Omega-3 fatty acids play critical roles in human health and may be beneficial in ameliorating symptoms associated with chronic health conditions and in combating aging-related diseases.
In fact, getting enough omega-3s is probably one of the most important – and doable – things you can do for your health. Here’s why:
• Having low omega-3 levels ranks among the top six causes of preventable death – right up there with smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity.
• Having high omega-3 levels may reduce a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease by a whopping 25 percent.
• Taking omega-3s is associated with an additional five years of lifespan, on par with not smoking.
Although omega-3s are perhaps best known for their cardioprotective effects, omega-3s exert many less well-known (and even surprising) effects on the body:
- Maintain muscle mass as we age – ultimately enhancing metabolic function.
- Bolster immune function – reducing the risk for autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases.
- Improve pregnancy outcomes – including reducing the risk of pre-term birth.
- Ameliorate the harmful effects of air pollution exposure – preserving brain volume
- Improve reading, behavior, and executive function in children – underscoring the importance of maternal omega-3 status during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Promote neurogenesis – maintaining the microstructural integrity of the brain in aging.
But one of the most interesting things about omega-3s involves their capacity to resolve inflammation. The body’s inflammatory processes are important for our survival. However, turning off those processes is equally important.
That’s where omega-3s really shine. Unique molecules produced during omega-3 metabolism, called specialized pro-resolving mediators, essentially turn off the inflammatory response at the appropriate time so that it doesn’t continue. Not having high blood concentrations of omega-3s can prolong the inflammatory response – increasing our risk of many diseases.
Supplemental and prescription omega-3s are available as fish oil and algal oil products. Algal sources of EPA and DHA are suitable for people following a vegan (non-gelatin capsules only) or vegetarian diet or for those who do not eat fish. However, these products generally provide lower concentrations of omega-3s than similarly priced fish oil products.
Q: What are the best dietary sources of omega-3?
A: Dietary fish and roe contain omega-3s in phospholipid and triglyceride forms. Fatty fish such as salmon, anchovies, mackerel, herring, and sardines are excellent dietary sources of EPA and DHA. However, environmental toxicants, such as mercury, dioxins, dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and organochlorine pesticides, readily bioaccumulate in fatty fish, so consumption of younger, smaller fish is recommended to avoid or limit exposure.
Q: What are the best plant sources of marine omega-3 fatty acids?
A: There are a variety of products already available that are derived from algae rather than fish; however, a trial investigating the uptake of omega-3s from genetically engineered Camelina sativa (an oilseed plant from the Brassica family) in healthy men and women revealed that the engineered fatty acids were safe and well tolerated, and their uptake and incorporation into blood and plasma lipids were comparable to that achieved with fish oil. In other words, genetic engineering of plants that produce high-yield and high-quality EPA and DHA may offer yet another strategy to meet the growing needs of people that prefer to avoid animal-based products or are concerned about sustainability.