I have spent a lifetime studying the effects of omega-3s in animal and human populations. As a former smoker, I spent all of my teens and 20s smoking at the coffeehouses that were my second home, in the bars I frequented, and even while driving. At the same time, I kept my smoking habit secret from friends in the natural health and outdoor sports communities that were my profession and my passion – because I knew how bad it was for me (and I was embarrassed). As a result, no topic has more intrigued me than the benefit of omega-3s to those individuals with really bad habits, like smoking.
Tens of thousands of studies have analyzed the positive and protective effects of getting enough of the essential omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in your diet. A few have even studied the benefits of consuming more omega-3s as an addict or a smoker. They have shown that people who consume more omega-3s as smokers, smoke less. Some suggest that getting enough omega-3s supports the journey of addicts who seek to quit their bad habits, like using nicotine, drinking alcohol, drug abuse, and other forms of self-harm.
The Framingham Heart Study is an ongoing cardiovascular cohort study of residents of Framingham, Massachusetts that began in 1948. It focuses on determining cardiovascular disease risk factors and assesses health on eight baseline standards: age, sex, smoking, hypertension treatment, diabetes status, systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol.
In 2021, they released some incredible data, proving to the world that having a low omega-3 index could be just as bad as smoking for all-cause mortality. Similarly, if smokers consumed more omega-3, they had health profiles that were closer to non-smokers who didn’t consume enough omega-3. This ultimately means that one’s omega-3 index and smoking status are equal predictors of cardiovascular disease.
Let’s work this out a little more plainly.
- Nonsmoker who gets enough omega-3 = best health outcome
- Nonsmoker who doesn’t get enough omega-3 = smoker who gets enough omega-3
- Smoker who doesn’t get enough omega-3 = worst outcome
The findings from The Framingham Study suggest that we should be just as concerned with our omega-3 index as we are with smoking cessation.
So what is enough? Researchers have spent a mind-numbing amount of time on this very question, but one laboratory that indexes omega-3 levels in your blood and tissues has been banging the same drum for years — Omegaquant. They tout the omega-3 index as a significant predictor of health and have defined a level of 8% or above to be ideal. Those in the range of 4-8% are typical, and those below 4% are sadly quite deficient in omega-3. They note that most Americans have levels that are below 4%.
When we consider that the average American consumes 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3, it becomes painfully obvious why this would be. As noted in this earlier article, we can address this imbalance by reducing our omega-6 intake, increasing our omega-3 intake, and supplementing with a highly bioavailable, pure omega-3 that provides a direct source of EPA and DHA. I like Örlö Nutrition because they provide a sustainable vegan source suitable for all ages that’s also easy to swallow.
On a personal note, I quit smoking successfully in 2005 while supplementing every day with omega-3s and a few herbs that would help detoxify my system. It was a journey that lasted a few months and a few failed attempts, but I don’t believe I could have quit successfully without my omega 3s. When I forgot to take them, I felt my cravings surge. This isn’t my experience alone. This study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, concluded that omega-3 supplementation reduced cigarette craving and oxidative stress in heavy smokers (and I had been a heavy smoker).
After successfully quitting, I began training as a distance athlete, completing several half marathons and a handful of full-distance marathons including The Boston Marathon in 2009. I went from being a smoker who got winded climbing stairs or hiking mountains to a running coach who glided up hills, even in Boston, with relative ease. Health reform is possible and developing good habits today will safeguard your future. It’s never too late to start.
If you’re looking to bolster your EPA and DHA omega-3 stores, receiving the full power of their benefit, consider supplementation. I work with Örlö Nutrition because I’m a big believer in their sustainability measures, and because their omega-3s are in the highly bioactive polar lipid form. This means they are up to 3 times more absorbable than fish or krill oil and therefore get to work in your tissues faster. Plus, since they are made from algae, they don’t impact marine ecosystems negatively, and they’re vegan, providing a guilt-free solution to omega nutrition needs.