Omega-3 fatty acids (also known as n-3 fatty acids) are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) commonly found in cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, herring and mackerel. These fatty acids are termed “essential” because we need omega-3 fatty acids for numerous normal body functions, such as controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain, but the body cannot synthesize them in adequate quantities; we must obtain them from food sources or from supplements.
There are three essential fatty acids (EFAs) that compose the omega-3 family: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in plant sources such as some types of beans, and in canola, soybean, flaxseed/linseed, and olive oils, however ALA is useless to the human body. It must first convert ALA into DHA and EPA, the only forms of opmega-3 the body can utilize. The conversion process is very inefficient and yields little omega-3 the body can use. The body must obtain its DHA and EPA either from fish or “fish oil” supplements.
Other than the normal body functions that require Omega-3s, they can also:
- Reduce inflammation throughout your body
- Maintain the fluidity of your cell membranes
- lower the amount of lipids (fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides) circulating in the bloodstream
- decrease platelet aggregation, preventing excessive blood clotting
- inhibit thickening of the arteries by decreasing endothelial cells’ production of a platelet-derived growth factor (the lining of the arteries is composed of endothelial cells)
- increase the activity of another chemical derived from endothelial cells (endothelium-derived nitric oxide), which causes arteries to relax and dilate
- reduce the production of messenger chemicals called cytokines, which are involved in the inflammatory response associated with atherosclerosis
- reduce the risk of becoming obese and improve the body’s ability to respond to insulin by stimulating the secretion of leptin, a hormone that helps regulate food intake, body weight and metabolism, and is expressed primarily by adipocytes (fat cells)