Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one
basic types of fat that the body derives from food. (Cholesterol,
saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat are the others.) All
polyunsaturated fats, including the omega-3s, are increasingly
recognized as important to human health.
Eating too many foods rich in saturated fats has been associated with
the development of degenerative diseases, including heart disease and
even cancer. Polyunsaturated fatty acids, however, are actually good
for you. Omega-3s (found primarily in cold-water fish) fall into this
category, along with omega-6s, another type of polyunsaturated fatty
acids found in grains, most plant-based oils, poultry, and eggs.
Why "essential?" Omega-3s (and omega-6s) are termed
fatty acids (EFAs) because they are critical for good health. However,
the body cannot make them on its own. For this reason, omega-3s must be
obtained from food, thus making outside sources of these fats
Although the body needs both omega-3s and omega-6s to thrive,
people consume far more 6s than 3s. Hardly a day goes by, however,
without reports of another health benefit associated with omega-3s. For
this reason, many experts recommend consuming a better balance these
Different types of omega-3s. Key omega-3 fatty acids
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), both found
primarily in oily cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel.
Aside from fresh seaweed, a staple of many cultures, plant foods rarely
contain EPA or DHA.
However, a third omega-3, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA),
primarily in dark green leafy vegetables, flaxseed oils, and certain
vegetable oils. Although ALA has different effects on the body than EPA
and DHA do, the body has enzymes that can convert ALA to EPA. All three
are important to human health.
Scientists made one of the first associations between omega-3s
human health while studying the Inuit (Eskimo) people of Greenland in
the 1970s. As a group, the Inuit suffered far less from certain
diseases (coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes
mellitus, psoriasis) than their European counterparts. Yet their diet
was very high in fat from eating whale, seal, and salmon. Eventually
researchers realized that these foods were all rich in omega-3 fatty
acids, which provided real disease-countering benefits.
Researchers continue to explore this exciting field. They've
without a sufficient supply of polyunsaturated omega-3s, the body will
use saturated fat to construct cell membranes. The resulting cell
membranes, however, are less elastic, a situation that can have a
negative effect on the heart because it makes it harder to return to a
In addition, nutritionists have come to recognize the
balancing omega-3 fatty acids with omega-6 fatty acids in the diet.
Because most people on a typical Western diet consume far more
omega-6-rich foods (including cereals, whole-grain bread, baked goods,
fried foods, margarine, and others), the ratio is out of balance for
almost everyone. This means for most Americans the emphasis now needs
to be on increasing omega-3s to make the ratio more even.
The bottom line: Omega-3s appear to help prevent and treat
disorders in different ways. For example, research suggests that in
individuals with non-insulin-dependent (or type 2) diabetes, omega-3s
can improve insulin sensitivity. They work yet another way to ease
menstrual pain, and so on.
Specifically, omega-3s in fish oil or other forms may
Improve heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids have been
shown to play a part in keeping cholesterol levels low, stabilizing
irregular heart beat (arrhythmia), and reducing blood pressure.
Researchers now believe that alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the
omega-3s, is particularly beneficial for protecting against heart and
vessel disease, and for lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
An excellent source of ALA is flaxseed oil, sold as both a liquid oil
and a semisolid margarine-like spread.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also natural blood thinners,
"stickiness" of blood cells (called platelet aggregation), which can
lead to such complications as blood clots and stroke.
Reduce hypertension. Studies of large groups of
people have found that the more omega-3 fatty acids people consume, the
lower their overall blood pressure level is. This was the case with the
Greenland Eskimos who ate a lot of oily, cold-water fish, for example.
Improve rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Raynaud's disease,
and other autoimmune diseases.
Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oils) have been shown
to increase survival in people with autoimmune diseases. This is
probably because the omega-3s help the arteries--as well as many other
parts of the body--stay inflammation free. EPA and DHA are successful
at this because they can be converted into natural anti-inflammatory
substances called prostaglandins and
leukotrienes, compounds that help decrease inflammation and pain.
In numerous studies over the years, participants with
diseases have reported less joint stiffness, swelling, tenderness, and
overall fatigue when taking omega-3s.
