What are they?

Omega-3 fatty acids are in the category of “essential fatty acids” (EFAs), along with omega-6 fatty acids. EFAs are termed as such because they cannot be synthesized by the human body and thus must be derived from exogenous sources, namely, food. The nomenclature refers to the location of the double bond within the carbon backbone of the molecule. They are also characterized as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), which refers to the presence of two or more double bonds in their molecular structure.1 Linoleic acid (LA) and a-linolenic acid (ALA) are essential PUFA of the omega-6 and omega-3 families, respectively. LA must first be converted to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and then to arachidonic acid (AA), the biologically active compound. The downstream products of ALA are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two long-chain omega-3 PUFAs.2

Where are they found? Omega-3 fatty acids are composed of EPA and DHA. Because humans cannot make these, we must get them from our food. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in cold-water oily fish, such as salmon, black cod, herring, mackerel, tuna and halibut, other marine life such as algae and krill, certain plants (purslane), and nuts/seeds (walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds).2,3,4

What do they do? Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function as well as normal brain growth and development in utero and in childhood. In addition to this well-known role, there are numerous conditions that benefit from omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. It is clearly established that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation prevents heart disease, coronary artery restenosis after angioplasty, and in particular, sudden cardiac death. Omega-3 fatty acids also lower triglyceride levels, increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and decrease vascular inflammation and blood clotting.5 Rheumatoid arthritis is another condition that benefits from supplementation, with improvement in symptoms and diminished use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Psychiatric disorders, particularly schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder have shown positive results when supplementation has been used as an adjunct to standard pharmacotherapy.

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