dr Winkler’s view was that, probably, with sufficient public health commitment, it would be possible to breed/grow/manufacture enough DHA/EPA to bring world consumption up to non-deficiency, if not optimum levels. However, this could not be achieved through the use of fish alone (the best source) as, even if we were to stabilise and increase stocks, eliminate waste and develop fish farming, we could never produce enough. We would also need to use sea plants, such as algae that deliver high levels of LC-omega 3s but at a high cost, and possibly even land plants genetically modified to product LC-omega 3s instead of/as well as omega-6s.

However, even assuming that we can produce enough, getting it consumed by enough people is a separate issue as, rightly or wrongly, most people are not that keen on eating either fish or algae! Is food fortification the way to go, or should it be supplementation, ‘a mainstay of nutrition policy  in developing countries for decades’ and obviously the preferred choice the health aware?

If these questions interest you, do read Professor Winkler’s paper in full. It is a number of pages long but very accessible – and take in his addenda which include interesting insights on China and data on infant formula – the one area where supplementation with DHA/EPA is now all but standard.



The benefits of pre-conceptual care

Stork and babyBack in June last year I blogged about the scary statistic (quoted by Dr Marilyn Glanville in a presentation at a McCarrison Society conference) that at least 25% of couples trying to have a baby will have difficulty in conceiving. (Dr Glanville went on to outline pre-conceptual lifestyle and nutritional measures that could dramaticallty reduce this number – see a brief report on her presentation here.)

But although the fertility crisis appears to be getting worse, pre-conceptual care is not new. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nim Barnes, the redoubtable founder of the charity Foresight which has, since 1978 been helping couples who were having difficulty in conceiving. (Foresight’s programme of  of lifestyle changes and nutritional supplementation is very similar to that recommended by Dr Glanville.)

However, to emphasise how greatly needed these programmes are, Foresight have just completed and published a survey of the experience of those couples who consulted them between 2002 and 2009. I reproduce some of the results below, not so much as a paen of praise to Foresight – although it is – but as scary window on how low the success rates for IVF (In vitro fertilisation),  IUI (Intrauterine insemination) and  ICSI (Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection) are, despite the fairly horrendous procedures the treatments require.

General estimates of the success of IVF and IUI procedures population wide:

IVF & ICSI: Women under 35 – approximately 33% achieve live births but the success rate drops to 1.9% over 45.

IUI: Women under 35 – approximately 16% achieve live births with the success rate dropping to nil over 45.

Foresight’s survey:

Of the 3,411 couples who had tried IVF and subsequently consulted Foresight (between 2002 and 2009), 3,004 had failed and  407 had managed to conceive.

Of the 2,545 couples who had tried IUI and subsequently consulted Foresight (between 2002 and 2009), 2,383 had failed and 162 had managed to conceive.

Of the 1,292 couples who had tried ICSI and subsequently consulted Foresight (between 2002 and 2009), 1,081 had failed and  211 had managed to conceive.

Between them they had suffered 8,939 miscarriages (over one per couple); the national rate for miscarriage is 25%.

Couples who completed the full Foresight programme:

Of the 1,578 couples who completed the full programme , 1,427 (89%) had successful live births including 37 sets of twins and 3 sets of triplets. There were only 42 (2.96%) miscarriages and only 2 babies were premature.

Couples who did part of the Foresight programme but did not complete it:

Of the 518 couples who did part of the programme but did not complete it, 358 (69%) had successful live births including 52 sets of twins. There were 39 (7.53%) miscarriages.

And, of course, we are only talking here about conception and live births – not about the long term health prospects for the children born as a result of IVF treatments. It is generally accepted now that IVF children have up to a 30% higher chance of suffering a wide range of serious, sometimes life-threatening, genetic, digestive, immune  and other congenital disorders than children who were naturally conceived.
BabyWho would seriously want to inflict that sort of risk on their child (quite apart from the increased risks for the mother) when six months of clean living, good eating and nutritional supplementation could ensure you a relatively trouble free pregnancy and a health baby?


Crisis in fertility

‘Over the past twenty years, fertility problems have increased dramatically. At least 25% of couples planning a baby will have trouble conceiving, and more and more couples are turning to fertility treatments to help them have a family.’

Where has that come from?  Well, not from some wacky ‘end of the world is nigh’ merchant – but from the first presentation at the McCarrison Society’s conference last month, by the much respected Dr Marilyn Glenville, a former president of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Food and Health Forum and an expert on female hormone problems.

The point of Dr Glenville presentation was that with good preconeptual care (healthy lifestyle and micro-nutritional supplementation) not only of the woman but, more importantly, of the man, for at least three months before any attempt is made to conceive, a couple’s chance of conceiving and having a healthy baby is massively improved. But how horrendous, to quote just a few of Dr Glenville’s figures, that in a survey of 19-year-old young men taken between 2006 an 2010, only 23% had optimal sperm counts, or that 20–25% of German 18–25 year olds now have low sperm counts.

Since Dr Gennvilles’ experience shows that by reducing, or ideally cutting out, the use of alcohol, recreational drugs, cigarettes and caffeine, reducing  exposure to environmental toxins and stress and improving nurtitional profile one can turn an infertile couple into a fertile one, and  significantly reduce the chance of having a low weight or preterm baby – then presumably it follows that it is the use of alcohol, drugs, cigaretees and caffeine, exposure to stress and environmental toxins, and poor nutrition that are largely responsible for this seriously scary situation.

For Dr Glenville’s presentation in more detail, click here – or see her website

What Dr Genville had to say was scary enough but a later presentation by Dr Enitan Ogundipe from Imperial College brought home the consequences, in terms of the baby’s health, of poor preconceptual care resulting in preterm or low weight babies. She was talking about feeding ‘high risk’ babies (which usually means preterm or low birth weight babies) and explaining that not only is a 37-week-old baby extremely immature in terms of its gastroenterological and immunological development, but it is impossible to reproduce the nutritients that it should be receiving via its mother’s placenta in the womb. So,  apart from all of their other problems, not only are these poor little mites extremely vulnerable to infections and sepsis and therefore bombarded with antibiotics from birth, but they are being semi-starved.

Would you want to wish that on your baby?

For more details of Dr Ogundipe’s presentation see here or for the whole conference, which went on to look at the outcomes of poor nutrition in school and, fascinatingly, in adolescent offenders, see here.


NB. Dr Glenville not a lone voice. My old friend, Chinese Medicine practitioner, Barbara Hezelgrave, says that over the last few years she has seen a huge rise in the number of couples coming to her with fertility problems, for which Chinese medicine can be very helpful.