Chemical structure of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega−3 fatty acid, (18:3Δ9c,12c,15c, which means a chain of 18 carbons with 3 double bonds on carbons numbered 9, 12, and 15). Although chemists count from the carbonyl carbon (blue numbering), biologists count from the n (ω) carbon (red numbering). Note that, from the n end (diagram right), the first double bond appears as the third carbon-carbon bond (line segment), hence the name "n-3". This is explained by the fact that the n end is almost never changed during physiological transformations in the human body, as it is more energy-stable, and other compounds can be synthesized from the other carbonyl end, for example in glycerides, or from double bonds in the middle of the chain.
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).
Although there are no randomized data on fish oil consumption and protection from sudden death, observational studies have linked omega-3 FA with the prevention of sudden death. In a population-based, case-control study of sudden cardiac death victims, the mean red blood cell membrane omega-3 FA level of the lowest quartile, when compared with the mean level of the third quartile, was associated with a relative risk reduction of 70%.33 A similar finding was appreciated in a nested, prospective, case-control study of the Physician Health Study cohort of 22,000 healthy males. In the 119 patients that succumbed to sudden death, baseline omega-3 FA blood levels were significantly lower than in matched controls.34 Finally, in an analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study, a cohort study of 84,688 women, an inverse association was shown between fish consumption and CAD-related death. The investigators concluded that the reduction in CAD deaths was likely due to a reduction in sudden deaths, as there was no difference in the rate of MI when comparing high and low fish consumption.35
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye disease that can cause vision loss in older people. Two major National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored studies, called Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2), showed that dietary supplements containing specific combinations of vitamins, antioxidants, and zinc helped slow the progression of AMD in people who were at high risk of developing the advanced stage of this disease. AREDS2, which had more than 4,000 participants and was completed in 2013, also tested EPA and DHA. The results showed that adding these omega-3s to the supplement formulation didn’t provide any additional benefits. Other, smaller studies of omega-3 supplements also haven’t shown them to have a beneficial effect on the progression of AMD.
"Fish is still the mainstay of the diet in many parts of the world where there is very little heart disease," he says. "I think when you replace higher fat foods and highly processed foods with fish there is going to be some benefit.'' So it may be that by substituting fish for red meats, bacon and luncheon meats, and similar high-fat foods, you are making a change that will lead to improving your health outcomes, he says.
Weimann, A., Bastian, L., Bischoff, W. E., Grotz, M., Hansel, M., Lotz, J., Trautwein, C., Tusch, G., Schlitt, H. J., and Regel, G. Influence of arginine, omega-3 fatty acids and nucleotide-supplemented enteral support on systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multiple organ failure in patients after severe trauma. Nutrition 1998;14(2):165-172. View abstract.
The number, location, and orientation of the double bonds determine the health effects of fatty acids on the body. One aspect of this is their effect on triglycerides and LDL and HDL types of cholesterol, which in turn affect how much cholesterol gets deposited on the inside of blood vessels. There are also subtypes of LDL and HDL which are also likely important to their health effects.
McNamara, R. K., Able, J., Jandacek, R., Rider, T., Tso, P., Eliassen, J. C., Alfieri, D., Weber, W., Jarvis, K., DelBello, M. P., Strakowski, S. M., and Adler, C. M. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):1060-1067. View abstract.
There was no significant association between the Hedges g and mean age (k, 17; P = .51), female proportion (k, 18; P = .32), mean omega-3 PUFA dosage (k, 19; P = .307), EPA to DHA ratio (k, 17; P = .86), dropout rate in the omega-3 PUFA group (k, 18; P = .71), duration of omega-3 PUFA treatment (k, 19; P = .14), Jadad score of randomization (k, 19; P = .10), Jadad score of blindness (k, 19; P = .57), or total Jadad score (k, 19; P = .18).
Respected health care organizations proposed intake recommendations for oily fish of two servings per week for healthy adults, which equates to approximately a daily total of 500 milligrams (mg) EPA and DHA.‡ The recommendation encourages adults already with or at-risk of developing cardiovascular disease to talk to their primary healthcare professional about supplementing with amounts greater than 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
For those who do not eat seafood, another way exists for you to get a healthy dose of EPA and DHA each day. Fish oil supplements, which are rich in EPA and DHA, can be made from a variety of fish, with the most common ones being halibut, tuna, salmon, cod liver, mackerel and herring. On average, one 3.5 ounce serving of fatty fish contains about 1 gram of omega-3s, which can be obtained through fish oil supplements, according to MedlinePlus.
The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in these omega-3s. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA. Good sources of these are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
People should get most of their nutrients from food, advises the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Foods contain vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and other substances that benefit health. In some cases, fortified foods and dietary supplements may provide nutrients that otherwise may be consumed in less-than-recommended amounts. For more information about building your own healthy eating pattern, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov. MyPlate offers messages, resources, and tools to help you make the choices that are right for you, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Fish oil seems to be a subject of controversy. Some people swear by it, and there are thousands of clinical trials out now trying to study what the latest and greatest thing about the supplement is. The Natural Standard does a really good job collecting and gathering data for those who are interested in delving through what fish oil may or may not be doing to us. Definitive answers, however, may take a little while to get.
Davidson, M. H., Stein, E. A., Bays, H. E., Maki, K. C., Doyle, R. T., Shalwitz, R. A., Ballantyne, C. M., and Ginsberg, H. N. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther 2007;29(7):1354-1367. View abstract.
High triglycerides. Research suggests that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. One particular fish oil supplement called Lovaza has been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides. A one-gram capsule of Lovaza contains 465 milligrams of EPA and 375 milligrams of DHA. But, a small study suggests that taking fish oil daily for 8 weeks might not reduce triglycerides in adolescents.
Joensen, A. M., Schmidt, E. B., Dethlefsen, C., Johnsen, S. P., Tjonneland, A., Rasmussen, L. H., and Overvad, K. Dietary intake of total marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid and docosapentaenoic acid and the risk of acute coronary syndrome - a cohort study. Br J Nutr 2010;103(4):602-607. View abstract.
High triglycerides. Most research shows that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. Some fish oil supplements including Lovaza, Omtryg, and Epanova have been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides.