Omega 3 fatty acids: Sources and benefits

Omega 3 or n-3 fatty acids belong to a group of unsaturated essential fatty acids which cannot be synthetically produced in the body. Over the years, Omega 3 has gained new grounds of respect because of its preliminary findings in preventing and curing a number of ailments. There are mainly three types of fatty acids which have been identified as essential so far, Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). All three have different sources and benefits. Although all three types of fatty acids are available in natural forms, there are supplements in the form of capsules which are also popular.

Sources: Flax seeds, flax seed oil, canola oil, soybean, soy oil, walnuts and walnut oil, camelina oil, hemp oil, canola oil, pumpkin seeds, perilla seed oil, purslane etc. are sources of ALA. Out of all these Flax seed has the highest concentration of ALA but only effective when grounded and consumed within 24 hours of being ground. EPA and DHA are mainly found in cold water fish like salmon, herring, mackerel sardines and tuna. Seafood and algae are also sources of DHA whereas eggs have been found to contain a minimal amount of DHA in them.

Benefits: Doctors recommend using Omega 3 supplements mainly because of its inflammation reducing property. However, there has to be a balance between Omega 3 and Omega 6 in the body because Omega 6 has the capacity to create inflammation in the body. So there has to be a healthy balance between the two.

Brain functioning: Brain tissues are mainly constituted of DHA; and so a deficiency in DHA in the body will lead to an irregularity in the functioning of the brain. In fact infants who did not have sufficient Omega 3 sources from the mother were found to develop poor concentration, learning and behavioral disorders, poor vision and also nerve related problems. Although the research is hardy complete, however from the preliminary findings it can be safely assumed that Omega 3 is an essential component for proper brain functioning.

Heart disease: Studies have shown that an intake of Omega 3 rich diet will reduce the risk of conditions leading to a heart attack. One of the richest sources of Omega 3, fish and fish oil is shown to have beneficial effects on the heart. Fish is rich in unsaturated fat, which unlike saturated fat, helps to maintain good cardiovascular health. High blood pressure and high cholesterol which are factors most likely to lead to a heart attack, have been found to be reduced by the usage of fish and fish oil. It also helps lower the triglycerides level and control arrhythmias (accelerated heart beat), which sometimes leads to stroke.

Blood pressure and cholesterol: A diet rich in walnuts and fish have been found to lower the level of bad cholesterol and promote the content of good cholesterol in the body. Studies have shown that Eskimos who tend to have a diet rich in fatty fish have a high content of HDL in their body which automatically reduces the risk of a heart attack. High blood pressure has also been found to be reduced with regular intake of Omega 3 sources or supplements. Because of the power of Omega 3 fatty acids to reduce the triglyceride levels in the body, might also help people with Diabetes. Apoproteins, which are considered to be the leading factor of Diabetes, is also reduced by the intake of Omega 3 fatty acids.

Arthritis: Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to reduce inflammation in the body; which might be one of the reasons why it effectively reduces pain related to rheumatoid arthritis. It helps reduce tenderness in the joints and morning stiffness and increases the grip strength which is reduced during arthritis. However, arthritis itself cannot be controlled by the intake of Omega 3; it only works for the pain and stiffness related to rheumatoid arthritis.

Asthma: Although the research related to Omega 3 and asthma is not documented and also provided varied results, however it has been suggested by some findings that symptoms of asthma are significantly reduced with the intake. A study conducted in 2006 in Australia had shown promising results in people subjected to an intake of Omega 3 and further research is still in progress.

Omega 3 and Cancer: Omega 3 fatty acids have been found helpful in reducing the risk of developing several types of cancers including colon, breast and prostate. A diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids seem to reduce the risk of colon cancer as well as slow the progress of the cancer in patients who are in the initial stages. The development of breast as well as prostate cancer has also been found during some studies to be slowed down by the intake of Omega 3. However, the studies have not been very conclusive and there seems to be divided opinion about the results.

Skin ailments: Omega 3 has always been known to be good for the complexion and maintaining the skin elasticity in general. Further research has also let to evidence that fish oil leads to lessening of wrinkles and preventing age related skin disorders. Excessive dryness and flaking of the skin has also been seen to be reduced after a few months of taking Omega 3 supplements. The anti-inflammatory property of Omega 3 also helps relieving certain skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis.
In addition to the above, studies have shown that Omega 3 might b beneficial in certain other conditions like depression, attention disorders, autism, obesity etc.

Side effects: Consumption of Omega 3 supplements should always be under medical recommendation and might deter the effects of other medications, if take without advice. However, the natural sources of Omega 3 fatty acids like fish and flax seeds can help in curbing a lot of diseases. But there is a catch in taking natural Omega 3 too, for example flax seed should always be consumed in moderation and always in the grounded form. Consumption of fish is beneficial but than most of the fishes has a very high content of mercury and needs to be avoided in large quantity. The benefits of Omega 3 might be manifold but the findings are not conclusive and final and hence needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as they say.