By Naturopath Jeremy Hill
Growing up in a household of big breakfast eaters, I was lucky enough to be introduced early to the delights of sardines on toast. I loved them and provided I brushed my teeth and didn't burp while in conversation, all would be well. I have no idea why the strong taste and subsequent sardine breath that accompanies sardine eating is so easily accepted by males and so abhorred by females, but I'm sure I've only ever met half a dozen of the fairer sex who will eat sardines.
Back then I had no idea sardines were good for me - I just thought they were a yum start to the day, but as luck would have it, I was onto something - sardines are extremely rich in the Omega 3 class of essential fatty acids.
With benefits that include acting as a mild antidepressant and anti-inflammatory, improving brain function and vision, reducing heart disease and diabetes, and being able to restrict cancer growth and Alzheimer's development, Omega 3 fatty acids appear to have it all.
Together with the added benefits of being rich in protein, iodine and numerous other nutrients, eating a few serves a week of fish, particularly oily fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, herring and mackerel, seems a terrific idea, and it generally is.
But many people are not actually very fond of eating fish and many others are concerned about the widely reported potential for fish to be contaminated with a wide range of poisons such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic, DDT, PCBs and dioxins, with farmed fish averaging 10 times more contaminants than wild fish, due to the practice of feeding them with ground fish. With such toxins tending to collect in fats, oily fish tend to accumulate more than their fair share. Subsequently, fish oil has become the most widely consumed nutritional supplement throughout the world.
Contaminant levels in fish oil supplements were relatively unregulated in Australia until 2004, when the Therapeutic Goods Administration dictated the allowable levels of toxins including mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and PCBs. Unfortunately, residual persistent organic pollutants such as DDT and dioxins were among those toxins not included on the list of toxins which must be reduced.
In Australia, mercury levels in some brands of fish oils can be 100 or more times greater than those whose manufacturing standards are much higher, while PCBs and cadmium can be up to 50 times higher. Meanwhile, more responsible manufacturers are taking the non-mandatory steps of removing and monitoring DDT and dioxins.
All of these chemicals can have a dramatic impact upon our health in even seemingly miniscule amounts - there simply is no level of exposure to these toxins where you would not be better off with a lower level. Increased exposure to persistent organic pollutants has been strongly linked to a dramatic increase in the incidence of diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as well as less serious symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, lowered immunity, cognitive defects and digestive complaints.
For pregnant women wishing to boost their baby's brain, immune and ocular development, the impact of unwanted toxins can be even tougher, with mercury known to induce neurological defects in unborn babies, as well as possibly inducing an early birth. Given the potential for toxic contaminants in ocean-caught and especially farmed fish, stacked up against the benefits of supporting a pregnancy with Omega 3 fatty acids, many mums-to-be are choosing to restrict their fish intake and supplement with fish oils throughout their pregnancies. This makes it much more important to ensure contaminant levels are as low as possible in the oils they choose. This is also a priority in infants and young children, who continue to benefit from fish oils as they grow, but whose developing nervous systems are far more susceptible to damage from exposure to toxins such as mercury. Both of my children started their life in their mum's fish oil-saturated womb and they continue to take their daily contaminant-free boost, typically lining up for seconds.
Recent research suggests girls may need more Omega 3 fatty acids than males for healthy brain development, as girls tend to deposit stores of the healthy oil in the fat around their hips and thighs in preparation for nurturing a future infant.
Persistent organic pollutants are just as easily tucked away in the body's fat. They tend to accumulate throughout life, prove extremely difficult to remove, and can lead to chronic adverse health effects. It's far better not to put them there in the first place by choosing wisely when you oil up.
Jeremy Hill (Diploma of Natural Therapy) is a Qualified Naturopath.