Omega 3 is a type of fat. Small amounts of omega 3 fats are essential for good health, and they can be found in the food that we eat. The main types of omega 3 fatty acids are; alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is normally found in fats from plant foods, such as nuts and seeds (walnuts and rapeseed are rich sources). EPA and DHA, collectively called long chain omega 3 fats, are naturally found in fatty fish, such as salmon and fish oils including cod liver oil.
Maclean, C. H., Mojica, W. A., Morton, S. C., Pencharz, J., Hasenfeld, Garland R., Tu, W., Newberry, S. J., Jungvig, L. K., Grossman, J., Khanna, P., Rhodes, S., and Shekelle, P. Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on lipids and glycemic control in type II diabetes and the metabolic syndrome and on inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, renal disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, and osteoporosis. Evid.Rep.Technol.Assess.(Summ.) 2004;(89):1-4. View abstract.
The nutritional value of seafood is important during early development. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 and guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding eat at least 8 ounces but no more than 12 ounces of a variety of seafood each week, from choices that are lower in methyl mercury. Methyl mercury can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it.
Since EPA and DHA are both essential for health and appear together in nature, many studies have attempted to treat clinical conditions with combined EPA and DHA oils, but the outcomes have been varied, contradictory and disappointing. Consequently, researchers have started to investigate the individual actions of EPA and DHA in isolation, in numerous health conditions where an omega-3 deficiency is related to symptoms or known to play a causative role. The emerging evidence shows marked differences between how these two fatty acids affect us – not just at the cellular level but also the body as a whole.
Stiefel, P., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., Gajon, E., Acosta, D., Garcia-Donas, M. A., Madrazo, J., Villar, J., and Carneado, J. Sodium transport kinetics, cell membrane lipid composition, neural conduction and metabolic control in type 1 diabetic patients. Changes after a low-dose n-3 fatty acid dietary intervention. Ann Nutr Metab 1999;43(2):113-120. View abstract.
In 1964 it was discovered that enzymes found in sheep tissues convert omega−6 arachidonic acid into the inflammatory agent called prostaglandin E2 which both causes the sensation of pain and expedites healing and immune response in traumatized and infected tissues. By 1979 more of what are now known as eicosanoids were discovered: thromboxanes, prostacyclins, and the leukotrienes. The eicosanoids, which have important biological functions, typically have a short active lifetime in the body, starting with synthesis from fatty acids and ending with metabolism by enzymes. If the rate of synthesis exceeds the rate of metabolism, the excess eicosanoids may, however, have deleterious effects. Researchers found that certain omega−3 fatty acids are also converted into eicosanoids, but at a much slower rate. Eicosanoids made from omega−3 fatty acids are often referred to as anti-inflammatory, but in fact they are just less inflammatory than those made from omega−6 fats. If both omega−3 and omega−6 fatty acids are present, they will "compete" to be transformed, so the ratio of long-chain omega−3:omega−6 fatty acids directly affects the type of eicosanoids that are produced.
The GISSI-Prevenzione trial40 showed similar findings. In this open-label trial, 11,324 post-MI patients were followed for 3.5 years after randomization to either 1 g/d of omega-3 FA, vitamin E, both, or none. In the 2836 patients assigned to only omega-3 FA, the primary end point of death, nonfatal MI or stroke, was reduced by 10%. This decreased risk occurred despite a minimal triglyceride-lowering effect because of the relatively low dose of omega-3 FA. Of note, the GISSI-Prevenzione trial was done prior to the pervasive use of lipid-lowering agents. Only about 40% of patients were on any form of lipid-lowering therapy.
People with metabolic syndrome (the combination of central obesity, high blood pressure, disturbed lipid profile, and impaired glucose tolerance) are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other apparently “age-related” disorders. Because metabolic syndrome is closely associated with chronic low-grade inflammation, the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fats are especially important as a means of slowing or stopping the progression of this deadly disorder.
It’s no surprise that fish — particularly cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies — are rich in omega-3s. It’s called fish oil for a reason, right? Mackerel, for instance, may have more than 3300 mg of omega-3 per serving — that’s more than 6 times the recommended per day dose for healthy adults. Not a huge fish connoisseur? Try some of the quick, simple recipes in Cooking with Fish Like a Pro, an accessible collection of fish recipes to suit every palate.
Several other analyses of the evidence have been done in the last few years (2012 or later), and like the 2018 analysis and the AHRQ report, most found little or no evidence for a protective effect of omega-3 supplements against heart disease. However, some earlier analyses suggested that omega-3s could be helpful. The difference between the newer conclusions and the older ones may reflect two changes over time:
Fish oil supplements came under scrutiny in 2006, when the Food Standards Agency in the UK and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported PCB levels that exceeded the European maximum limits in several fish oil brands, which required temporary withdrawal of these brands. To address the concern over contaminated fish oil supplements, the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) Program, a third-party testing and accreditation program for fish oil products, was created by Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc. in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
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.
Other suspected health benefits of omega-3s and fish are less well established and need further study. They include suggestions of a reduced risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and possibly advanced prostate cancer, all related to eating fish rather than taking supplements. Some observational studies have associated omega-3s to a lower risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as age-related macular degeneration.
A lot of the benefit of fish oil seems to come from the omega-3 fatty acids that it contains. Interestingly, the body does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. Nor can the body make omega-3 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in the Western diet. A lot of research has been done on EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 acids that are often included in fish oil supplements.