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Some of the Science and Health Benefits
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are very important to our everyday life and function. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are critical in the structure of our cell membranes and the development of the nervous system and form the foundation for the synthesis of cell mediators (prostaglandins and leukotrienies). These cell mediators play an important role in human physiology and can affect coagulation, inflammation and proliferation of certain cells.
More specifically, omega-3 fatty acids:
- Comprise the phospholipid bilayer in the membrane of cells
- Affect cell signaling and gene expression
- Are primary components of brain (grey matter), retina and other nerve tissue
- Form the foundation for pro-inflammatory and inhibitory compounds such as Thomboxane A2
- Play a key role in the prevention and management of chronic diseases
The changing western diet has drastically changed the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio. In an effort to reduce cholesterol levels and lead healthier lifestyles, many Americans have substituted vegetable oils, which are high in omega-6 fatty acids, in place of saturated fat from animals. This change in diet has led to an enormous increase in omega-6 fatty acid consumption and has elevated the typical omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 2:1 to 25-50:1.
The dietary increase in omega-6 fatty acid ratio can have profound effects on an individual’s health. This reason is that omega-6 fatty acids do not provide the health benefits that omega-3 fatty acids do. Although omega-6 fatty acids are an important part of the cell membrane, replacement of the phospholipids EPA and DHA (derivatives of omega-3 fatty acids) with arachidonic acid (derivative of omega-6 fatty acids) leads to a more thrombogenic state. Omega-3 fatty acids and their derivates reduce thrombogenisis by altering certain pathways leading to the production of less inflammatory mediators (prostaglandins, leukotrienes and thromboxanes).
Here are some highlights the general differences in health benefits between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
- Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are antithrombotic, omega-6 fatty acids increase blood clotting.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are non-immunoreactive, omega-6 fatty acids are immunoreactive.
These differences have profound implications for heart disease, cancer, arthritis, allergies and other chronic diseases. The scientific consensus is that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be less than 5:1.
Many people desire to supplement their omega-3 fatty acid intake with dietary supplements. These supplements generally contain flaxseed oil or fish oil. DHA is commercially available in its pure form.
- Flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid but no EPA and DHA
- Marine algae sources produce only DHA and no EPA
- Cold water marine fish oil contains primarily EPA and DHA
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are available as triglycerides or ethyl esters. The preferred form of omega-3 fatty acids is triglycerides from fish oil. It is the most bioavailable form. Another positive about omega-3 fatty acid nutritional supplements is that most of the contaminants, such as harmful PCBs and metals, have been removed during the purification process. Recently, Harvard Medical School researchers studied commercially available omega-3 fish oil supplements and found that they have only "negligible amounts of mercury". Further, they state: "The additional benefit of fatty acids from fish oil is that large doses of Omega-3 fatty acids can be ingested easily in a capsule without the risk of toxicity".
It is important to note that you should always buy omega-3 nutritional supplements with antioxidants. Antioxidants keep your omega-3 supplements fresh and when combined with vitamin E and/or other antioxidants you will decrease or eliminate the incidences of “fish burps”.
Supporting References for the Benefits of Omega-3s:
Levine, Barbara S. Most frequently asked questions about DHA.
Nutrition Today, Vol. 32, November/December 1997, pp. 248-49
Newton, Ian S. Long-chain fatty acids in health and nutrition.
Business Development, Human Nutrition Department, Roche Vitamins Inc., Parsippany, NJ, USA. ACS Symposium Series (2001), 788(Omega-3 Fatty Acids), 14-27.
Sugano, Michihiro. Balanced intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids for health benefits.
Faculty of Environmental and Symbiotic Sciences, Prefectural University of Kumamoto, Kumamoto, Japan. Journal of Oleo Science (2001), 50(5), 305-311.
*The Food and Drug Administration approved the following statement regarding omega-3 fatty acids:
The scientific evidence about whether omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) is suggestive, but not conclusive. Studies in the general population have looked at diets containing fish and it is not known whether diets or omega-3 fatty acids in fish may have a possible effect on a reduced risk of CHD. It is not known what effect omega-3 fatty acids may or may not have on risk of CHD in the general population. Other claims regarding omega-3 fatty acids (fatty acids from fish oil) have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This omega-3 fatty acid/antioxidant dietary supplement is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This omega-3 information has been provided for information purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations. Please consult your health care provider first if you have any health problems or wish to discuss the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.