Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Their Health Benefits
Omega 3 fatty acids are special fats that we get from both animal and vegetable sources. In this article, you will learn all about the extraordinary health benefits of Omega 3 fats. There are 3 major types of these fatty acids and they react quite differently in our bodies. You will find out how different types of Omega 3 work for different health conditions, which foods are rich in Omega 3, and how much Omega 3 you should consume to achieve optimum health results.
What Are Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 Fatty Acids are special kind of fats that can be found in certain animal products (mostly fish and krill oil) and plant sources (vegetable oil).
Omega 3 are also called essential fatty acids. There are 2 reasons for that.
First, they are that important – essential - for the normal functioning of your body. They play a lead role in the health of your brain, your heart and they help you lower inflammation in the body. Studies have consistently shown that long-term inflammation has a detrimental effect on your health and may even contribute to the development of cancer.
Second, Omega 3 fatty acids can’t be made in the body. Instead, you need to get them from food or from an Omega 3 supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. All polyunsaturated fatty acids contain special connections in their chemical structure – they are called "double bonds”. Omega 3 have 2 double bonds.
What makes Omega 3 special is the position of their double bonds, which is unique and can’t be found in any other fat. Namely, all Omega 3 fatty acids have the first double bond between the 3rd and 4th carbon atom counting from the methyl end of the fatty acid. The location of this bond (after the 3rd carbon atom) is the reason why these fats are called Omega 3 fatty acids.
Health Benefits of Omega 3
There seems to be a lot of buzz surrounding the health benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids. Growing evidence shows that these acids are needed for numerous normal body functions and can do wonders for your health. So, let’s take a look at how Omega 3 fatty acids can help you stay healthy and fight disease:
- Omega 3 support brain and vision health
They are the building blocks for the cells in your brain and retina (the light sensitive part of the eyes). They are especially important during pregnancy and breastfeeding as they help with the growth and the development of the baby’s brain and are involved in the building of the baby's retina.
Omega 3 also help reduce inflammation in the brain and for that reason they are being extensively studied for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease, dementia, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other brain-related conditions.
- They help you keep your heart and blood vessels in good shape
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and blood pressure. They also control blood clotting and offer protection against stroke, heart attack and thrombosis (serious medical condition that develops when a blood clot blocks a vein or an artery). The American Heart Association provides exact recommendations on how much Omega 3 you should ingest depending on the condition you might have. You can take a look at their recommendations at the end of this article.
- Omega 3 fatty acids keep inflammation in check, help with auto-immune diseases and even show anti-cancer potential
Omega 3 have been found to have great anti-inflammatory effect. That is why they are often used for inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and others.
Studies have also shown potential anti-cancer effect of Omega 3 fatty acids and their benefit for controlling auto-immune diseases (MS, lupus, psoriasis, etc).
Getting enough Omega 3 from your diet (or supplement) is crucial for your health as human body can’t make Omega 3 on its own.
Research on the potential health benefits of Omega 3 is still underway; however even healthy people should consume enough Omega 3 fatty acids as they play a crucial role in normal functioning of the body and help prevent the development of several diseases.
Main types of omega 3 fatty acids
There are 3 main types of Omega 3 fatty acids. They come from different dietary sources, they react differently in your body, and they provide very diverse health benefits. They are commonly known by their abbreviations – ALA, EPA and DHA.
Below, you’ll find a brief overview of the main Omega 3 fatty acids:
ALA – alpha-linoleic acid
EPA - eicosapentaenoic acid
DHA - docosahexaenoic acid
Health Action of Different Types Of Omega 3 At a Glance
- Healthy adults – daily dose
Getting enough Omega 3 fatty acids will help you stay healthy and prevent disease. Experts recommend that you get a daily combination of EPA and DHA (500 mg per day). Besides that it is recommended that you also consume about 2 grams of ALA per day from vegetable oils or nuts.
- Heart Health
Both EPA and DHA contribute to cardiovascular health; each in its own way. For relieving the symptoms of heart disease and preventing complications, you should get a combination of EPA and DHA, but in higher doses than the ones that are used for disease prevention.
- Brain and nervous system health
Latest studies have shown that EPA might be more important for brain health in adults since it is able to lower inflammation in the brain. For that reason it is recommended that the daily Omega 3 dosage for brain health includes a higher proportion of EPA than DHA.
