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What Are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Optimal health requires eating a balanced diet and making sure you consume enough of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients required for wellbeing. We think of malnutrition as a visually clear, obvious condition – but it can also be an invisible problem, the slow erosion of our health from the inside thanks to a lack of the basic nutrients we need to stay healthy.

Omega-3 is a complex biochemical (learn how Omega-3 influences sleep), used by the body to fuel important physiological functions, and eating too little will certainly affect your health. But let’s start at the beginning.


What is omega-3 and why do you need it?


Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid or PUFA. What does that mean? A fatty acid is an organic acid, and ‘polyunsaturated’ means it has multiple chemical bonds between its constituent carbon atoms. The term ‘omega’ is derived from organic chemistry and refers to the order of those carbon atoms on a molecular level.

Omega-3 has a number of important roles to play in our health. They are a key building block of the membranes in every cell in our bodies. Omega-3 in our skin and eye cells help to prevent the loss of moisture. It is used by our bodies to generate energy and to power cell receptors, the biological mechanisms that receive signals from outside the cell and control the expression of genes.

In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are used by the body to make hormones that regulate:

  • The movement of artery walls
  • Blood clotting

A further function is the production of signalling molecules called eicosanoids, which play a vital role in such immune system (what to eat for a healthy immune system?) responses as inflammation following infection, as well as a cardiovascular and lung function.

There are three primary types of omega-3 fatty acid:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

The first is classed as an essential fatty acid, meaning it is essential to our health, but our bodies can’t synthesise it from other substances and therefore must consume it in our diet. By contrast, the body can make DHA from EPA, and that can be synthesised from ALA. But this will only occur if our diet does not contain enough of the latter two fatty acids, which are abundant, for example, in fish.

Common symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency include:

  • Dry skin or other forms of dermal irritation- for example eczema
  • Dry eyes
  • Joint pain, especially in older people
  • Hair thinning and hair loss

Low levels of omega-3s have even been linked to mood disorders like depression. Conversely, a healthy level of omega-3 will reduce your risk of rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, stroke and other serious illnesses.


What about omega-6?


As the name suggests, omega-6 fatty acids are a closely related polyunsaturated fat. They are so called because they have a double carbon molecule in the sixth position of their molecular structures.

Omega-6 fatty acids serve many of the same functions as omega-3s. They are intimately involved in skin, hair and cell growth in general. They also help our metabolisms stay balanced and maintain healthy bones and reproductive systems.

One type of omega-6 is considered essential: linoleic acid, which helps to maintain healthy heart function. Linoleic acid is abundant in almonds, walnuts, oily fats and multiple types of seed, including sunflower, poppy and grape.

A healthy balance between the levels of omega 6 and omega 3 in your diet is important because these essential fatty acids are used in the body to make eicosanoids. Eicosanoids influence numerous metabolic activities including platelet aggregation (blood clotting), inflammation, hemorrhages, vasoconstriction and vasodilation, blood pressure, and immune function. Eicosanoids can be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory, with the omega-3 pathway leading to anti-inflammatory cell production but the omega-6 pathway leading to both pro- and/or anti-inflammatory cells.

An unhealthy fatty acid balance, with too little omega-3 or too much omega-6, can lead to long term inflammation of internal tissues and encourage the development of chronic illnesses. Low levels of omega-3 have been linked to a higher risk of obesity and heart disease, and according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications, a lower overall lifespan.

An ideal 6:3 ratio would be around 4:1, but an unhealthy diet can kick this ratio way out of balance, to 20:1 or even higher.


How to maintain healthy Omega levels?


A balanced diet is central to ensuring healthy levels of omega-3 – and omega-6 of course!

Excellent dietary sources of omegas 3 and 6 include:

  • Leafy vegetables
  • Vegetable oils
  • Nuts – in particular walnuts
  • Seeds – in particular flax
  • Fish

But an optimal diet is sometimes easier discussed than achieved. Supplements can help and you will find no shortage of these on the shelves of your local health food store. Look out also for cooking oils and dressings rich in omega-3 and 6: these are a quick and easy way to add these important nutrients to your meals.


How to check your omega levels


At the moment there is no standardised approach to testing omega levels. Some doctors will refer patients with suspected deficiencies for omega-3 blood tests. These assess the level of omega-3 and/or omega-6 in blood serum. An alternative approach is a months-long dietary analysis, designed to assess the quantities of omega fatty acids routinely consumed.

But neither test is offered by many doctors. So if you are concerned about your own levels, you might wish to test your omega-3 and 6 levels at home using a simple skin prick-based test. Your blood sample will be given a full laboratory analysis and the resulting data will enable you to quickly tailor your diet for optimal health.

Look for tests which assess both your omega-3 index – the total amount of EPA and DHA omega-3 present in your blood cells – as well as your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Research suggests that omega-3 testing can provide a very accurate assessment of an individual’s risk of developing certain illnesses – more accurate than conventional cholesterol testing in fact. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology, there is a clear and detectable link between a higher omega-3 index and lower risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease, as well as strokes. By contrast, blood levels of cholesterol do not show the same link.

Sian Baker

Medically reviewed by Sian Baker, Dip ION mBANT mCNHC – Written by Beth Giddings.