Omega-3 supplements are commonplace these days and can be easily found on the shelves in pharmacies and supermarkets. Omega-3s seem to be good at everything, with different people claiming different things about their effects on health and wellbeing. As with most things in the field of science, nutrition and dietetics, new research is coming out every day regarding the effects and potential benefits of omega-3 supplements.
To start with, this is a brief chemistry based background. Omega 3 fatty acids are named due to the presence of a double bond at the third carbon atom from the end of the chain (see diagram). They are polyunsaturated fatty acids with 3 types actively involved in human physiology; α-linolenic acid (ALA) (plant oils), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (both of which are common in marine oils).
Mainly found in fish, DHA is especially important for the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It is concentrated in the retina of the eyes for vision and the grey matter of the brain. DHA levels in newborn and breastfed infants depend on the maternal intake of DHA, so if the mother increases her intake of DHA then the DHA level in the breastmilk will increase. Epidemiological studies have demonstrated that improving maternal DHA decreases risk of poor infant and child visual and neural (brain) development (Innis, 2008). Furthermore low levels of DHA have also been linked to an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline in the elderly (van Gelder et al., 2008).
Bucher et al. (2002) performed a study and found that dietary and nondietary intake of omega-3 reduces overall mortality (death), mortality due to heart attacks (myocardial infarction), and sudden death in patients with coronary heart disease. These effects were attributed to EPA and DHA which were suggested to reduce platelet adherence, protect against ventricular arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) and enhance endothelium-dependent vasodilation.
There is also some evidence that suggests omega-3s prevents Type 2 diabetes by minimising insulin resistance. Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease may also improve with increased omega-3 levels (Proudman et al., 2008).
Omega-3s are now understood to be so important to human health that the Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board has set a minimum daily requirement for the first time – a list of the essential nutrients humans must get from their diets. As with all supplements, professional advice should be sought before changing your diet and care must be taken to ensure everything is taken in moderation.
Check our Omega-3 products for optimal health:
Bucher HC, Hengstler P, Schindler C, Meier G. N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. The American Journal of Medicine; 2002;112:298-304.
Innis SM. Dietary omega 3 fatty acids and the developing brain. Brain research. 2008;1237:35-43.
Proudman SM, Cleland LG, James MJ. Dietary Omega-3 Fats for Treatment of Inflammatory Joint Disease: Efficacy and Utility. Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America. 2008;34:469-479.
van Gelder BM, Tijhuis M, Kalmijn S, Kromhout D. Fish consumption, n-3 fatty acids, and subsequent 5-y cognitive decline in elderly men: the Zutphen Elderly Study. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2007;85:1142.
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