What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

A discussion of omega-3 fatty acids as a vital nutritional supplement, including their chemical structure, health benefits, and food sources.

As dietary science progresses into the twenty-first century, scientists are learning more intricate details about nutritional requirements. Many nutrients, even in miniscule quantities, are vital for a long, healthy life. One group of nutrients that has undergone intense scrutiny in recent years is the omega-3 fatty acid series.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Chemical Composition

Fats are chemicals made up of long chains of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms. When a carbon chain is attached to the maximum number of hydrogen molecules that it can hold, it is called a saturated fat. When one or more carbon atoms are joined by double bonds, the fat is unsaturated. These double bonds allow the molecules to be easily broken down and used for a variety of essential body functions.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats that have three double bonds between different carbon atoms, and that bond is represented by the Greek letter omega. Animals, including humans, do not have the enzyme necessary to create double bonds naturally and must acquire the molecules from food. Linolenic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid are two members of the omega-3 fatty acid series.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Nutritional Benefits

Omega-3 fatty acids have many different uses in the body. They are essential for the production of new cells and give flexibility to cell membranes, allowing for better absorption of minerals and nutrients. They also protect the cell membranes and inhibit the development of cancerous growths, reducing the risks of colon, breast, and other types of cancer. Nearly one-third of cancers are directly related to diet, and including omega-3 fatty acids in a balanced diet is a wise precaution.

Omega-3 fatty acids help regulate hormone levels. Balancing hormones can alleviate menstrual cramps, and during menopause these nutrients help keep hair, skin, and vaginal tissues healthy. They even serve as a natural anti-depressant by increasing the brain's responsiveness to serotonin, a natural endorphin, or mood-enhancing chemical.



Cardiovascular health depends on adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids to keep the smooth muscle of blood vessels healthy and flexible by reducing fat and plaque buildup in arteries. Such buildup can lead to atherosclerosis, a serious condition that restricts blood flow and can cause heart attacks or strokes. Omega-3 fatty acids also regulate fibrinogen, a blood protein that makes platelets sticky and can cause dangerous clots. They are instrumental in reducing blood pressure by regulating prostaglandin, a hormone which helps the kidneys function more effectively. When the kidneys filter out more sodium and water from the blood, the blood volume decreases, lowering blood pressure.

Proper amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are especially important during pregnancy and early childhood development. Deficiencies have been linked to autism and attention deficit disorder, and may even impair intelligence. High amounts of these oils have been found in eye tissue, indicating that omega-3 fatty acids are vital for healthy eyesight, especially for infants.

As with most nutrients, however, too high a dosage could be detrimental. Because omega-3 fatty acids affect the stickiness of blood platelets, consuming too many of these fats may mean that platelets are not sticky enough and cannot properly bond to create clots when necessary. Even small cuts and scrapes may not clot quickly if too many omega-3 fatty acids are present.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Sources

Modern diets rarely have too many omega-3 fatty acids. Another fatty acid group, the omega-6 series, acts to cancel out omega-3 fatty acids, and is far more readily available in the average diet through red meats and saturated fats such as butter and margarine. This restricts the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids, and though both types of fatty acids are essential for a healthy body, most people receive far too many omega-6 fatty acids and not nearly enough of the omega-3 series.

The most common source of omega-3 fatty acids is coldwater fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, herring, and albacore tuna. While fish lack the same enzyme that humans do and cannot manufacture omega-3 fatty acids, they can store it in their fat. Algae is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, and a primary ingredient in the diet of wild fish, making fresh fish an excelled source of these nutrients. Farm fish, which are raised in crowded tanks and often fed synthetic food, have a lower concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, though some aquaculture farms feed fortified meal to the fish to increase their nutritional benefits.

Chicken farmers are using similar fortified feed to enhance chicken eggs. Chickens that are fed meal containing algae produce eggs that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than standard eggs. These fortified eggs are another rich source of the nutrients, though they are not widely available.

Other natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids include canola oil, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and dark, leafy greens. Liquid sources, such as canola, walnut, and flaxseed oils, deteriorate rapidly, so these foods should be stored in dark, cool places, preferably in the refrigerator. Fish oil capsules are also available as a nutritional supplement if other food sources are not adequate. While individual requirements vary, dietitians recommend eating three weekly servings of fish, or a daily handful of walnuts to obtain proper amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Other sources can be incorporated into a healthy diet accordingly.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential oils that perform a number of vital functions in our bodies. Unfortunately, humans cannot manufacture these nutrients, and it is imperative that a daily diet includes adequate sources of them. Certain fish, nuts, and seeds are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and by incorporating a variety of these foods into daily meals, we can move one step closer to long, healthy lives.

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