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What are omega 3 fatty acids?

If you are reading this article, you are likely interested in omega 3 fatty acids. But, maybe you’re not even sure what omega 3 fatty acids are. Although this substance gets mentioned a lot on the new and in your Facebook feed, often people do not explain the nitty-gritty. That’s what this article aims to do. So, let’s get started.

Omega 3 fatty acids are dietary fat. Dietary fats are the fats you consume through what you eat. There are actually three important types of fatty acids: Omega 3, Omega 6, and Omega 9. All three are important for the healthy functioning of your body. But, they are each completely separate and have different jobs and effects.

Omega 3 fatty acids are extremely important for us to ingest because they are polyunsaturated, which means our bodies cannot make them. You can only keep Omega 3 fatty acids in your body by ingesting them. In fact, they are so important that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all adults each at least two portions of an oily fish—which are full of Omega 3s—per week.

Omega 3 fatty acids get their name from their chemical structure. We don’t want to get too chemistry class on you, so let’s suffice it to say that Omega 3s have three extra double bonds of carbon at the end of their molecular chain. Feel free to visit this site for more information about the chemistry behind Omega 3s.

Different types of Omega 3 fatty acids.

There are actually a lot of different types of Omega 3 fatty acids. They are differentiated by their chemical shape and size. However, there are three specific Omega 3s that are the most common. Below we describe each in detail.


ALA (alpha-linolenic acid): Alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, is an Omega 3 that has 18-carbons. ALA is used for energy by your body. It can also be converted into the other two Omega 3s on this list, but the process is not the most efficient. ALA can be found in flaxseed, soybean, canola, and other plant oils.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid):
Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, has twenty-two carbons. It is essential for brain functioning and development. DHA is one of the Omega 3s present in fish and fish and krill oils.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid):
Finally, eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, is a twenty-carbon Omega 3. It produces eicosanoids in order to reduce inflammation and depression. EPA is also found in fish and fish and krill oils.  

Omega 3 Fatty Acids Facts  

Now that you have a basic idea of what Omega 3 fatty acids are, let’s get into more specifics. Below we’ve answered some of the most common questions people have about Omega 3s.

How does Omega 3s work and what do they do in the body?

Most importantly, to make an informed decision about how to ensure you get enough Omega 3 fatty acids, you need to know how they work and what they do in your body. We’ve mentioned that Omega 3s are essential for health and that they have a unique chemical structure.

When you ingest any dietary fat, it gets broken down into monoglycerides and free fatty acids by your intestine. These substances then circulate throughout your body performing their unique functions.

All Omega 3s play a huge role in the structures of cell membranes. But, as you can probably tell from the quick overview of the three most common Omega 3s above, each type of Omega 3 performs a slightly different job. Yet, all Omega 3s are essential to keep the balance of the body’s cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems, as well as providing energy.


What are the benefits of Omega 3s?

Having the correct amount of Omega 3s in your system provides a number of health benefits. Not only do these important substances improve your cell membranes, but they also have been proven to

  • Reduce depression symptoms and other mental health issues.
  • Help with weight management.
  • Keep inflammation down through the body.
  • Improve brain development in infants.
  • Prevent dementia and asthma.
  • Increase bone density.

Omega 3 Heart Health

The most important benefit of Omega 3s, especially EPA and DHA, is an increase in heart health. These Omega 3 fatty acids have been should to reduce the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. These risk factors include high blood pressure and cholesterol. Plus, your risk for heart failure has been shown to be lowered overall when you regularly consume Omega 3 fatty acids.

Are Fish Oil Supplements Good for the Heart?

Yellow Oil Capsule Fish Oil Glass Capsule

Omega 3s and heart health have been studied since the 1970s. Early studies found a strong correlation between the consumption of Omega 3s and lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and a lowered risk for heart failure. However, more recent studies and meta-analyses have failed to produce the same results.

This discrepancy, of course, does not mean that Omega 3s are not helpful for increasing heart health. Researchers posit that an increase in Omega 3 intake by the general population because of the increase in visibility following the studies in the 1970s and 1980s has caused a threshold effect. Essentially, this means that after a certain point extra omega 3s in your body may not cause any kind of positive effect. Still, you really don’t want to be deficient in Omega 3s if you want your heart to be healthy.

