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Omega-3s are more important than you think

By Christie Melhorn, March 28 2017 —

The mental health awareness revolution means the stereotypes of a student dragging themselves across campus clutching a Tim Hortons cup carries less humour than it once did. Exhausted, unfulfilled students who passively sit in class but actively drink at the Den should be cause for concern rather than something to be expected. 

While student depression is a complex topic that intersects with various realms of our culture, diet and nutrition is a big factor that influences well-being. This winter semester, I learned a hard lesson in the value of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is and how it can fight the depression and anxiety that commonly characterizes student life.

Grades, family, money and lack of sleep are stressful aspects of student life that can largely affect and be affected by how we fuel our bodies. You probably know the “basics” — eat your vegetables, get some grains have lots of protein and some fats. Wash it all down with a glass of almond, soy or just plain old cow’s milk, depending on your preference. However, sometimes a busy student schedule causes us to pattern our eating in repetitive and potentially damaging ways.

In the past few months, I became accustomed to eating the same student budget friendly food — eggs, apples, oatmeal, canned tuna or veggies. These are foods that are easy to prepare and haul around for the day. Some of you might have your favourite sandwich from Bake Chef or your staple Opa! platter. Wherever you get your food, eating the same things over and over again is not only boring but can deprive your body of diverse, brain-boosting nutrients.

There are inevitable emotional dips and physical exhaustion that come with being student. We’ve all had restless nights before exams and struggled to leave our bed to go to class. However, when you habitually want to yell at everyone in line at Tim Hortons simply because they are standing there, burst into tears because the bus is 10 minutes late or want to throw all of your homework into the paper shredder, something has to give.

I knew something was off when I could not shake a crippling sense of impending doom. No matter how much I talked it out, journaled, worked out and slept, it wouldn’t falter. A sickening loneliness crawled alongside me as I would walk to my car from campus late at night — a walk I once savoured for the crisp air and the way the moon hangs over the twisting tree branches by my spot.  I would relentlessly check my phone hoping to receive texts as some digital form of self-assurance.

Something had to change. After analyzing my life under a clunky magnifying glass, I rediscovered my hypercholesterolemia — an uncommon disorder involving excessively low cholesterol levels. When I was diagnosed with it, my doctor emphasized that my omega-3 intake has to be quite high. In the flurry of student life, I tend to forget that I have it.

It also doesn’t exactly help that high cholesterol tends to snag the spotlight of health concerns. If our cultural discourse around nutrition was turned into an action movie, high cholesterol would be that cumbersome, gaudy villain sitting around a blackjack table burning through fat cigars. Low cholesterol would be one of the creepy henchmen in the background concealed by the swirling smoke.

Studies highlight the problems low cholesterol carries, such as anxiety, brain fog and fatigue. But this tends to be overshadowed by the more dramatic events spurred by high cholesterol, like a heart attack and stroke. Both are serious physical concerns. However, the different emphasis placed on each condition could be a consequence of how mental health issues are yet to gain the attention that more visible physical health issues have. Nonetheless, you don’t want to deal with either low or high cholesterol and a key way to prevent this is by getting enough omega-3s.

The BBC explains that essential fatty acids, such as omega-3, 6 and 9, cannot be produced by our bodies and need to be consumed through our diet. The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids that are particularly beneficial are ALA, EPA and DHA.  ALA is primarily found in plants, such as flax seeds, chia and hemp. EPA and DHA are animal-based omega-3s
mostly found in a variety of fish. These carry the bulk of health benefits.

These omega-3 fatty acids are correlated with the production of serotonin — a mood-boosting chemical that regulates sleep, eating and emotions. According to osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola, omega-3s also keep dopamine levels high, which enhances motivation, concentration and memory. These factors can help make those long library sessions more enjoyable. When your relationship with school is constructive and positive, this is generally not only reflected by stronger grades but also a higher sense of personal fulfillment.

It doesn’t hurt that omega-3s offer some cosmetic pampering as well. Licensed nutritionist Freydis Hjalmarsdottir explains that EPA keeps skin hydrated and smooth. Most importantly, the collective efforts of omega-3 can soothe depression and anxiety, which are generally at the root of damaging eating and sleeping habits, low self-worth and lack of motivation.

Just how much you need to consume to reap the benefits of omega-3 varies. However, consuming a daily minimum of 200 milligrams to a maximum of 3,000 milligrams is a good range. While it probably isn’t necessary to measure this out every day, you can try and meet this need by incorporating fish like wild salmon, mackerel and tuna into your diet two to three times a week. Even just a quarter cup of walnuts contains 2,664 milligrams of omega-3. You can generate some really fun recipes from these EPA-rich foods. Roasted walnuts on brown sugar glazed salmon with grilled asparagus? Awesome. Banana chia pancakes? Delicious. Get experimental and have fun adding these foods into your diet.

It’s incredible how present and calm I feel after integrating more omega-3 into my diet. The buzz of MacHall no longer sends me into a frenzy. The night sky doesn’t threaten me with loneliness and dread. My readings speak to me on a more emotionally resonant level and my desire to be active in class has reignited. I recognize that my case is an anomaly in that omega-3s alone cannot remedy the complex struggles that we carry as students and humans. However, like how journaling can uncork at least some stress, eating more nutritious food can help you function more effectively.

Whether you have high, low or average levels of cholesterol, or suffer from depression or anxiety, I highly recommend including more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. Next time the anxiousness and loneliness of a sleepless TFDL night throws you off, round up some friends and treat yourself to a sushi night.

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