ErnährungNutrition

All about Omega-3 fatty acids

Written by

Anna Roell
3 August, 2023

Medically checked article All HOMED-IQ content is reviewed by medical specialists

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of healthy dietary fat that play a key role in our health. From supporting brain and heart health to reducing inflammation, our bodies need regular intake of omega-3 fatty acids from our diets. Want to learn more about what exactly omega-3 fatty acids are, why they’re so important, and how to make sure you’re getting enough? Read on and find the answers to your questions in this article.


Table of contents


What are fatty acids?

Fatty acids are essential components of the fats in our food and in our bodies. They are made up of long chains of carbon atoms and play a crucial role in many processes in the body. Fatty acids are classified as saturated or unsaturated, depending on their structure.

  • Saturated fats: These fats can cause cholesterol to build up in arteries and veins, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Because of this, they are also referred to as “unhealthy” fats.
  • Unsaturated fats: Thse fats are further divided into polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fats are considered “good” or “healthy” fats because they have health-promoting and preventive properties. Polyunsaturated fatty acids include the omega fatty acids, which are particularly important for our health. Some fatty acids can be produced by the body itself – these are called non-essential fatty acids. However, there are also fatty acids that our bodies cannot produce themselves, known as essential fatty acids. These essential fatty acids include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which we must obtain from our diet.

Source: Cleveland Clinic, 2022

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a variety of bodily functions, including providing the body with energy, providing structure to cell membranes, and supporting heart health. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found primarily in animal products such as fatty fish, seafood, but also in algae and algae oil.

While your body can synthesize EPA and DHA from ALA to a limited extent, only a limited amount can be produced using this method. As such, it is recommended to consume a combination of foods high in ALA, EPA, and DHA.

Source: NIH, 2022

What are the functions of omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in several body functions and contribute to our overall health and well-being. Some of their most important functions include:

  • Energy production: when these fatty acids are metabolized, they produce a large amount of energy that is used for many bodily functions. They are especially important when the body’s primary energy sources, such as glucose, are depleted.
  • Immune System: Omega-3 fatty acids also play an essential role in the function of our immune system by contributing to the production of immune cells and helping to regulate inflammation.
  • Blood clotting and blood pressure regulation: Omega-3 fatty acids counteract the formation of blood clots and play a role in the regulation of blood pressure.
  • Cell membrane structure: omega-3 fatty acids are an important component of the membranes of all body cells and effect many aspects of cell function, including cell growth and cell death.

Sources: Cleveland Clinic, 2022; Harvard Health, 2023

What are the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?

Because of their many valuable properties, omega-3 fatty acids also play an important role in disease prevention. Omega-3 fatty acids appear to have a positive impact in the following areas:

  • Heart health: Elevated triglyceride levels in the blood are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart disease, and strokes. Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower blood pressure and reduce blood triglycerides, leading to better cardiovascular health and preventing the risk of cardiovascular disease in women and men (Cleveland Clinic, 2022).
  • Brain function: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential components of cell membranes and play a key role in maintaining brain structure and function. Preliminary studies suggest that people who consume more omega-3 fatty acids from foods may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other cognitive disorders (NIH, 2022).
  • Reduction of inflammation: Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in controlling inflammatory processes in the body and have beneficial effects on a variety of inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies (Miyata & Arita, 2015; Calder, 2017).
  • Mood regulation: Initial studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may help alleviate symptoms of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety in some individuals. Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to play a role in serotonin and dopamine production, two neurotransmitters that influence mood (Grosso et al., 2014).

Which foods contain omega-3 fatty acids?

As our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, they must be obtained through our diets. ALA is found in plant food sources, while EPA and DHA are mainly found in animal sources and algae. Some of the most important sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:

  1. Oily fish: Fish is an excellent source of EPA and DHA. Mackerel, wild salmon and sardines are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  2. Nuts and seeds: Chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts are rich in ALA, making them great plant-based sources of omega-3s.
  3. Vegetable oils: Vegetable oils such as soybean oil, canola oil, and especially flaxseed oil are valuable sources of ALA.
  4. Algae and seaweed oil: These non-animal sources of omega-3s are rich in DHA and are a good option for people who do not eat fish.
  5. Fortified foods: some foods, such as certain eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, and soy drinks, are fortified with DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids.

Source: NIH, 2023

How much omega-3 do I need per day?