- Prenatal and breastfeeding
In prenatal period and during breastfeeding it is crucial that the mother consumes enough DHA. This Omega 3 fatty acid plays an important role in the development of the baby’s brain and visual acuity.
EPA is the Omega 3 fatty acids that is most known for its anti-inflammatory effect. However, DHA also contributes to lowering inflammation. A combination of these 2 fatty acids with a slight emphasis on EPA is therefore best; however, the daily dose for reducing the symptoms of inflammatory diseases should be higher than the recommended dose for disease prevention.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
ALA is the Omega 3 fatty acid that we get from vegetable sources, such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. The most common sources of ALA in our diet are canola and soybean oil. Flaxseed oil provides more ALA than the soybean or canola, but is not so commonly consumed.
ALA is used in our body for 2 things:
- Fuel for the body
Oils have a high caloric value. As much as 85% of ALA that we consume is used as an energy source for our cells.
- Building block for EPA and DHA
The rest of the ALA is converted in our body into the other two Omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. These two Omega 3 fatty acids are the ones that play a crucial role in the functioning of our immune system, help keep our heart and brain healthy, and support other systems in our body.
However, the conversion process from ALA into EPA and DHA is very inefficient; only a couple percents of all the ALA that you get from your food is converted into the biologically more important Omega 3 fatty acids.
Women, probably because of estrogen effect, convert much more ALA into EPA and DHA as men.
Studies have shown that:
- Young men convert approximately 8% of dietary ALA to EPA and 0-4% to DHA.
- Young women convert approximately 21% of dietary ALA to EPA and 9% to DHA.
As we get older, we are able to convert even lesser percentage of ALA into more biologically important Omega 3 fatty acids.
Due to low conversion efficiency, it is recommended that you consume enough EPA and DHA directly from food, without relying on the ALA conversion process.
We get ALA from plant sources, EPA and DHA, on the other hand, are mostly found in animal products.
ALA can be found mainly in vegetable oils. EPA and DHA, on the other hand, are Omega 3 fatty acids that we get from animal products. The leading sources of these 2 acids have long been fatty fish (salmon, troutfish, tuna) and fish oil. Lately, new food sources have gained popularity, such as krill and squid oil. Other dietary sources of EPA and DHA include mussels, oysters, meat from grass-fed animals, and human milk. Algae are a source of plant-based DHA.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
DHA is essential building block of cell membranes; especially brain cells (neurons) and cells in your retina (part of the eye). DHA forms a large percentage of the brain (estimates are between 10 and 15 %) and it represents over 90 % of Omega 3 found in the brain tissue. It is crucial for brain development during pregnancy and early childhood. It also plays a great role in the development of the retina and visual acuity. Studies even suggest that a deficit in brain development and vision acuity due to a lack of DHA in mother’s diet during pregnancy can’t be replaced later on in life.
We’ve seen that DHA is crucial for neural developments in infants; however, it is also important for normal brain function in adults. Due to its special chemical characteristics, DHA makes the membranes of the nerve cells more fluid than other Omega 3 fatty acids. This fluidity in turn increases the transmission of signals between nerve cells and helps your brain stay in top shape.
Long-term deficiencies in DHA have been linked to several neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, learning difficulties in children, and worsening in the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
DHA plays a key role in heart health throughout life. It lowers triglyceride levels, reduces blood pressure, and increases good cholesterol.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
EPA is the Omega 3 acid that is most known for its anti-inflammatory effects. EPA lowers inflammation throughout the body, but is specifically able to lower the levels of inflammation in the brain. That is why much of the work on dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, and ADHD has been focused on EPA and not DHA (even though DHA is the Omega 3 fatty acid that can be found in the brain in larger percentage).
Because of its anti-inflammatory action, EPA is commonly used to alleviate the symptoms of inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, colitis, etc.
EPA also helps regulate the function of your kidneys. It contributes to healthy brain and blood vessels by controlling blood clotting and decreasing blood pressure. This Omega 3 fatty is also an important part of the immune response in your body and is often used to help with auto-immune diseases.
How Much Omega 3 Fatty Acids per day should you get?
Since Omega 3 fatty acids can’t be made in our bodies, it is important that we consume enough Omega 3 rich foods or take a daily Omega 3 supplement.
FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) recommends that you should consume on average a total of 3 grams of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) combined. No more than 2 grams should come from a dietary supplement. You should get the rest of the needed dosage from food (fatty fish, squid, krill, vegetable oils, etc).
American Heart Association (AHA) Recommendation
American Heart Association recommends that you eat fatty fish at least twice per week. Serving size per adult should be about 3.5 oz. cooked fish or ¾ cup flaked fish. This should provide you enough EPA and DHA.
AHA also recommends that you get enough ALA by consuming vegetable oils, such as canola, flaxseed, soybean, and walnut oil.
The above recommendations are meant for healthy adults. For people who already have cardiovascular disease or are at an increased risk for heart disease, AHA has issued the following recommendations:
People with documented coronary heart disease
1 gram of EPA+DHA per day ingested in capsule form or by eating fatty fish
Patients with elevated triglycerides
2 to 4 grams of EPA+DHA per day in capsule form. This should be supervised by a physician until a suitable long-term dose is found.
Australian Heart Foundation Recommendation
Australian Heart Foundation set the following recommendations for Omega 3 consumption:
500 mg per day of combined DHA and EPA and at least 2 g per day of ALA
People with coronary heart disease
1000 mg per day of combined DHA and EPA and at least 2 g per day of ALA
People with elevated triglycerides
If you have elevated triglycerides, a correct therapeutic dose of Omega 3 should be found. This process should be monitored by your physician.
You should start by consuming 1200 mg per day of DHA and EPA. Every 3 to 4 weeks blood triglycerides should be checked. Each time, the dose should be appropriately adjusted until the target triglyceride levels are reached.
The maximum dose of Omega 3 that you should consume is 4 grams per day. To get the needed daily dose of Omega 3 fatty acids it is best to combine eating fatty fish, consuming enriched foods, and taking an Omega 3 supplement.
Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids – Maintaining the Right Balance is Crucial For Your Health
There are 2 major types of polyunsaturated fatty acids in human diet – Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Even though they have only a slightly different chemical structure, they trigger very different reactions in our body.
Omega 3 and Omega 6 Chemical Structure
Both Omega 3 as well as Omega 6 Fatty acids have 2 double bonds between their atoms. However, the location of these bonds is different.
Omega-3 fatty acids have the first double bond located between the 3rd and 4th carbon atom counting from the methyl end of the fatty acid (hence the name Omega 3).
Omega-6 fatty acids have the first double bond located between the 6th and 7th carbon atom counting from the methyl end of the fatty acid (hence the name Omega 6).
When you consume Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, they compete for the same molecular pathways in your body. However, the molecules that these two types of fat produce in the body are very different.
Omega 6 produce molecules, which add to inflammation in the body. They are the same substances that are released when you are injured, you have an infection, or you are going through a period of intense stress. These molecules increase blood clotting and vasoconstriction, leading to higher blood pressure and increasing your risk of heart disease.
Omega 3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are well known for their anti-inflammatory effect. They protect you against heart disease and stroke, support brain health, and healthy functioning of the immune system.
What is The Correct Ratio Between Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids?
We need to consume Omega 3 and Omega 6 in balanced proportions. Health ratios of Omega 3 to Omega 6 differ, depending on the author. They range from 1:1 to 1:10; the later meaning that you should consume 10 times more Omega 3 than Omega 6 (recommendation of Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Science).
However, the typical Western diet provides much more Omega 6 then Omega 3 fatty acids. Estimates are that people eat as much as 10 to 30 times more Omega 6 than Omega 3. This means that we consume dramatically high levels of Omega 6.
The reason for this is that our diet contains too much meat, vegetable oils with large amounts of Omega 6 fatty acids, and food prepared with these oils.
Most people consume too much Omega 6 and too little Omega 3 fatty acids in their diet.
Since Omega 6 and Omega 3 acids compete in our body, health benefits can be reached by changing the ratio of the fats that we consume. This means that you can either increase Omega 3 intake or decrease Omega 6 intake to get the same results for your health.
Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of common vegetable oils:
Omega 3 (g)
Omega 6 (g)
Omega 6 : Omega 3 ratio
5.1 : 1
7.5 : 1
0.3 : 1
2.2 : 1
Cod liver oil
0.1 : 1
13.4 : 1
0.1 : 1
Hemp seed oil
3 : 1
46 : 1
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