In 1998, an exciting review of well-designed, randomized
trials reported that omega-3 fatty acids were more successful than a
placebo ("dummy drug") in improving the condition of people with
rheumatoid arthritis. The research also showed that getting more
omega-3 fatty acids enabled some participants to reduce their use of
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Improve depression and symptoms of other mental health
The brain is remarkably fatty: In fact, this organ is 60% fat and needs
omega-3s to function properly. Now researchers have discovered a link
between mood disorders and the presence of low concentrations of
omega-3 fatty acids in the body.
Apparently, omega-3s help regulate mental health problems
enhance the ability of brain-cell receptors to comprehend mood-related
signals from other neurons in the brain. In other words, the omega-3s
are believed to help keep the brain's entire traffic pattern of
thoughts, reactions, and reflexes running smoothly and efficiently.
Clinical trials are underway to further investigate whether
supplementing the diet with omega-3s will reduce the severity of such
psychiatric problems as mild to moderate depression, dementia, bipolar
disorder, and schizophrenia. Interestingly, the oil used to help the
child with a degenerative nerve disorder in the popular film Lorenzo's
Oil was an omega-3 fatty acid.
Aid cancer prevention and cancer support.
Preliminary research from the University of California, Los Angeles,
suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may help maintain healthy breast
tissue and prevent breast cancer. Also, in a recent study, participants
who supplemented their diet with fish oils produced fewer quantities of
a carcinogen associated with colon cancer than did a placebo group.
More research into this exciting use for omega-3s is underway.
There is no established recommended daily intake for omega-3s,
healthy diet containing significant amounts of foods rich in this
essential fatty acid is clearly wise. By increasing your intake of
omega-3 fatty acids, you will naturally bring the ratio of omega-3 and
omega-6 fatty acids back into a healthier, 2-1 or (optimally) 1-1
Try to reduce your consumption of omega-6-rich foods at the
that you increase your intake of omega-3-rich foods in the following
Atlantic salmon and other fatty, preferably cold-water fish, including
herring (both Atlantic and Pacific), sardines, Atlantic halibut,
bluefish, tuna, and Atlantic mackerel. The American Heart Association
recommends that people eat tuna or salmon at least twice a week.
As a reasonable substitute (or even an occasional alternative)
fresh fish, commercial fish oil capsules are available
containing omega-3s such as DHA and EPA.
Surprisingly, venison and buffalo are both good sources of omega-3s and
make a healthy choice for people craving meat. These wild game meats
can be purchased through mail-order sources if your supermarket doesn't
--Plant sources: Flaxseed,
flaxseed oil, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables such as purslane are
all good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based
omega-3. A quarter-cup (1 ounce) of walnuts supplies about 2 grams of
plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, slightly more than is found in 3
ounces of salmon.
--Enhanced food: In the U.S., these include omega-3
enriched eggs; breads are sometimes enhanced in other countries.
women and infants need plenty of omega-3s to nourish the developing
brain of the fetus and young child. If a pregnant woman gets too few
omega-3s, the growing fetus will take all that's available. This could
set the stage for depression in the mother. Talk to your obstetrician
and pediatrician about specific requirements.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated
increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids through foods. However, if
you decide to take omega-3s through supplements (especially those
containing fish oils), be sure to check with your doctor first if you
are taking a blood-thinner such as warfarin or heparin.
There are no known side effects associated with increasing
of omega-3 fatty acids through foods, although fish oil capsules do
pose the risk of a "burp" factor. This is a harmless, although not
exactly pleasant, fish-y aftertaste that occurs with some brands of
fish oil capsules.
benefit of omega-3 fatty acids is that they are very safe to consume.
However, most sources recommend that fish consumption be limited to two
to three servings weekly because so many fish are tainted with mercury
and other contaminants. Fish oil capsules don't present this same risk.
Dietary supplements cannot be used to prevent or treat any
disease. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
contains Omega 3 and is
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supplements are not to be used to
or treat any disease.
The Statements on this web page have not been evaluated by the FDA. Any
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