The amount of omega-3 fatty acids you need depends on factors including your age and sex assigned at birth, and may vary by the health guidelines of the country you live in. Here are some general guidelines for the recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • For ages 2-19: the average daily ALA intake from foods is 1.32 grams for females and 1.55 grams for males. For EPA and DHA, the recommendation is 400 milligrams (mg).
  • From age 20: the recommended average daily ALA intake from foods is 1.59 g for females and 2.06 g for males. For EPA and DHA, the recommendation is 900 mg.

Source: NIH, 2023

What happens when there is a deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids?

Ein Mangel an Omega-3-Fettsäuren kann zu einer Vielzahl von Symptomen führen, darunter Müdigkeit, trockene Haut, brüchige Nägel, Stimmungsschwankungen und Probleme mit Konzentration und Gedächtnis . Langfristig kann ein Mangel an Omega-3-Fettsäuren das Risiko für Herzerkrankungen, Arthritis und Depressionen erhöhen (NIH, 2023). 

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Is it possible to consume too much omega-3 fatty acids?

Although omega-3 fatty acids have many health benefits, it is possible to consume too much of them. While this is possible through diet, it most often occurs due to taking too many supplements. Too much omega-3 fatty acid has been linked to indigestion, a fishy taste in the mouth, and in some cases abnormal bleeding. This is due to the ability of omega-3 to decrease blood clotting (Cleveland Clinic, 2022).

What are omega-3 fatty acid supplements?

There are a variety of omega-3 supplements on the market, including fish oil supplements, fish liver oil supplements, krill oil, algae oils, and flaxseed oils (NCCIH, 2018). These supplements usually come in the form of capsules that can be swallowed whole, while others may come in a liquid form.

Are omega-3 supplements beneficial?

The use of omega-3 supplements may be appropriate and useful in certain circumstances, for example if an individual has allergies to certain foods or follows a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, it is always advised to speak to a doctor before starting to take supplements, as there may also be allergies to the substances contained in the supplements. Studies have shown that high doses of omega-3 fatty acids from dietary supplements can lower triglyceride levels and have an alleviating effect on the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (NCCIH, 2018). While supplements are a convenient way to consume omega-3s, their effect on heart health and other chronic diseases is still unclear, and taking large amounts may not have any notable health benefits. Studies have shown that while supplements did not reduce the risk of developing heart disease, regular fish consumption lowered the risk of dying from heart disease (NIH, 2022). Until more evidence supporting the benefits of omega-3 supplements is available, eating a healthy diet that includes foods rich in omega-3s is a good strategy for maintaining your health. (Cleveland Clinic, 2022).

Can they interact with other medicines?

It is important to note that high doses of omega-3 supplements may affect the body’s ability to blood clot and increase the risk of abnormal bleeding when taken in combination with blood thinning medications. If you take other medications, it is advised to speak to your doctor before starting to take omega-3 supplements (NIH, 2022).

References:

Calder, P. C. (2017). Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: from molecules to man. Biochemical Society Transactions, 45(5), 1105-1115. https://portlandpress.com/biochemsoctrans/article-abstract/45/5/1105/66243/Omega-3-fatty-acids-and-inflammatory-processes

Grosso, G., Pajak, A., Marventano, S., & et al. (2014). Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. PLOS ONE, 9(5). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0096905&type=printable

Miyata, J., & Arita, M. (2015). Role of omega-3 fatty acids and their metabolites in asthma and allergic diseases. Allergology international : official journal of the Japanese Society of Allergology, 64(1), 27-34. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25572556/#:~:text=Omega%2D3%20fatty%20acids%2C%20docosahexaenoic,diseases%20including%20asthma%20and%20allergies.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Consumer. (2022, July 18). NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved June 17, 2023, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/#h7

Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Health Professional Fact Sheet. (n.d.). NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved June 17, 2023, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/#h3

Omega-3 Fatty Acids & the Important Role They Play. (2022, November 17). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved June 17, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17290-omega-3-fatty-acids

Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth | NCCIH. (n.d.). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved June 19, 2023, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/omega3-supplements-in-depth

Ricciotti, H., & Hur, H. (2016, September 14). Do fish oil supplements reduce inflammation? Harvard Health. Retrieved June 17, 2023, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/do-fish-oil-supplements-reduce-inflammation

About the author

Anna Roell

Anna is a trained nurse and health economist specializing in epidemiology, combining her medical and scientific interests. Her goal is to improve others' understanding of medical information and to communicate it in an understandable way. Anna is originally from Germany and now lives in Amsterdam. What she appreciates most about Amsterdam is the open-minded, active attitude of the people, the markets, and the beautiful nature in the areas surrounding Amsterdam.