Until 1929, scientists did not consider fatty acids like omega-3s to be much more than a source of calories.7 In a monumental report, George and Mildred Burr shone the first light on fatty acids as essential nutrients required to maintain health. Almost a century later, hundreds of studies on fatty acids and their role in human health make up a library of knowledge on these essential nutrients.
Fish oil as a source of omega-3 fatty acids is one of the most popular nonvitamin/nonmineral dietary supplements used by both adults and children.17 Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with reducing the risk of coronary heart disease, mental abnormalities, and developmental disorders.8-10
In the human body, the brain and retinas are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), building the phospholipid structures of the cell membrane. Various functions of omega-3s include:
- Signal transduction11,12
- Energy source11,12
- Regulation of cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems9, 12-15
ALA is an essential fatty acid and is the precursor for both EPA and DHA. ALA must be obtained from the diet, as the body cannot make ALA on its own. ALA is associated with neuroprotection, vasodilation of arteries, and neuroplasticity.16 Dietary sources of ALA include fish/seafood and plant oils like flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils.17
EPA is associated with a positive effect on emotional balance.10,18 Just 15 percent of ALA turns into EPA, and even a smaller amount is eventually converted to DHA.17 DHA is the most abundant omega-3 in the brain. It is a major component of the neuronal membrane and plays an important role in normal brain structure.
Both EPA and DHA are precursors for resolvins, molecules named for their role in resolving the inflammatory response.19 Specifically, some studies have shown that supplementation with EPA and DHA is associated with:
- Decreased markers of inflammation8,9
- Reduced risk of new blood vessel formation in the retina20
- Healthy cognitive function in elderly patients21
- Improved vascular preservation
- Reduced risk of heart disease22,23
A balanced dietary intake ratio of omega-6s and omega-3s reduces inflammatory activity and is associated with reduced risk of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and cancer.17 Although there is no clear consensus on the proper ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, it is prudent to ensure that the dietary intake of omega-6 to omega-3 ratio not exceed 4:1. Unfortunately, the intake ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the United States is estimated to be as high as 20:1.24
The National Academy of Medicine established adequate intake (AI) levels for omega-3 fatty acids as follows:
According to 2011–2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, the majority of children and adults in the United States consume recommended amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in the form of ALA, but with low amounts of DHA and EPA. This article contains valuable information on fatty acids and their role in inflammation.
While the average Western diet tends to favor saturated, monounsaturated, and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, a lifestyle change with increased fish and seafood consumption, and supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids when needed can address suboptimal dietary intake of these key fatty acids.25 These lifestyle changes could tip the balance in favor of omega-3s, welcoming in the plethora of health benefits that accompany these fatty acids.