Hemp oil – the omega solution
Do you know what your brain is made of? Muscle? Interestingly, while we may think of the brain as a muscle it actually is not. Neurons? Nerves? Well, we’re on the right track, as these certainly are components of the brain’s make-up, but our brains are fat. Yep, you heard me, around 60% of the human brain is in fact, fat. The brain is the fattest organ in the body, but it’s not exactly the same kind of fat that contributes to bulging waistlines.
I’m talking about fatty acids.
In an earlier blog, we mentioned that human bodies need fatty acids to survive, and now that we know one of the most important organs in our body is mostly made of them it is not hard to see why! You have probably heard about omega-3 and omega-6 but might not have much insight into what these are or why we need to worry about them. So as promised, let’s have a closer look at a few options for how to get these essential fatty acids (here’s a hint – hemp is not only a great addition to your skincare regime!) and examine which are most beneficial for us and the environment. But first, let’s delve into a little more detail about what these important fatty acids actually are and why we need them.
What is a fatty acid?
Fatty acids are molecules with a certain composition - specifically, a carboxylic acid attached to a long chain of carbon molecules. They are used by our bodies for a wide variety of biological processes, including enabling the brain to send messages throughout the body, being part of the physical structure of the brain as mentioned earlier, while at a cellular level they are a source of fuel, form part of our cell membranes, and help cells communicate with each other. Animals, and that includes humans, can produce many fatty acids in the liver and a couple of other places in the body, but there are fatty acids that we cannot synthesise which are just as crucial.
These are called “essential” fatty acids (EFAs), and for humans there are only two – alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). It’s up to us to ensure that we are putting enough of these EFAs in our diet to maintain maximum health and avoid issues which can be caused by EFA deficiency - which can include skin symptoms, reproductive issues, and problems relating to mental performance and even neuropsychiatric disorders such as dementia, depression, bipolar and schizophrenia. To make things slightly more complicated it’s not as easy as just loading up on omega-3’s and -6’s, because the body also requires them to be consumed in the right ratios. Ideally, we should be consuming three times as much omega-6 as omega-3 - a ratio of 3:1 – so too much of one or not enough of another can be bad news.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are finding is typical in the modern western diet, where the ratio is often more like 10:1 or even up to 15:1! Ratio imbalances are linked to problems including osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and issues such as depression and ADHD, so clearly appropriate EFA intake is something we should all be taking more seriously.
Omega me up!
There are a variety of dietary sources for omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Some foods such as nuts and seeds contain both, two great examples being walnuts and hemp seeds. Our main sources of omega-6 FAs are animal meat products and vegetable oils. These oils, like sunflower oil, safflower oil, sesame oil and corn oil are all commonly used in cooking, and in processed foods, explaining why our omega-6 intake is today so high. Rich sources of omega-3 are green leafy vegetables, olives and avocados, and of course oily cold-water fish which contain very high amounts of this fatty acid. This is why it is recommended that we eat fish a couple of times a week.
Interestingly though, these fish do not actually synthesise these fats themselves, rather it becomes concentrated in their bodies from their marine plant-based food sources. This touches on one of the issues surrounding eating too much fish – bioaccumulation, which we will consider further in a moment. For many people eating the quantities of fish or other foods required to gain sufficient EFAs is not possible, so fish oil supplements have become extremely popular. These supplements, commonly found in capsule form, are an easy, practical, and for most people, a fairly cost-effective solution to the problem of getting enough omega-3’s and -6’s into our diet. So then, why look elsewhere?
There’s something fishy about fish oil…
If we drill down into the fish oil option specifically, it doesn’t take long to identify a couple of issues that lead us to question whether this is the best way to supplement our diet with EFAs. A really basic issue that many people encounter is the fishy taste the oil - which is produced from the tissue of oily fish - can often leave in the mouth. Even if swallowed inside a capsule fishy burps and breath are fairly common, not to mention off-putting, side effects, and this can be reason enough for some people to look further.
Obviously, fish oil is also not a suitable option for vegetarians or vegans, or for anyone looking to reduce the amount of fish in their diets for medical or ethical reasons.
In addition to that, and more worryingly, fish oil supplements have come under scrutiny for actually being bad for our health! There are reports showing that toxins produced when fish oil spoils - a common occurrence particularly if exposed to sunlight - can be quite dangerous. Other toxins such as mercury have been found, at dangerous levels, in fish oil supplements. As I mentioned earlier this is also an issue for people consuming large quantities of fish looking to gain sufficient EFAs, particularly the more popular large, predatory fish - tuna and swordfish - whose bodies accumulate the toxins of the smaller fish consumed further down the food chain. This is particularly an issue for pregnant women and children, who still need the important fatty acids in their diet but can be severely affected by these toxins.
Relying on fish and fish oil to provide humans with sufficient EFAs is also problematic long term for other reasons, with fish consumption causing controversy due to sustainability issues. According to the United Nations, 80% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully exploited or overexploited. While disputed by some, one study stated that fish populations have been depleted due to overfishing of the world’s oceans and rivers to such an extent that stocks of all species currently fished for food will collapse by 2048!
There is an alternative…
After identifying all these problems, it’s important to look at solutions as to how we can gain our omegas without the downsides associated with fish or fish oil. As we covered earlier, the optimum ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 consumption is 3:1, and conveniently there is an available protein which provides these fats in the perfect ratio – hemp. Hemp seed oil is composed of nearly 85% EFAs, as well as containing the vitamins, minerals and amino acids necessary for the utilisation of omega oils. With just 1 tablespoon of hemp oil daily we get 94% of our recommended intake of both omega-3 and omega-6! This, however is only one reason why hemp makes more sense than fish oil.
It also offers several other health benefits such as alleviating symptoms of eczema and psoriasis, being a good source of antioxidants, and has been shown to have anti-carcinogenic properties. On top of that, production is far and away much more sustainable than fish and other sources of EFAs. Hemp seeds are also a much more accessible source, being suitable for people of all dietary requirements and choices. Circling back to the first issue raised around fish oil, the taste of hemp oil is actually very pleasant – its subtle nuttiness making it easy to consume as is or as a raw ingredient in food. So, what are you waiting for? Check out our range of hemp food and skincare products here.