The human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. That isn’t the case for omega-3 fatty acids (also called omega-3 fats and n-3 fats). These are essential fats—the body can’t make them from scratch but must get them from food. Foods high in Omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.
6. Krauss-Etschmann S, Shadid R, Campoy C, Hoster E, Demmelmair H, Jimenez M, Gil A, Rivero M, Veszpremi B, Decsi T, et al. Effects of fish-oil and folate supplementation of pregnant women on maternal and fetal plasma concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid: a European randomized multicenter trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1392–400. [PubMed]
Some research indicates that people who eat more seafood may have a reduced risk of cognitive decline. However, omega-3 supplements haven’t been shown to help prevent cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease or to improve symptoms of these conditions. For example, a large NIH-sponsored study completed in 2015 indicated that taking EPA and DHA supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older adults. The people studied were participants in a larger eye disease study, and all of them had age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Henneicke-von Zepelin, H. H., Mrowietz, U., Farber, L., Bruck-Borchers, K., Schober, C., Huber, J., Lutz, G., Kohnen, R., Christophers, E., and Welzel, D. Highly purified omega-3-polyunsaturated fatty acids for topical treatment of psoriasis. Results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled multicentre study. Br J Dermatol 1993;129(6):713-717. View abstract.
Egert, S., Somoza, V., Kannenberg, F., Fobker, M., Krome, K., Erbersdobler, H. F., and Wahrburg, U. Influence of three rapeseed oil-rich diets, fortified with alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid or docosahexaenoic acid on the composition and oxidizability of low-density lipoproteins: results of a controlled study in healthy volunteers. Eur J Clin Nutr 2007;61(3):314-325. View abstract.
The Federal Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 recommends that adults eat 8 or more ounces of a variety of seafood (fish or shellfish) per week for the total package of nutrients seafood provides, and that some seafood choices with higher amounts of EPA and DHA be included. Smaller amounts of seafood are recommended for young children.
Healthy cells require a delicate balance of EPA and DHA and the body employs clever mechanisms to support this natural equilibrium. DHA levels are self-regulated through inhibiting the activity of the enzyme delta-6 desaturase – the very enzyme that supports the conversion of EPA into DHA – to ensure levels of DHA do not become too high. It is therefore possible to have too much preformed DHA, if our supplement intake exceeds the body’s needs.
Omega-3s are important components of the membranes that surround each cell in your body. DHA levels are especially high in retina (eye), brain, and sperm cells. Omega-3s also provide calories to give your body energy and have many functions in your heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system (the network of hormone-producing glands).
In later life, cognitive function and brain deterioration may become a concern. Once again, maintaining high levels of EPA has been shown to lower the risk of developing and worsening cognitive decline and dementia. If, however, you know someone who already has a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, their brain has already been damaged and needs structural support. At this point, DHA becomes important again and taking a high-EPA product that contains 250mg of DHA also is important to prevent further loss of brain tissue.
Schilling, J., Vranjes, N., Fierz, W., Joller, H., Gyurech, D., Ludwig, E., Marathias, K., and Geroulanos, S. Clinical outcome and immunology of postoperative arginine, omega-3 fatty acids, and nucleotide-enriched enteral feeding: a randomized prospective comparison with standard enteral and low calorie/low fat i.v. solutions. Nutrition 1996;12(6):423-429. View abstract.
When it comes to fat, there's one type you don’t want to cut back on: omega-3 fatty acids. Two crucial ones -- EPA and DHA -- are primarily found in certain fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), another omega-3 fatty acid, is found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds. Not only does your body need these fatty acids to function, but also they deliver some big health benefits.
Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc. have demonstrated EPA to be superior to DHA (5).
Animal studies show potent reduction of liver fat stores, glucose levels, and cholesterol levels in mice supplemented with krill oil while being fed a high fat diet.64,65 While many of these effects are seen with fish oil as well, studies show that krill oil, with its unique phospholipid structure, had the added benefit of increasing fat-burning in mitochondria while reducing new glucose production in the liver.66,67 As with so many other complex disease processes, utilizing multiple pathways to reduce disease is a highly effective strategy.67
Fish oils rich in omega 3 fatty acids help improve fertility and cell division. Preliminary research conducted on animals has shown that when males are fed a diet containing fish oil, the quality of the sperm is enhanced. After ejaculation, the sperm has increased survival against lipid peroxidative attacks in the female genital tract, thereby increasing the chances of conception. On the other hand, similar animal studies have shown inhibition in the synthesis of prostaglandin E and prostaglandin F, which are produced in large quantities by human seminal vesicles. The research, however, found no impact on the count and mobility of sperm.
If a chicken eats a diet heavy in omega-3s — such as flaxseed and other nutrient-dense grains — its eggs will be fortified with higher levels of those healthy fatty acids. If you can afford a little extra expense, look for omega-3-enriched eggs from humanely raised chickens that roam free and forage for insects and plants, which give the eggs even further nutrients and health benefits.
In my opinion, the key benefit of DHA lies in its unique spatial characteristics. As mentioned earlier, the extra double bond (six in DHA vs. five in EPA) and increased carbon length (22 carbons in DHA vs. 20 in EPA) means that DHA takes up takes up a lot more space than does EPA in the membrane. Although this increase in spatial volume makes DHA a poor substrate for phospholipase A2 as well as the COX and LOX enzymes, it does a great job of making membranes (especially those in the brain) a lot more fluid as the DHA sweeps out a much greater volume in the membrane than does EPA. This increase in membrane fluidity is critical for synaptic vesicles and the retina of the eye as it allows receptors to rotate more effectively thus increasing the transmission of signals from the surface of the membrane to the interior of the nerve cells. This is why DHA is a critical component of these highly fluid portions of the nerves (7). On the other hand, the myelin membrane is essentially an insulator so that relatively little DHA is found in that part of the membrane.
Interestingly, the results are also consistent with our recent findings that somatic anxiety is associated with omega-3 PUFA deficits and the genetic risks of PUFA metabolic enzyme cytosolic phospholipase A2 in major depressive disorder62,63 and interferon α–induced neuropsychiatric syndrome.63,64 Brain membranes contain a high proportion of omega-3 PUFAs and their derivatives and most animal and human studies suggest that a lack of omega-3 PUFAs in the brain might induce various behavioral and neuropsychiatric disorders,16,65-70 including anxiety-related behaviors.12,18,19,32,49,71 Emerging evidence suggests that omega-3 PUFAs interfere with and possibly control several neurobiological processes, such as neurotransmitter systems, neuroplasticity, and inflammation,12,72 which is postulated to be the mechanism underlying anxiety and depression.
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“This systematic review did find moderate evidence that ALA, found in plant oils (such as rapeseed or canola oil) and nuts (particularly walnuts) may be slightly protective of some diseases of the heart and circulation. However, the effect is very small, 143 people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person developing arrhythmia. One thousand people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person dying of coronary heart disease or experiencing a cardiovascular event. ALA is an essential fatty acid, an important part of a balanced diet, and increasing intakes may be slightly beneficial for prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease."
Cancer. Research on the effects of fish oil in preventing cancer has produced conflicting results. Some population research suggests that eating fish or having higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil is linked to a lower risk of different cancers, including oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer. But other research suggests that eating fish does not reduce the risk of cancer.