Does Omega 3 unclog arteries?

There is some evidence to suggest that Omega 3s in the form of fish oil may help unclog arteries. A study by researchers from the University of Southampton found that patients taking fish oil supplementation had less inflammation at the sites of plaque in the arteries. A decrease in inflammation means less risk of plaque rupture and formation, which is positive for heart health.

The study mentioned above did not examine the effects of Omega 3s from diet only on the removal of plaque in a person’s arteries. This study solely focused on the use of fish oil supplementation. We will discuss supplementing with Omega 3s in more depth below.

Also, more studies are needed to completely confirm the efficiency of Omega 3s in the reduction of artery clogs. But, if this is shown to be a treatment for clogged arteries, then Omega 3s can be used as a way to prevent strokes. Both thrombus and atherosclerosis are strokes caused by artery issues. Therefore, Omega 3s should be viewed as an essential component of any heart-healthy diet.

What happens if you are deficient in Omega 3?

With all of the great benefits you can get from Omega 3 fatty acids, it is clear that you do not want to be deficient in these substances. Your chance for weight control, a healthy heart, and inflammation reduction do not go completely away. However, they are much harder with the correct amounts of Omega 3s in your body.

Deficiency in Omega 3s can also cause scaly skin and dermatitis. Plus, you may have impaired visual, neural, and immune functions. Yet, the level of deficiency you need to have to receive those impairments is not yet known.


Which foods are high in Omega 3?

The first step towards increasing Omega 3s in your body is to eat more foods that are high in fatty acids. Although the following list is not comprehensive, it will give you a good place to start.


Fish

For DHA and EPA Omega 3s, you have to eat fatty fish. The following types of fish are high in Omega 3s.

  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Seabass
  • Oysters
  • Sardines
  • Shrimp
  • Trout

Non-fish sources

Not everyone likes or can eat a variety of fish. That is where these non-fish sources of Omega 3s come in. And, certain types of Omega 3s, like ALA, can only be found in the seeds and nuts describe below.

  • Seaweed and algae
  • Seeds (chia, hemp, flax)
  • Walnuts
  • Beans (edamame, soybean, and kidney beans)

Medical prescriptions of Omega 3s.

Sometimes doctors will prescribe higher doses of Omega 3s in order to treat certain medical conditions. Below we’ve listed some of the most common prescription Omega 3s you will find on the market.

What are Omega 3 ethyl esters and is it found in any food?

Many Omega 3 prescription use ethyl esters to provide a more concentrated dose of the fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA. There are a couple of different types of substances that can be distilled from Omega 3 fatty acids. The most common of these are triglycerides and ethyl esters.

Neither triglycerides nor ethyl esters are found in food or nature. They come from the Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA in particular) that you receive through foods. However, both triglycerides and ethyl esters are processed and purified in a lab, which increases the concentration of DHA and EPA in them.

Most of the studies that examine whether Omega 3 supplements work use ethyl esters. These substances may be absorbed by the body slightly slower than triglycerides. But, slower absorption could have a number of advantages and help keep Omega 3 levels stable in your body.


What is Vascepa (icosapent ethyl)?

Icosapent ethyl is another type of Omega 3 fatty acid that is most commonly found in fish oil. In its medicinal form, Vascepa, it is used to lower triglycerides in the blood. If you have elevated triglyceride levels in your blood, your doctor may prescribe Vascepa in addition to lifestyle changes like exercising, lowering weight, and stopping smoking.

If you are interested in the Omega 3 fatty acid, icosapent ethyl, discuss the option of using Vascepa with your doctor.

P-OM3 study

For the efficiency of medicinal Omega 3 supplementation, no study is more important than the P-OM3 study. This trial examined the use of Omega 3 supplements for paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. It found that there was no difference in reducing the paroxysmal atrial fibrillation between Omega 3 and the placebo.

The researchers made the P-OM3 study prospective, randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled. The 663 participants were either assigned P-OM3 or a placebo. After the three-year study concluded no link between supplemented Omega 3s and reduced symptoms were found.

The P-OM3 trial does not mean that Omega 3s aren’t good for treating a variety of conditions. However, it is one of the more recent studies that has thrown a wrench in the narrative claiming Omega 3s are a cure-all.

