Omega-3 fatty acids refers to a group of three fats called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid ) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These fats are considered "essential" fatty acids (EFA's) as they are necessary for good health. They are not produced by the body so we need to get them from dietary sources or supplementation.
After many years of "fat-free" diet crazes, which incidentally did nothing for weight loss, much research has been conducted into the role of fats in the diet. This research has conclusively found that certain fats must be included in the diet for many organ, hormonal and bodily functions and overall good health. Omega-3 (and omega-6) fatty acids are part of the polyunsaturated group of fats. These are the good fats! Humans need both of these groups of fatty acids and current research shows an optimal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is around 2:1 - 5:1. Most Western diets are heavily omega-6 weighted and deficient in omega-3 at about 16:1. A high omega-6:3 ratio may contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune and other inflammatory diseases. The reason there is so much information and research into omega-3's is their numerous health benefits and the fact that most people need to increase their omega-3 consumption.
The health benefits of omega-3 EFA's are numerous and varied. One of their main benefits on the body is on heart health and reducing the chance of developing heart disease. Omega-3's reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation can damage the wall of blood vessels and lead to heart disease. Omega-3 fats can decrease plaque build up on blood vessel walls, improve cholesterol levels by lowering triglycerides and increasing HDL (good cholesterol), lower blood pressure, and reduce the chances of blood clotting and stroke. It is also often recommended that people with type II diabetes mellitus increase omega-3 consumption in order to reduce their risk of heart disease.
The inflammation reducing properties will also help prevent or improve arthritis, including rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the joints. Some studies have shown that people with RA have been able to lower their dose of anti-inflammatory drugs by taking fish oil omega-3's. Supplementing with omega-3 can also reduce the join pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health. Fats make up a large portion of the brain and many studies have been conducted into the benefits of increasing omega-3 intake and brain function, mood, attention and mental health disorders. Association has been shown between a decrease in omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive decline. This can affect memory and learning in both adults and children. Omega-3 fatty acids are believe to be protective against Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Some studies have also shown that people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mood disorders may be deficient in omega-3's and could benefit from supplementation. More research is required into the role of omega-3 and attention disorders such as ADHD, but there have been studies that have shown that lower omega-3 levels are associated with learning and behavioural issues and that increasing dietary omega-3 intake is warranted.
A diet high in omega-3 may help reduce the inflammation and alleviate the symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. It may also reduce the symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE), asthma, menstrual pain, and skin disorders such as psoriasis and acne, and even just skin dryness. The risk of developing macular degeneration (a degenerative eye condition that leads to blindness) appears to be reduced in those with a healthy omega-3 to omega-6 balance also.
There have also been many studies conducted into the relationship between omega-3's and various forms of cancer, in particular breast, colon, prostate and skin. Although findings vary, it appears that further research is warranted as there appears to be links between a lowered risk of these cancers with an increase in omega-3 fatty acid consumption.
Food sources of omega-3 EFA's are primarily fish, plant and nut oils. Cold water fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, sardines, and halibut contain EPA and DHA. ALA is found in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil, hempseed, linseeds, walnuts and walnut oil, purslane, soybeans and soybean oil, canola oil. Other sources of omega-3's are krill and algae.
Dietary supplementation can be made by taking fish oil liquids or capsules and adding plant seed oils. These all require proper refrigerated storage. It important to buy good quality supplements and in particular only fish oils that have been tested and filtered for heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead. Speak to a naturopath at a health food store for more information.