Mighty Omega 3's - An Overview

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that is deficient in the diets of many Americans. In the late 1970s, scientists learned that the native Inuits in Greenland, who consumed a diet very high in omega-3 fatty acids, had surprisingly low rates of heart attacks. Since that time, more than 4,500 studies have been conducted in an attempt to understand the beneficial roles that the omega-3 fatty acids play in human metabolism and health.

Structurally, omega-3 contains 3 double bonds, which makes it a polyunsaturated fatty acid. This also makes omega-3 very susceptible to becoming rancid. Food processors remove it from food products in order to lengthen shelf life. Marine plants such as plankton are the primary source of omega-3 fatty acids in the food chain. Fish and other aquatic animals that feed on plankton, incorporate the omega-3 fatty acids into their tissues. The richest land source of omega-3 is the oil that is commercially expelled from flaxseeds. Alpha-linolenic acid gets converted in the body into longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Thus, the term omega-3 also refers to a family of omega-3 fatty acids, which includes alpha-linolenic acid, EPA, and DHA.

In England, the Task Force of the British Nutrition Foundation suggests a daily intake of omega-3 ranging from 0.5 to 2.5 percent of energy requirements. This corresponds to 1 to 6 grams daily for men and from 1 to 5 grams daily for women.

Dosage Range

Alpha linolenic acid (omega-3):1-2 tablespoonsful daily.

Fish oils (EPA and DHA): 500-2,000mg daily.

Most Common Dosage

Alpha linolenic acid (omega-3):1 tablespoonful daily.

Fish oils (EPA and DHA): 1.2 grams of EPA and DHA or 3-4 grams of fish oil.

Dosage Forms

Alpha linolenic acid (omega-3): oil in gelatin capsules and in oil such as flaxseed oil; EPA and DHA: fish oils in gelatin capsules.


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Active Forms:

Alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).



Digestion and absorption of fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, takes place in the small intestine.


Toxicities & Precautions:

Omega-3 is a highly unsaturated fatty acid susceptible to oxidative damage in the body. Thus, people consuming omega-3 should take adequate amounts of antioxidant nutrients, especially vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium. When omega-3 is purchased as a liquid, such as flaxseed oil, it needs to be refrigerated to prevent it from becoming rancid. Care should be taken to minimize exposure of omega-3 fatty acids to heat, light, and oxygen. If an omega-3 fatty acids becomes rancid, it develops a bitter taste and should be discarded.

Functions in the Body

Cellular Structure:

Alpha linolenic acid is one of the primary structural components in cell walls and cellular membranes throughout the body. DHA is the most abundant long chain fatty acid in cells within the brain.

Blood Thinning:

Aids in reducing platelet stickiness and acts as a mild blood thinner.


Precursor for an important group of chemicals called the series 3 prostaglandins, which regulate things like inflammation, blood pressure, hormone production, and the activity of the immune and central nervous systems.


Longer chain omega-3 fatty acids are important in the development of the brain and the retina of the eyes in early growth.

Skeletal health:

It has been suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may modulate eicosanoid biosynthesis and influence gene expression in ways that influence bone modeling and bone cell differentiation.

Clinical Applications

Ulcerative Colitis:

In a study including more than 200,000 subjects, researchers were able to establish that the highest intake of omega-3 fatty acid actually reduced the risk of developing ulcerative colitis by 77 percent.


Children with verbal apraxia (neurologically based motor planning speech disorder common in autism spectrum disorders) were treated with vitamin E and omega-3. All of the families involved reported significant improvements in many areas including speech, imitation, coordination, eye contact, behavior, sensory issues and development of pain sensation. Supplementation with vitamin E and omega-3 could be beneficial to children with autism and verbal apraxia.

Congestive Heart Failure:

Researchers found that EPA plus DHA had a protective effect against heart failure in specific groups such as diabetics and women.

Weight Management:

A study found that a diet rich in omega-3 obtained by eating linseed-fed animals may be effective in weight management and was also effective in maintaining EPA and DHA levels without fish consumption.

Metabolic Syndrome:

Researchers have found that a low-fat, high-complex carbohydrate diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids lowered cholesterol levels in people with metabolic syndrome.

Cardiovascular Disease:

Cardiovascular health may be supported by omega-3 fatty acids in lowering blood pressure, relaxing blood vessels and lowering cholesterol levels. Researchers found that dietary intake of omega-3 lowered levels of inflammation and endothelial activation, which might explain in part the effect of these fatty acids in preventing cardiovascular disease. A study performed in Italy reported that patients supplementing their diets with omega-3 fatty acids had a lower death rate from heart conditions than patients who did not supplement their diets. Evidence from a study showed that marine omega-3 protected against telomere deterioration which could reduce the risk of coronary heart failure.

Elevated Triglycerides:

Supplementation with 3 to 5 grams daily of omega-3 fatty acids can result in a 30% to 50% reduction in elevated serum triglycerides.

Skin Conditions:

Abnormalities in fatty acid metabolism found in people with problems such as psoriasis and eczema and therapy with omega-3 fatty acids is frequently beneficial.


Individuals with allergic conditions have been found to have a defect in the enzyme responsible for synthesizing the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Elevated Cholesterol:

Dietary alpha-linolenic acid reported to lower cholesterol levels in the blood and in liver tissues. Researchers found that omega-3 was a safe and effective treatment for patients with hyperlipidemia.


Supplementation with the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids provides a slight lowering of blood pressure. Reductions range between 3 and 10 mm Hg for both systolic and diastolic pressures.


Studies have found that subjects with ADHD had significantly lower concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids.


Supplementation with omega-3 may prevent and alleviate symptoms of asthma.


Dietary intake of omega-3 may play a role in the prevention and healing process of several types of cancers. A study involving postoperative cancer patients were supplemented with omega-3 and experienced improved liver and pancreas function, which might have contributed to faster recovery of the patients.


People with omega-3 deficiency in the United States as well as other countries may be vulnerable to depression. Since omega-3s have few side effects and are also beneficial to cardiovascular health, women experiencing psychological distress and depressive symptoms commonly observed during menopausal transition should consider taking a supplement containing omega-3 fatty acids. Pregnant women who consumed more fish (omega-3 fatty acids) had fewer depressive symptoms in comparison to pregnant women who consumed less fish.

Rheumatoid Arthritis:

Several studies indicate that omega-3 may reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

Macular Degeneration:

It has been reported that higher dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and fish reduces the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration.

Symptoms and Causes of Deficiency:

Since omega-3 is the precursor for the series 3 prostaglandins, a deficiency of these fatty acids can result in a wide variety of problems related to organ, endocrine, and immune function. Deficiency is primarily due to a lack of dietary intake and the fact that omega-3 has been almost totally removed from most processed foods.

Dietary Sources:

Flaxseed, chia, rapeseed, soybeans, alfalfa, and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids. Cold water fish and wild game also are sources of omega-3 fatty acids. In most cases, people are not able to consume adequate alpha-linolenic acid from dietary sources, and nutritional supplementation is recommended.
Article courtesy of NHIonDemand.com. Original article and sources found here.

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