Three omega−3 fatty acids are important in human physiology, α-linolenic acid (18:3, n-3; ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5, n-3; EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6, n-3; DHA). These three polyunsaturates have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. As with most naturally-produced fatty acids, all double bonds are in the cis-configuration, in other words, the two hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond; and the double bonds are interrupted by methylene bridges (-CH
Omega-3 fatty acids are frequently in the news regarding their health benefits (or doubts in some cases). Two types of omega-3s in particular - eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docohexaenoic acid (DHA) – are known to be essential fatty acids. “Essential” refers to the fact that our cells need these fatty acids in order to function normally. But the body cannot make them from other fats, which means it’s “essential” we supply them in our diet or through supplementation.
Omega-3 [(n-3)] long-chain PUFA, including EPA and DHA, are dietary fats with an array of health benefits (1). They are incorporated in many parts of the body including cell membranes (2) and play a role in antiinflammatory processes and in the viscosity of cell membranes (3, 4). EPA and DHA are essential for proper fetal development and healthy aging (5). DHA is a key component of all cell membranes and is found in abundance in the brain and retina (6). EPA and DHA are also the precursors of several metabolites that are potent lipid mediators, considered by many investigators to be beneficial in the prevention or treatment of several diseases (7).
Funding/Support: The work was supported in part by grant 17H04253, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; grant 30-A-17 from the National Cancer Center Research and Development Fund; grants MOST106-2314-B-039-027-MY, 106-2314-B-038-049, 106-2314-B-039-031, 106-2314-B-039-035, 104-2314-B-039-022-MY2, and 104-2314-B-039-050-MY3 from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan; grant HRI-EX105-10528NI from the National Health Research Institutes, Taiwan; and grants CRS-106-063, DMR-107-202, and DMR-107-204 from the China Medical University, Taiwan.
Recently another Omega-3 fatty acid, DPA (Docosapentaenoic Acid) has been discussed more frequently in the scientific community, as a new and very potent Omega-3 fatty acid. Previously thought to work in through EPA and DHA we are now learning it has very distinct functions in the body. All three of these polyunsaturated fats play an important role in the functioning of our bodies.
Fish oil has only a small benefit on the risk of premature birth. A 2015 meta-analysis of the effect of omega−3 supplementation during pregnancy did not demonstrate a decrease in the rate of preterm birth or improve outcomes in women with singleton pregnancies with no prior preterm births. A systematic review and meta-analysis published the same year reached the opposite conclusion, specifically, that omega−3 fatty acids were effective in "preventing early and any preterm delivery".
The 'essential' fatty acids were given their name when researchers found that they are essential to normal growth in young children and animals. The omega−3 fatty acid DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is found in high abundance in the human brain. It is produced by a desaturation process, but humans lack the desaturase enzyme, which acts to insert double bonds at the ω6 and ω3 position. Therefore, the ω6 and ω3 polyunsaturated fatty acids cannot be synthesized and are appropriately called essential fatty acids.
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.
The Lyon Diet Heart Study, performed shortly after the DART study, was a prospective trial of 607 survivors of MI who were randomized to either a Mediterranean diet or a regular Western diet.49 At a mean follow-up of 27 months, the primary end point of death from cardiovascular causes and nonfatal deaths had a 73% relative risk reduction—a positive effect that continued at follow up assessment at a mean of 46 months.50 FA analysis of plasma lipids showed that in the patients randomized to a Mediterranean diet, there was a higher concentration of alpha-linolenic acid as well as EPA. Fish, however, was consumed in similar amounts by both the Western and Mediterranean diet groups. The higher blood level of EPA in the Mediterranean diet arm was attributed to its synthesis from alpha-linolenic acid, which was 60-times higher than the plasma concentration of EPA. In addition, the risk reduction that occurred in this trial could not be attributed to one particular diet intervention because as the consumption of fruits and vegetables increased, the consumption of monounsaturated fat increased, while saturated fat and cholesterol were decreased.
Augood, C., Chakravarthy, U., Young, I., Vioque, J., de Jong, P. T., Bentham, G., Rahu, M., Seland, J., Soubrane, G., Tomazzoli, L., Topouzis, F., Vingerling, J. R., and Fletcher, A. E. Oily fish consumption, dietary docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid intakes, and associations with neovascular age-related macular degeneration. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88(2):398-406. View abstract.
According to the Cardiovascular Research Institute in Maastricht in Netherlands, “Epidemiological studies show that replacing fat with carbohydrates may even be worse [than the Western-type high-fat diet] and that various polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA) have beneficial rather than detrimental effects on CVD (cardiovascular disease) outcome.” This includes fish-oil fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent and reverse a plethora of cardiovascular diseases. (19)
Walnuts are chock full of healthy fats — including omega-3s — and also contain a slew of other nutrients like magnesium, biotin, and vitamin E. Some studies even suggest that eating walnuts improves memory, learning ability, and motor development.1 Walnuts are versatile, too — try them with fresh or dried fruit, in salads, or baked into desserts. Get started with these banana walnut waffles — made with coconut sugar and unsweetened almond milk.
Rondanelli, M., Giacosa, A., Opizzi, A., Pelucchi, C., La, Vecchia C., Montorfano, G., Negroni, M., Berra, B., Politi, P., and Rizzo, A. M. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on depressive symptoms and on health-related quality of life in the treatment of elderly women with depression: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. J.Am.Coll.Nutr. 2010;29(1):55-64. View abstract.
“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."
High blood pressure. Fish oil seems to slightly lower blood pressure in people with moderate to very high blood pressure. Some types of fish oil might also reduce blood pressure in people with slightly high blood pressure, but results are inconsistent. Fish oil seems to add to the effects of some, but not all, blood pressure-lowering medications. However, it doesn't seem to reduce blood pressure in people with uncontrolled blood pressure who are already taking blood pressure-lowering medications.