What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids have been studied for many decades now because of the claims that they provide so many health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids are fairly complex biomolecules which are composed of a long fatty chain with an acid group at one end. The term “omega” refers to the carbon atom on the fatty chain which is on the opposite end to the acid group (1). There are various kinds of omega-3 fatty acids. Two very important classes are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These classes are mainly found in fish oils and so they are often called marine omega-3 fatty acids. These classes are important because they have the greatest physiological effects in the human body.
So Why Are These Omega-3 Fatty Acids So Special?
Although many people consider fats to be an unhealthy macromolecule, these fatty acids are essential especially considering that our body does not produce them. A variety of researchers have studied the roles of these molecules in the body and they have found that omega-3 acids are essential to the structure of our cells (2).
The major roles they have been implicated in are:
- Contributing to the structure and viscosity of the cell membrane
- Playing a vital role in fetal development
- Contributing to the production of important metabolites because they are their precursors.
- Modulating the aging process
- Decreasing inflammation which in turn reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer
Take Home Note:
Omega-3 acids are an important part of any person’s diet because they contribute to the very structure of our bodies and play key roles in their biological processes. Fish is an important source of physiologically relevant omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA.
The Role Of DHA And EPA In Fetal Development
From the very beginning of life, omega-3 acids are important in developing a healthy human body. The actual way in which the acid specifically contribute to fetal development is still currently being resolved but many studies have definitively concluded that a deficiency in omega-3 acids leads to decreased brain and retina development in growing fetuses. A scientific study on rhesus monkeys determined that a lack of omega-3 acids results in decreased phosphatidylethanolamine in the brain and retina. Phosphatidylethanolamine is an important component of cell membranes and if there is not enough during fetal development, fewer cells are produced which has a significant impact on organs such as the brain (3).
Take Home Note:
Expecting mothers will likely be advised to take in adequate amounts of omega-3 acids. These nutrients are very important and must not be left out of a pregnant woman’s diet.
What About Men Or Women Who Aren’t Pregnant?
Omega-3 fatty acids are still very important for children and adults alike. They act in so many biochemical pathways that they have very complex effects on the body but the common denominator appears to be a regulation of the immune system.
One of the most commonly studied pathways in inflammation is the arachidonic acid pathway. This pathway produces compounds known as prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Prostaglandins result in inflammation and blood clotting both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases. EPA competes with arachidonic acid in its metabolic pathway and results in a reduction of these compounds which cause the inflammation and blood clots (4).
It is, therefore, quite highly suggested that men and women, as well as children, take in sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Take Home Note:
Omega-3 is not only important for pregnant women to take but also for men and non-pregnant women. Important scientific studies have begun to elucidate the importance of the health benefits provided by omega-3 fatty acids. This importance is in its involvement with the immune system.
How Much Omega-3 Do You Need?
Despite intense ongoing research, a recommended daily amount has not yet been determined for omega-3 fatty acids. Scientific studies which have looked at the health benefits of omega-3 acids have seen results from doses as small as 1.5g a week (0.05 oz) to as large as 2.7 g (0.1 oz) a day. A three-ounce serving of salmon equates to roughly 1.5g of omega-3 fatty acids (2). If you don’t particularly like the taste of fish or are a vegan or vegetarian, then there are plant-based equivalents but they are high in omega-6 fatty acids which interfere with the benefits of omega-3. A better option is to look at omega-3 capsule supplements.
Take Home Note:
In order to get the required amount of omega-3 fatty acids people should consider eating fish between one and four times a week or taking omega-3 supplements.
What About Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
Something that is often discussed in terms of omega fatty acids in food is the ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. In relation to the inflammatory pathway discussed earlier, omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation by mimicking the effect of arachidonic acid. Many Western kind of diets are high in omega-6 fatty acids which are prone to contribute to cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases and cancer. So not only is it important to maintain a sufficient intake of omega-3 fatty acids, it is also important to minimize the intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Many foods contain both omega-3 and omega-6, so it is important to look for foods with a high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Take Home Note:
It is just as important to minimize omega-6 intake as it is to optimize omega-3 intake. Omega-6 fatty acids interfere with the pathways that the omega-3 acids are involved in and reduce the health benefits that omega-3 fatty acids provide.
Are There Other Benefits To Taking Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Since omega-3 fatty acids modulate the function of the immune system and the immune system regulates functions in the entire body, there are a variety of effects that omega-3 fatty acids have. The most important research benefits have already been discussed – brain development, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases.
Other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids include (5):
- Treating mental illnesses such as bipolar, depression and psychosis
- Reducing the effects of cognitive aging
- Reducing the effects of allergies
- Treating phenylketonuria
- Treating asthma
- Reducing the risk of cancer