Omega-3 fatty acids

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The three types of fat that are consumed by us are saturated, monounsaturated (olive oil is the best known) and, even more healthy, is the polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturates, of which sunflower oil, for example, is a good source, is divided into two groups of essential fatty acids (EFAs), omega-3 and omega-6.

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that are considered essential to human health. However, they cannot be manufactured by the body. They have to be obtained from the food we eat.

Fats like coconut oil, cocoa butter, lard and butter are saturated fats. In simple terms, this means that polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and remain liquid even when frozen. Omega-3 fatty acids are very beneficial to overall good health. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are one of the main factors responsible for raising blood cholesterol.

The most important omega-3 fatty acids from the nutritional point of view are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).


Where are these commonly found

The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flax seeds, walnuts and salmon. Omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in other fish such as tuna and halibut. Other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include hemp seeds, soybeans, dark green leafy vegetables, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil.

Health Benefits

  • They play a very important role in brain and nerve function. They are also essential for normal growth and development.
  • They help in the production of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins help regulate blood pressure, prevent excessive blood clotting by decreasing platelet aggregation as well as inhibit the thickening of the arteries. In effect, they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. They also lower the amount of lipids in the bloodstream.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids stimulate the secretion of leptin. Leptin is a hormone that regulates food intake, body weight and metabolism, thereby reducing the risk of obesity.
  • They also help prevent the growth of cancer, notably breast cancer.
  • It is said that omega-3 fatty acids play a role in the prevention and treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, eczema, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, though there is no conclusive proof.

Symptoms Of Deficiency

Recent research shows that most people do not consume enough omega-3 fatty acids. However, the symptoms for gauging whether one is suffering from a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids are vague. Some of them include fatigue, dry and itchy skin, brittle hair and nails, frequent colds, depression, poor concentration, lack of physical endurance, and joint pains.

Use Of Supplements

Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are probably better absorbed from food than supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acids supplements are available as soft gels or liquids. The most popular supplements found in these forms are flaxseed oil and cod liver oil.

It is important to bear in mind that omega-3 fatty acid supplements in the form of oils are highly susceptible to damage from heat and light and even oxygen. Always buy supplements made by established companies. Also check to see that they are packed in dark colored glass bottles. Store the product in your refrigerator.

It is a good idea to ensure that the supplement contains vitamin E as vitamin E prevents the fatty acids from becoming rancid due to oxidation.

The product should also certify that it is free of mercury, lead, and cadmium.

Effects Of Cooking, Storing and Processing

Omega-3 fats are very sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen. Exposure to these elements for a prolonged period of time causes them to turn rancid. Rancidity diminishes their nutritional value and produces free radicals which are believed to be a major factor in the development of cancer.

Oils that are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids should be stored in dark glass containers which should be tightly closed and placed in the refrigerator. Oils containing omega- 3 fatty acids should never be heated which means that instead of using them for cooking, use them in salad dressings.

Effects Of Medication

People who are under medication for high blood pressure need to exercise caution in the amount of omega-3 fats (especially from fish) that they are taking in their diet as this may decrease blood pressure. It would be advisable to consult a doctor before taking any fish oil supplements.


Despite the health benefits that consuming omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils provides, people are reducing the fish in their diets due to the high levels of mercury found in fish. Mercury is found in all fish but more so in the large predators such as the shark and the swordfish.

Many people prefer to use flax oil rather than fish oil. However, the high concentration of ALA that is present in flax oil pills has been linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer.

It is also advisable for pregnant and nursing women and children to avoid eating fish such as mackerel, shark and swordfish as these have higher concentrations of mercury. Instead they should eat the low mercury species such as salmon and shrimp. Mercury is a toxin that affects cognitive development in unborn children.

What's New on Omega-3 fatty acids

Markets: Who is buying omega-3 - and in what form

NutraIngredients examines the omega-3 marketplace in the final instalment of a series that has scanned the scientific, regulatory and supply issues surrounding an ingredient that would appear to have everything.

Estimations vary as widely as the analysis, depending on which researcher or pundit you speak to, but omega-3 is unlikely to fade far from the public or business imagination because it has a sound grounding that is not possessed by all functional offerings. Read more


  • WhFoods
  • American Heart Association
  • Health Castle
  • Natural News
  • Environmental Chemistry

See Also