Omega-3s are members of a group of fats known as polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs. The characteristic feature of their chemical make-up and what makes them special is that their long chains are joined via double bonds. These bonds allow them greater flexibility and interactivity. At the same time these bonds make them more fragile and prone to damage easily. All PUFAs house a minimum of two double bonds, but the location of the bonds in Omega-3s is exclusive and not found in any of the other fats.
Some Omega-3s are more complex than others. Even though alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the simplest member of this group,our bodies can’t build it from scratch. We must obtain it in our diet or there will be a shortage. The good thing is that the most frequently consumed meat and plant foods house ALA and our bodies have the ability to convert it into the other more complex Omega-3s.Best studied of the other, more complex Omega-3s, include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA contains five double bonds whereas DHA contains six. Latest studies indicate that EPA and DHA offer protection against many chronic diseases which ALA does not provide.
Theoretically people should be able to eat foods containing ALA, such as walnuts, tofu, flaxseeds and spinach and let the body construct the other needed fatty acids. Unfortunately, it is not that simple because the ability of the body to make EPA and DHA is easily compromised. In-order for our bodies to make these fatty acids, it has to have other types of fats available. One such fat is Omega-6, which is significantly more abundant in our foods than Omega-3 fats. According to some estimates it is roughly around 20 times more abundant than Omega-3s in the typical western diet. Sadly, the excessive amount of Omega-6s directly hinders the quantity of ALA that can be converted to EPA and DHA. Additionally, if the body is lacking in any one of the other vital nutrients like vitamins B3, B6, C, or minerals like magnesium and zinc, it will not be able to yield optimal quantities of EPA and DHA even in the presence of sufficient quantities of ALA.Generally the body uses ALA more as a source of energy with minimal conversion to EPA and DHA. So to attain optimal Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, we must consume foods that are high in Omega-3 fats.
What’s so Special about Omega-3s?
Omega-3s constitute a fundamental part of the cell membranes throughout the body. Additionally they influence the role of cell receptors in the membranes. They provide the basis for production of hormones that control blood clotting, inflammation and arterial wall contraction and relaxation. Furthermore, they attach with cell receptors regulating genetic function. Due to this,Omega-3s are strongly linked with ability to avert cardiovascular disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis as well as offer protection against cancer and various other conditions.
Heart disease risk factors receive the greatest benefit of Omega-3 consumption. In 1970s scientists observed that fish consuming communities had low rates of heart disease despite high fat consumption, this was later linked to Omega-3 intake. Studies show that Omega-3s can cut down triglycerides by 15 ¬ 30%, and reduce blood pressure.1Omega-3 is also beneficial in inhibiting plaque build-up which make arteries hard and narrow.2,3
Approximately eight per-cent of the brain content is made up of Omega-3s, and they apply significant anti-aging influence on structure and function of the brain, starting with cognition and memory to inhibition of Alzheimer’s. Omega-3s are linked to increasing the grey matter of the brain, particularly with regions linked to happiness, in addition to boosting intelligence.4,5
Bipolar disorder is another perplexing disease of the modern world. Brain autopsies of people with bipolar disorder revealed deficits of DHA in membranes of brain cells along with higher levels of inflammatory products that would not have been elevated had DHA quantities been normal.6Supplements of Omega-3s can prove to be beneficial in dealing with bipolar disorder.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is portrayed by impulsiveness, hyperactivity and in ability to focus on a single task for any length of time. Studies show that children diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of serum Omega-3s compared to their healthycolleagues. Omega-3 supplements can help by improving lack of attention, restlessness and aggression.7, 8
Metabolic syndrome is a collective name given to number of conditions, key among them being insulin resistance, high blood pressure, obesity, elevated triglycerides and low levels of HDL (good cholesterol). Omega-3s can cut down on insulin resistance, improve a number of risk factors for heart disease, reduce inflammation and generally benefit people with metabolic syndrome.9, 10
4Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Brown SM, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbicgray matter volume in healthy adults. NeurosciLett. 2007 Jun 29;421(3):209-12.
5Chiu CC, Su KP, Cheng TC, et al. The effects of omega-3 fatty acids monotherapy in Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment: a preliminary randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study. ProgNeuropsychopharmacolBiol Psychiatry. 2008 Aug 1;32(6):1538-44.
6McNamara RK, Jandacek R, Rider T, et al. Deficits in docosahexaenoic acid and associated elevations in the metabolism of arachidonic acid and saturated fatty acids in the postmortem orbitofrontal cortex of patients with bipolar disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2008 Sep 30;160(3):285-99.