What about supplementing Omega 3?

You have to get a prescription from your doctor to supplement Omega 3s. In fact, many types of pills and oils are available for over-the-counter purchase. The most common supplements are either fish oil or krill. Below we’ll discuss each type of over-the-counter Omega 3 supplement in more detail.

Benefits of supplementing

But first, let’s discuss the potential benefits you receive from supplementing your Omega 3 intake. Omega 3 supplements raise the amount of Omega 3s in your body. As we discussed above, the correct amounts of Omega 3s cause a number of health benefits. These include heart health, lower inflammation, brain health and development, and weight control. When you supplement with Omega 3s, you are ensuring that you have the proper amounts to receive all of these great benefits.    


Are the benefits proven from fish oil pills?

As mentioned above, there are a lot of studies about the efficiency of Omega 3s and their health benefits. A large number of studies also look at whether the benefits of fish oil or krill oil pills actually provide the benefits they claim to.

As you may expect, the answer to whether the benefits provided by fish and krill oil pill is complicated. There are been such a large number of studies on fish oil supplements that it would take too long to go into each one individually. If you want a breakdown of the most important studies, we recommend this page.

In general, most studies have found that whether or not Omega 3s worked depends on the condition they are being used to treat. And, even then the results may be mixed. Your best bet is to discuss fish oil supplements with your doctor before beginning to use them.           

Krill oil vs fish oil

The two most common types of Omega 3 supplements are fish oil and krill oil. These supplements have some similarities and differences. Most importantly, both fish and krill oil contain DHA and EPA. We will go into depth about both fish and krill oil in upcoming articles. However, here is a quick rundown of these two sources for Omega 3 supplements.

Krill on finger

            Krill oil

  • Krill oil comes from krill—yes, the krill that whales eat.
  • You may need to take more krill oil to have the same effect as fish oil.
  • Krill oil’s fatty acids are stored as phospholipids, which may be easier for your body.

            Fish oil

  • Fish oil comes from oily fish like tuna, herring, and sardines.
  • You likely will not need to take as much fish oil supplementation to receive the effects.
  • Fish oil is mostly stored as triglycerides, which may be harder on the body.


How much omega 3 should I take?

It is better to attempt to fulfill your Omega 3 needs through your diet. This means eating at least two servings of a fatty fish per week and incorporating seeds, nuts, and oils into your diet. However, this may not be feasible for some people.

There is not a unified guideline for how much Omega 3 fatty acids a person should have in their blood. Most health organizations recommend at least 250-500 mg per day of EPA and DHA for adults. But, depending on your existing medical condition, you may need more or less.

If you are new to fish and krill oil supplements, make sure to discuss the correct dosage for your body with your doctor.


Who should not use Omega 3 supplements and warnings?

Another reason to discuss Omega 3 supplements with your doctor before you try them is that it is possible to consume too many. Omega 3s can cause blood thinning and excessive bleeding. So, if you are preparing for surgery, you should not take Omega 3 supplements for a week or two beforehand.

Additionally, some fish oil supplements have high levels of Vitamin A in addition to the Omega 3s. This is a problem because Vitamin A is toxic if you take too much of it. Therefore, more is not always better when it comes to Omega 3s. Try to not exceed 3,000-5,000 mg per day to ensure that you stay safe.

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, know that Omega 3s are vital to the health and development of your baby. But, you should be especially careful to use the proper dose as recommended by your doctor.


Are there any Medicinal interactions with fish oil?

Fish and krill oil can interact with medicines. Because Omega 3 supplements can thin the blood and slow clotting in some people, they occasionally interact negatively with anticoagulants like Warfarin. Yet, the authors of a 2014 study found that Omega 3 supplements are not as potent as aspirin in this regard and can still be used safely with anticoagulants.

On FDA-approved packaging for anticoagulants like Warfarin, multiple studies are cited that indicate no “clinically significant bleeding episodes” appear when using fish oil supplements. Yet, they do warn that if you use anticoagulants, you should be monitored by your doctor.

Author: David G

David G shares his passion, thoughts and knowledge in the world of herbs and natural remedies. His blog is dedicated to discover nature's wonders in the field of botanical therapy.

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