Often referred to as ‘essential oils’ or ‘essential fatty acids’ Omega-3s are widely recognised as a vital part of a healthy diet. But what exactly are Omega-3 Oils and why are they so important?
Omega-3 is a catch-all term for a group of ‘essential fatty acids’.
The human body is capable of synthesizing most of the fatty acids it needs from food. These are known as ‘nonessential fatty acids’. However, there are some fatty acids that the body cannot make itself. These are called ‘essential fatty acids’ and these must be obtained from the food or supplements we eat.
Omega-3s are found naturally in some food types such as:
- Fish and other seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines)
- Nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts)
- Plant oils (such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil)
- Fortified foods (such as certain brands of eggs, yoghurt, juices, milk, soy beverages and baby formula)
There are three main types of essential fatty acids in Omega-3. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in our diets. A short-chain fatty acid it’s mostly found in plants like kale, spinach, soybeans, walnuts, and many seeds, such as chia, flax and hemp. Short-chain fatty acids normally stay in the blood-stream for no more than ten hours.
Observational studies have linked diets rich in ALA with a reduced risk of heart disease. However, the body must convert ALA to EPA or DHA (long-chain fatty acids) before it can be utilised for anything other than energy. This process is inefficient in humans and only a small amount of ALA is converted into EPA and even less into DHA. When not converted ALA is stored in the body like other fats.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is a long-chain fatty acid used by your body your produce molecules called eicosanoids. Eicosanoids have a number of roles in the body including reducing inflammation. Chronic low-level inflammation is known to be a driver in a number of diseases like heart disease and stroke for example.
A long-chain fatty acid Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important structural component in your skin and the retinas of your eyes. DHA is both vital for brain development in children and for brain functioning in adults. Baby formulas are fortified with DHA as studies have shown that it can help to improve vision in infants.
A deficiency in DHA especially in early life is associated with learning difficulties such as ADHD. A decrease in DHA in later life has also been linked to impaired brain function and the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Long-chain fatty acids can stay in the blood-stream for up to three days.