Fats are built from component pieces known as fatty acids. The omega 3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids with some distinct properties. They are especially known for having anti-inflammatory effects, and for supporting the development and ongoing health of the nervous system and brain as well as cardiovascular health.
There are three omega 3 fatty acids required for human health: alpha linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentanoic acid (EPA). ALA cannot be synthesized in our bodies and is therefor termed “essential”. The other two can be made from ALA. While in theory this means that we would not need to consume DHA and EPA directly, the conversion process is not so efficient that good health can be assured if we do this.
The reason for this is that other nutrients have an impact on how effectively we convert ALA to the other two omega 3 fatty acids. High consumption of omega 6 fats (e.g. canola and sunflower oils) intefere with the process. If we have inadequate intakes of any one or more of vitamin B3, vitamin B6, vitamin C, zinc or magnesium, the process can’t occur at all.
This means that people who do not consume any animal-sourced foods might be at risk for deficiency. Adequate intakes vary by age, with most adults needing about 1.1 – 1.6 g/day, and children requiring lesser amounts.
Omega 3 fatty acids interact with some medications, including:
- anticoagulants such as aspirin, Plavix, etc
- antiplatelet medications such as NSAIDs, SSRIs, Ibrutinib, etc
Even if you don’t take medication, you should still be cautious about taking omega 3 supplements because of the potential for contraindications with some conditions and adverse effects. For example, omega 3 fatty acid supplements can also affect certain conditions such as atrial fibrillation and diabetes. It’s best to consult your MD, ND or pharmacist before taking these supplements.
The best food sources of ALA are flax seeds and walnuts; the best sources of EPA and DHA are oily fish, such as sardines and salmon.