What is Omega 3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fats, one of four
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-3 fatty acids include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and
docosahexanoic acid (DHA), both found primarily in oily cold-water
fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel.
Scientists made one of the first associations between omega-3s and
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
Researchers continue to explore this exciting field. They've found
that 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 resting state.
In addition, nutritionists have come to recognize the importance of
balancing omega-3 fatty acids 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 various
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.
omega-3s in fish oil or other forms may help to:
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, reducing the
"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
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 inflammatory
diseases have reported less joint stiffness, swelling, tenderness,
and overall fatigue when taking omega-3s.
In 1998, an exciting review of well-designed, randomized clinical
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 problems.
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 because
they 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.
Guidelines for Use
Pregnant 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
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with
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.
Possible Side Effects
There are no known side effects associated with increasing your
intake 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.
One 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.