Omega 3 fatty acids are simpler than they sound. Besides being the “active ingredient” in fish oil, they’re nutrients. Along with other vital nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and calcium, our body needs omega 3 to develop and to keep us healthy. Like other nutrients, though, omega-3 fatty acids are usually something of which we just don’t get enough, which is why many health-conscious consumers (and athletes) take fish oil supplements.
Omega 3 Essential for Health
Omega-3s are part of a group of “essential fatty acids,” or EFAs. Our bodies can’t manufacture them, so we have to eat them because we can’t be healthy without them. Chronic diseases like depression, arthritis, ADHD, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and type-2 diabetes are all linked to a lack of essential fatty acids. Omega-3s are also critical for the brain development of fetuses, babies, and growing children. Some researchers even think that omega-3s were responsible for the complex evolution of our human brains.
Ideal Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
Most people in the modern world, however, do not get the right balance of EFAs to stay healthy. For the best health, we should have only twice as many omega-6 fatty acids (another kind of EFA) as omega 3. Omega-6s have inflammatory properties which the anti-inflammatory omega-3s keep in check. Western diets, however, tend to have much more omega-6 – sometimes 20 times as much! This leads directly to a dangerous condition known as silent inflammation. Silent inflammation is a build-up of inflammation levels in the body that has no symptoms until it results in an acute medical condition. It’s like a slow gas leak in a house that isn’t noticed until a spark sets the place on fire. In order to avoid silent inflammation, it’s very important to have enough omega 3s.
3 Kinds of Omega 3
It’s also important to know the differences between the types of omega-3s. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acids) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acids) are long-chain fatty acids with 20 and 22 carbon atoms respectively. ALAs (alpha-linoleic acids) are short-chain with 18 carbon atoms each. We find ALAs in flaxseed oil, and vegetarians often prefer it for their omega-3 needs. The only use of ALA is that it can be converted by our bodies into the other two kinds. However, the amount of it that gets converted is between 0.2% and 15% – hardly enough to make it worthwhile — and what doesn’t get converted instead becomes inflammatory! For the best results, the EPAs and DHAs found in fish oil are the way to go.
Can’t Get Omega-3 From Fish Anymore
Originally, we got most of our omega-3s by eating fish. However, the amount of fish that we would need to eat — plus the toxins that contaminate modern fish — make taking fish oil supplements a preferable alternative. Since fish oil supplements still come from fish, of course, toxins remain a worry. But recent advances have made it possible for manufacturers to produce high quality fish oil supplements — much better than the generic supplements sold in stores. If a consumer is savvy enough to stick to the high quality stuff, the risk from toxins is very low (learn how to evaluate brands here).
Omega 3 Etymology
Finally, a few technical statements about the etymology of omega 3. The name comes from the type and shape of the molecules that make up the nutrient. Fat in food is based on a sugar alcohol called “glycerol.” Glycerol combines with three fatty acids to make a “triglyceride” (“tri-” for “three”). Triglycerides are the main parts of vegetable oils and animal fats. When our body breaks down triglycerides, it stores up the glycerol as a fuel source, and, depending on the kind, it uses the fatty acids for their nutrient value. Omega-3 fatty acids, also called n-3 fatty acids, have molecules that end (“omega” for “end”) in the n-3 position.