You have probably heard of Omega 3 and read about it in various adverts and health articles. These usually mention the fact that Omega 3 refers to certain fatty acids that are essential for our wellbeing but something our body can’t make. Most people are today also aware that good levels of Omega 3 can be found in a variety of oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and tuna - sales of fish oils have soared in recent times as people learn more about Omega 3 and the possible benefits.
But what exactly is Omega 3?
Omega 3 refers to a specific group of polyunsaturated fatty acids sometimes known as PUFAs or n-3 fatty acids, and this is where it becomes interesting. It is all about bonds, not the financial type, but connections. An unsaturated fat means it has at least one “double bond” or more within the fatty acid chain. A monounsaturated fat contains just one double bond.
A saturated fat, by the way, has no double bonds at all, which means it has the highest number of hydrogens bonded to its carbons, hence the term “saturated” ; it is saturated with hydrogen atoms.
Omega 3 are polyunsaturated fats and therefore contain more than one double bond.
Omega-3 or n-3 classed fatty acids are made up from a number of different acids; the ones that are most important to us are a-linolenic acid (ALA); eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These three polyunsaturates have either three, five or six double bonds.
We need both the ALA type of fatty acids and also the EPA and DHA types of fatty acid in our diets. ALA comes from certain vegetable oils (soybean, flaxseed and canola, for instance) and walnuts plus in some green vegetables such as spinach and kale. The other EPA and DNA types are found in fatty fish.
We can convert some of the ALA to EPA and DHA fatty acids within our body, but the ideal is to include all types in a normal diet.
Research is ongoing on the various benefits of these individual acids and of course how they interact with each other. There are differences, for instance ALA has been shown to have less cardiovascular benefits than DHA or EPA. High levels of DHA have been shown to have an association with a reduced risk of breast cancer and also offer protection against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. However, high levels of DHA have also been associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in men.
Interesting, many products advertising their Omega-3 benefits only contain certain fatty acids. For instance, flaxseed or linseed and its oil have exceptionally high levels of ALA (around 55%, higher than most fish oils) but very low levels of EPA and DHA. Then there are warnings about the accumulation in the body of heavy metals as a risk from consuming high levels of fish oil supplements.
It really is a very complex area.
Suffice it to say the chemists and scientists have done adequate research now to fully understand much of the activity of double bonds, and there is little doubt that generally Omega 3 fatty acids can offer many health benefits. Interestingly the first benefits were identified during research in Greenland in the 1970s, when it was found that the Inuit peoples, whose diets included high levels of fat from fish, had very little heart disease. The Inuits also showed low levels of problems from blood pressure or atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
If you are already taking Omega-3 supplements, or considering increasing your consumption of Omega-3, it could be a very good idea to talk to your doctor to understand exactly what is involved and what could be best for you. Learning more about the complexities of Omega-3 fatty acids brings home the fact that our bodies are indeed incredibly complex chemical machines and the absolute importance of good diet and balanced nutrition.
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