Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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Many health problems can arise when someone is not getting enough of the right nutrients. We all know that vitamins, minerals and proteins are essential for health. A lot of people don’t realize that eating the right type of fat and enough of it is vital. Fat is essential to our health and healthy brain function. Our brains are mostly made up of fat and water, so it is important to be consuming these good fats daily. Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential nutrients for health and development. The human body does not synthesize these so they must be obtained through supplementation or diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods such as flaxseed oil, salmon and oily fish, chia seeds, dark leafy green vegetables, walnuts, soybeans, scallops, shrimp and tofu.

Omega refers to where the first double bond appears on the fatty acids chain from the carboxyl end. Fatty acids are classified by the number of carbons within a hydrocarbon chain. Short chain fatty acids contain between 3-7 carbon atoms, medium chain fatty acids contain 8-13 carbon atoms and long chain fatty acids contain 14-22 carbon atoms. There are different ways to naming fatty acids, the number of carbon atoms the molecule contains and the location of the first double bond from the carboxylic group of the fatty acid determine it.

The three major Omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Humans are able to convert ALA to EPA and DHA. These are the useful forms for the enzymes to work properly. Recent evidence shows that humans capacity to produce EPA and DHA from ALA is restrained and isn’t likely to supply requirements as EPA and DHA have many roles in the body. These fatty acids form structural components of cell membranes and are concentrated n neuronal membranous phospholipids, including the myelin sheath.

The two most important omega-3’s are EPA (Eicosapentawnoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). Each of these fatty acids have unique benefits in the body and work together. EPA supports the immune system, supports the heart and inflammatory response. DHA supports the central nervous system and supports the brain and eyes. Omega-3 fatty acids help to maintain the production of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone like substances that participate in a wide range of body functions, such as the contraction of smooth muscle, the dilation and contraction of blood vessels, control of blood pressure, modulation of inflammation, the functions of the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract and the production of other hormones. Depending on the type of fatty acids in the diet, certain types of prostaglandins may be produced in large quantities, while others may not be produced at all. This prostaglandin imbalance can lead to disease.

All the cells in our body are surrounded by a cell membrane, which is made up of mainly fatty acids. The cell membrane ensures the right amount of nutrients can enter the cell, and makes sure the waste products are removed from the cell. To ensure the cell membrane works optimally it needs to maintain its fluidity and integrity. If they don’t have enough fluid around the cell they are unable to communicate with other cells. This is one of the reasons why we need to be eating the right fats as cell membranes are made up of fat. It makes sense to be consuming enough Omega-3’s for our body to work optimally.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also used to treat many health problems, these include depression, mood disorders, heart disease, inflammation, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease and other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The recommended daily intake of Omega-3 fatty acids are 500mg of EPA+DHA per day for children. Adults require at least 500mg of EPA+DHA per day. Pregnant women require at least 200 mg of DHA per day and breastfeeding women require 900mg of DHA per day.

Libby Matthews x

Brewer, S. The Essential Guide to Vitamins, Minerals and Herbal Supplements. London: Constable &  Robinson Ltd.

Freeman MP, Davis M, Sinha P, Wisner KL, Hibbeln JR, Gelenberg AJ. Omega-3 fatty acids and supportive psychotherapy for perinatal depression: A randomized placebo-controlled study. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2008;110:142-148.