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What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Last updated Nov. 19, 2016

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Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids with a double bond near the end of the acid. Some studies show that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may be of benefit, improving appetite, weight, and quality of life.


Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids with a double bond near the end of the acid. Since our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids on our own, we must get them from the foods that we consume such as through fish oil. Many will be tempted to reap the benefits of fish oil through fish oil pills and supplements available on the market. Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for many normal body functions such as controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain.

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids that are involved in human physiology. These include ALA (found in plant oils), EPA, and DHA (both commonly found in marine oils). The most important of the three, DHA, can be made from the shorter types ALA and EPA, but at reduced effectiveness, particularly depending on the age of the individual. 

The debate still continues on whether omega-3 fatty acids are indeed associated with the reduction of cancer and heart disease. So far, the evidence linking the consumption of fish to the risk of cancer is poor. Some studies show that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may be of benefit, improving appetite, weight, and quality of life. Other studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids could reduce the risk of breast cancer, but the results remain inconclusive. In prostate cancer, there is a decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, but an increased risk of a more hostile prostate cancer observed with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA.

A diet high in fish that contains the long chain omega-3 fatty acids do not seem to reduce the risk of stroke. In fact, large amounts may even increase the low-density proteins (“bad” cholesterol).

Omega-3 fatty acids, balanced with omega-6 fatty acids, do have certain health benefits. Omega-6 fatty acids are known as a pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 fatty acids are known as being anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is essential for survival because it is the body’s first attempt at protecting and healing itself. However, too much inflammation is a bad thing and can cause severe damage to the body, contributing to the development of diseases when the inflammatory response is excessive.

Too much inflammation can lead to serious illnesses and disorders like heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and many types of cancer. Typical Western diets are too high in omega-6 fatty acids; a better omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is required and essential. Foods like butter, coconut oil, lard, palm oil and olive oil are all relatively small in omega-6 fatty acid content. They are much better than sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils.

It appears that the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio is essential to mental health. Individuals who consumed high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids have been associated with more violence and depression. Individuals who consumed omega-3 fatty acids showed much improvement in mental disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. This means that foods with low omega-6 fatty acid levels are more prone to be an anti-inflammatory in nature, and hence beneficial to the body.

Additional Resources:

Covington, M. B. (2004). Omega-3 fatty acids. Atlantic, 1, 2-0.

Simopoulos, A. P. (2007). Omega-3 fatty acids and athletics. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 6(4), 230-236.

Cole, G. M., Ma, Q. L., & Frautschy, S. A. (2009). Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 81(2), 213-221.

Freeman, M. P., Hibbeln, J. R., Wisner, K. L., Davis, J. M., Mischoulon, D., Peet, M., ... & Stoll, A. L. (2006). Omega-3 fatty acids: evidence basis for treatment and future research in psychiatry. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(12), 1954-1967.

Hu, F. B., Bronner, L., Willett, W. C., Stampfer, M. J., Rexrode, K. M., Albert, C. M., ... & Manson, J. E. (2002). Fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake and risk of coronary heart disease in women. Jama, 287(14), 1815-1821.

MacLean, C. H., Newberry, S. J., Mojica, W. A., Khanna, P., Issa, A. M., Suttorp, M. J., ... & Morton, S. C. (2006). Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cancer risk: a systematic review. Jama, 295(4), 403-415.

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Kris-Etherton, P. M., Harris, W. S., Appel, L. J., & Nutrition Committee. (2002). Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. circulation, 106(21), 2747-2757.

Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 21(6), 495-505.

Kris-Etherton, P. M., Harris, W. S., Appel, L. J., & AHA Nutrition Committee. (2003). Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease new recommendations from the American Heart Association. Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology, 23(2), 151-152.

Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy, 56(8), 365-379.

Su, K. P., Huang, S. Y., Chiu, C. C., & Shen, W. W. (2003). Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 13(4), 267-271.

Nemets, B., Stahl, Z., & Belmaker, R. H. (2002). Addition of omega-3 fatty acid to maintenance medication treatment for recurrent unipolar depressive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(3), 477-479.

Iso, H., Rexrode, K. M., Stampfer, M. J., Manson, J. E., Colditz, G. A., Speizer, F. E., ... & Willett, W. C. (2001). Intake of fish and omega-3 fatty acids and risk of stroke in women. Jama, 285(3), 304-312.

Davidson, M. H., Stein, E. A., Bays, H. E., Maki, K. C., Doyle, R. T., Shalwitz, R. A., ... & COMBination of prescription Omega-3 with Simvastatin (COMBOS) Investigators. (2007). Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clinical therapeutics, 29(7), 1354-1367.

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Nov. 19, 2016
Last updated: Nov. 19, 2016