Omega 3 – An Overview

What is Omega-3?

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid which the body requires to function normally.  It is not a single nutrient rather a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids which is broken down into different components the most important of which are Eicosapentaeonic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).  The former two are the most imperative in terms of health benefits and are derived from marine sources, whilst the latter can be found in plants and converted by the body into the more beneficial forms EPA and DHA. However this is a very inefficient process and the body is not able to synthesise Omega-3 so we rely on our dietary intake of these essential fatty acids

What is it good for?

There are many wide ranging benefits.

  • Anti-inflammatory – Omega-3 decreases the effectiveness and production of various prostaglandins (naturally occurring hormones which accentuate inflammation) and thus it is thought to be useful in the management of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases (where the immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue). Such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Studies have demonstrated that omega-3 supplementation can help decrease the symptoms of RA especially the duration of morning stiffness and pain intensity. It has also been shown to decrease the need for-anti-inflammatory medication. However the current research is weak and better studies are needed to verify these findings.  A recent study has found that the anti-inflammatory effects of Omega-3 are heightened when combined with combined vitamin D supplementation.
  • Reducing heart disease – in both healthy adults and people with an established heart condition. This has been recognised as one of the main benefits of increasing your dietary omega-3. It has been shown to protect the heart in various ways including a decrease in all the following: clot formation, blood viscosity, blood triglycerides (a type of fat) and thus atherosclerotic plaque build-up, blood pressure, arrhythmias and inflammation.  Therefore Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) may reduce the risk of death from a cardiac event for healthy adults who have not had any prior heart problems. Interestingly a higher intake of ALA has also been associated with this especially for those who have a diet low in fish.  It can also reduce the risk of non-fatal heart attacks and strokes and death from cardiac disease in those people already suffering with a heart condition. The strongest evidence relates to the ability to stabilise the heart rhythm and thus reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death due to arrhythmia.
  • Prenatal health and infancy – pregnant women require at least as much omega 3 as non-pregnant women and it is likely that they require more DHA. Women who take Omega-3 supplements throughout their pregnancy have noted an improvement in their health as well as in the development of their children. DHA is important for the development, growth and structure of the fetal retina (light sensitive part of the eye) and central nervous system especially during the third trimester and the first 6 weeks of life. It forms a major part of the fetals brain weight (about 30%) and it helps maintains good neural function as well as being one of the major fatty acids in the retina. DHA is found naturally in human milk and supplementation of Omega-3 during pregnancy and lactation increases the levels of DHA in breast milk as well as in infants. Since 2001 after FDA (food and drug administration) approval DHA has been supplemented into infant formula to support optimal eye and brain development. In addition to this, early research suggests that DHA supplementation may help decrease the risk of premature births.
  • Research is continually evolving are there are many more benefits than those describes above such as dementia and alzheimer’s, depression and ADHD.

Foods Rich in Omega-3

  • Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardine, mackerel and herring. S
  • Foods such as walnuts, walnut oil, flaxseed and flax oil, pumpkin seeds and canola oil have a high ALA content and can be converted into EPA and DHA in the body.
  • Some foods such as eggs, milk, yoghurt and butter supplements have omega 3 added to them. However this can be an expensive option and something to bear in mind is that they often contain very little amounts of Omega-3 so weigh up the benefit v’s cost ratio.

Supplements

Fish oil supplements can be very beneficial. However it is important to take note of the amount of ALA, EPA and DHA per capsule as over the counter supplements often have very low amounts of EPA and DHA. Therefore when choosing a supplement it is important to note there is a difference between brands. The higher quality Omega-3 is found in fish oils which have been ultra refined, triple filtered and molecularly distilled.

Dietary v’s Supplementation

Both have their merits and drawbacks, in an ideal world we would obtain everything we require from our diet. However there are only a relatively small number of foods which can have a big impact on blood Omega-3 levels. In addition to this fish are more likely to have higher mercury content, polychorinated biphenyls (man-made chemical) and other toxins which can cause more harm than good. Supplements can be expensive and as stated above not all contain enough to be of benefit. At least 50% of the fish oil supplement content should be omega-3; below this you will not be getting good value for money. They should also have gone through extensive quality control and be manufactured and packaged under pharmaceutically controlled conditions.

Please refer to here for recommended daily intake and a thorough break down of foods which are rich in Omega-3.

 The DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute is n excellent resource for any other questions you may have about Omega 3