Omega 3 (written as ω-3) fatty acids are a group of essential fatty acids (EFAs) that are found in seafood and plants.
There are three different ω-3 EFAs: Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), which can be converted into EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid). All essential fatty acids are called polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs for short.
Because these essential fatty acids cannot be synthesized by the body, they must be derived from your diet.
There are actually two classes of “essential” fatty acids (EFAs) that the body cannot make:
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids: ω-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), from which the body can make EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid).
- Omega-6 Fatty Acids: ω-6 fatty acids include Linoleic Acid (LA), from which the body makes Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA), and Arachidonic Acid (AA).
While both the ω-6 and ω-3 essential fatty acids are vital for health, we only need them in small amounts. In addition, both ω-6 and ω-3 fatty acids should be consumed in equal amounts. The goal that research has determined is optimal is a consumption ratio of is 1:1.
Unfortunately, vegetable oils containing ω-6 fatty acids are widely used in America, and the standard American diet provides a ratio of at least 10:1. This is unfortunate since ω-3 fatty acids have a very beneficial effect on the body.
Essential Fatty Acid Functions
Essential fatty acids play a role in nearly every metabolic function in the body. One of the most important functions of essential fatty acids is in acting as a parent molecule for a class of hormone-like molecules called eicosanoids.
Eicosanoids are among the potent regulators of cellular function, and they are produced by almost every cell in the body.
Eicosanoids exert a wide-ranging and profound effect on your health. Among other effects, they regulate blood pressure, lung function, and blood clotting mechanisms.
At any given time, the type of eicosanoids that are dominant within the body depends on the types of essential fatty acids being eaten.
In general, since ω-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, eating more ω-3 rich foods results in higher production and assimilation of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids.
And in opposition, eating more omega-6 fatty acids produces eicosanoids that have pro-inflammatory properties.
As mentioned, in the last 100 years, the amount of ω-3 polyunsaturated fats in the Western diet has declined, while the consumption of ω-6 fatty acids has increased due to a rise in the use of vegetable oils.
The ratio of omega-6 to omega 3 fatty acid consumption in the United States has changed from a desirable 1:1 to more than 10:1.
These changes have resulted in an emphasis on the omega-6 fatty acid accumulation in our cellular structures, which in turn leads to an overproduction of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids.
A lack of Omega 3 fatty acids is being targeted as a factor in the rates of heart disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, and mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder in modern culture.
NOTE OF CAUTION
There is a multitude of studies highlighting the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids on brain neurochemicals, and the effect on depression and other behavioral issues.
However, diabetics should be careful about taking Omega-3 supplements such as fish oil. Some studies have demonstrated that large doses of fish oil have a detrimental effect on blood sugar, and cause large rises in fasting blood sugar, especially if the person taking it is pre-diabetic or diabetic. The studies are here and here.
Itâ€™s very importantly to buy pharmaceutical grade fish and krill oil supplements. Buying low-cost oils is not recommended because the rate of rancidity in the cheaper products may be higher, and rancid fat is very harmful to your health.
In addition, recent research has not been kind to EPA and DHA supplementation. There is now evidence that polyunsaturated fats, in general, are associated with a weakening of the immune system, and increased cancers. The jury is still out on these negative effects but I want to mention them so you can do your own research before deciding to add supplements of these oils to your nutritional regimen.
Sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Wild-caught cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, and halibut are rich sources of w-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds, canola oil and walnuts are all generally rich sources of the parent Omega 3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Dietary ALA can be metabolized in the liver to EPA and DHA, but the conversion is limited within the body.
Aging, illness, and stress, as well as excessive amounts of omega-6 rich oils (corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed), can all interfere with the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.
Therefore, it is recommended to consume fish and seafood to obtain sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA in your diet.