Omega-3 Fatty Acids: What They Are and Why You Need Them

Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) that play an important role in human health. They support proper functioning of the brain, heart, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system.

A number of studies have also shown that omega-3s can help lower the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

ALA is the only essential omega-3 fatty acid because it cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained from the diet. It is found in plant-based foods, including nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.

ALA is mainly used by the body for energy. It can also be converted by the body into EPA and DHA, but only a small percentage (less than 5%) of ALA is converted into the active forms.

The other omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are mostly found in seafood, particularly oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring) and algae. For this reason, they are often called marine omega-3s.

EPA and DHA work as a team to support the normal growth and development of the brain, eyes (retina) and nervous system. They also help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and normal triglyceride levels.

How Much Omega-3 Should You Consume Per Day?

The Adequate Intake (AI) for ALA is 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women. While there is no official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for EPA and DHA, most guidelines from various health associations agree that people need to consume about 250-500 mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day. This is equivalent to two-three servings of fatty fish per week.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggests that people should take no more than 3 g per day of DHA and EPA combined, including up to 2 g per day from dietary supplements.

However, higher amounts are often recommended for individuals with certain health conditions. The American Heart Association recommends that people with coronary heart disease should take at least 1,000 mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA daily, while those with high triglycerides may benefit from 2,000-4,000 mg daily.

If you don’t regularly consume fatty fish, you may take fish oil supplements that contain omega-3s to meet your recommended daily intake. Whether you’re taking the oil as a capsule or liquid, it’s best taken with a meal that contains fat, as fat increases the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids.

Be sure the supplement you choose contains EPA and DHA, as they are the most useful types of omega-3 fatty acids. Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking a supplement.

What Happens If You are Deficient in Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Although rare, omega-3 deficiency can result in depression, poor memory, heart disease, joint pain, rough, scaly skin, brittle hair and nails.

Deficiencies in EPA and DHA may also result in decreased heart rate and hypertension, which have been associated with behavioral problems.

What Happens If You Take Too Much Omega-3?

The FDA notes that consuming more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day may cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms.

High doses of omega-3 may also lead to bleeding problems, especially if you take anticoagulants or other blood-thinning drugs.

Additionally, it could cause excessive bleeding during or after surgery. So, if you’re planning to undergo a procedure, you may need to stop taking omega-3 supplements for a week or two beforehand.

What Foods are High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Below are the top 10 foods highest in omega-3 fatty acids.

RankFood nameTotal omega-3s (per 200 calories) (in mg)
1Flaxseed oil12059
2Flaxseed
8543
3Fish oil (salmon)
7828
4Chia seed
7164
5Agutuk (Alaskan ice cream)6851
6Bearded seal oil (Oogruk)6353
7Menhaden oil6236
8Caviar5388
9Sardine oil5341
10Cod liver oil4375

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