Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of fat that are excellent for your body. They're found in fish, plants and nuts.
When you eat whole, fatty fish, omega-3 fatty acids occur as triglycerides, phospholipids and free fatty acids.
Fish oils containing omega-3 fatty acids are available in two forms: natural and processed.
Studies indicate that the free fatty acids found in whole foods like fish are absorbed by the body at rates about 50% higher than supplements containing triglycerides, and triglyceride absorption runs 50% more than ethyl ester absorption. (3, 4, 5)
Natural fish oil is triglycerides taken from fish tissue, and is basically the closest match to what you would get from eating fish.
Vitamins A and D are also present, and any product that has been fermented will also contain vitamin K2.
Examples of natural fish oils are cod liver oil, sardine oil and salmon oil. Usually sold in a liquid preparation, these oils resist oxidation better than processed oils.
The fats in processed fish oils have been converted into ethyl esters, and are purified, concentrated or both. DHA and EPA levels may be higher in processed oils, and PCBs, mercury and other contaminants have been removed.
Processed fish oils can deliver between 50% and 90% DHA and/or EFA; these supplements are usually reasonably priced and make up most of the omega-3 supplements on the market.
Ethyl esters are not as well absorbed by the body, but some products have been further processed back into a form of synthetic triglyceride, which is better absorbed than ethyl esters. (8)
These re-formed triglycerides, also referred to as re-esterified, are pricey, making up a small percentage of supplements sold.
Main sources of omega 3 fatty acids:
1. Krill Oil
Extracted from a small creature similar to shrimp, the omega-3 content of krill oil is in both phospholipid and triglyceride form. (9)
Astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant naturally occurring in krill oil, helps protect against oxidation. (12) These tiny creatures don’t live long, so toxin accumulation in their bodies is minimal; this means purification isn’t necessary, and it’s rare to find krill oil in ethyl ester form.
2. Green-Lipped Mussel Oil
This mussel is native to New Zealand, and oil from this source is considered an environmentally friendly choice for omega-3 supplements.
The oils usually occur in the form of free fatty acids and triglycerides, and deliver eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA) in addition to DHA and EPA.
3. Mammalian Oil
Derived from seal blubber, the omega-3 oils in this type of supplement are natural triglycerides consisting of EPA, DHA, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), which is also a rare fatty acid with several known health benefits. (15)
Another plus in choosing mammalian oil is its very low level of omega-6 fatty acids, which can promote a more beneficial ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid levels.
4. Alpha-lipoic Acid Oil
This plant source of omega-3 fatty acids is especially abundant in hemp seed, flax seed and chia seed. The drawback is that ALA isn’t active in humans, and needs to be converted into DHA or EPA to be utilized.
Oils from plants are also much higher in omega-6 fatty acids, which can lead to unfavorable ratios of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
5. Algal Oil
The DHA and EPA contained in marine algae are triglyceride sources of omega-3s, and algal oil is one of the most concentrated sources available, higher even than fish oils.
Algae is the original source of EPA and DHA found in fish; small fish eat algae, and in turn are eaten by larger fish, with fatty acids moving up the food chain in that manner.
Important minerals, including iodine, can also be found in algal oil, and it’s a great source of omega-3s for vegetarians and vegans. (18)
Besides being free of contaminants, algal oil is an environmentally responsible choice and could help to meet the growing need for omega-3 supplementation worldwide.
It stands to reason, given their widely-known reputation as a heart-healthy nutrient. But did you know there are 9 other reasons to love Omega-3 fatty acids?
1. They're good for your heart
A huge, sweeping review study on the effect of Omega-3s provides evidence that the omega-3s in fish oil supplements and fish will greatly improve your cardiovascular health (2). That means fewer deaths from heart disease, the number one cause of death in the US (3).
2. They're good for building muscle
If you want to tone up your muscles, Omega-3s will boost your weight training efforts considerably. How? They reduce muscle protein breakdown for starters (4). Secondly, they reduce inflammation which leads to a better recovery after your workout.
3. They help prevent loss of muscle mass
While this may not top your list of chief concerns, it's a pretty big public health issue when it comes to the elderly. Losing muscle means a slow decline into inactivity, more slip-and-fall accidents, and a decrease of overall health.
Omega-3s can actually increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis in elderly people, who lose the ability to generate muscle with each passing year (5).
For the rest of us, it's relevant because it indicates that omega-3s might aid us all in boosting muscle mass. Indeed, a study (6) was done in 2007 revealing evidence that this might be true.
The study was conducted to find an alternative to stimulating beef cattle with hormones in order to make them grow muscle. However, the scientists also drew relevant conclusions for humans. They suggest the the omega-3s will also help athletes who are trying to increase their muscle mass.
4. They can help treat depression
For some people, taking Omega-3s might ease the symptoms of depression (7). The Mayo Clinic warns that they mainly help people who have mild or moderate depression, not severe cases. It also seems to work better for people who do not have a genetic predisposition for mood disorders (8).
Besides, nobody is suggesting that Omega-3s become the primary tool for fighting depression. More studies are needed before that becomes a reality.
5. They might help prevent Alzheimer's Disease
The research is still young in this area, but there have been studies which were promising: omega-3s might have a positive effect on the prevention of Alzheimer's (9). There has not yet been found a link between Omega-3s and people who already have Alzheimer's, but for those who haven't, cognitive decline seems to be slowed down by Omega-3s.
People who ate foods rich in Omega-3s had low blood levels of a certain protein that's associated with Alzheimer's disease (10). Having high levels of the protein may predict the disease at the point before memory loss starts to occur, so it's a pretty good indicator.
6. They protect against skin cancer
UV rays work to suppress the immune system of the skin, making you more susceptible to skin cancer, among other things. Omega-3s can counteract this suppression, leading to less likelihood of developing skin cancer. This effect has been proven in lab mice, but for the first time it was also shown to be the case on humans as well, in a 2013 study performed in England (11).
7. They act as both prevention and treatment of symptoms for Rheumatoid arthritis
For patients with Rheumatoid arthritis, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s are a godsend. They seem to boost the powers of their anti-inflammatory drugs, thereby helping with joint stiffness and pain. Doctors hope to someday replace certain drugs with Omega-3s (12).
They've also been tied to actual prevention of the disease as well. A study took a look at Swedish women whose diets were rich in Omega-3s and found that long-term consumption of fatty fish was tied to lower rates of the condition (13).
8. They are crucial to infant development
Especially during early development of infants, Omeag-3s are crucial to infant health (14). It seems that visual health and neurological development are affected.
9. They might lower the risk of developing prostate cancer
In a total yin-yang relationship, Omega-3s have been found to inhibit the growth of prostate tumor growth, while Omega-6s have been shown to stimulate the same! Thousands of prostate cases were examined (15) and the EPA and DHAs found in Omega-3s were found to possibly reduce the risk of total and advanced prostate cancer.
Although omega 3 fatty acids are relatively safe for consumption, some people may experience an upset stomach, fishy breathe, loose stools or nausea.
Omega 3 fatty acids are great for promoting healthy skin, decreasing risks of heart disease, building muscle and fighting depression.
Almost all humans (except perhaps civilizations with a high fish diet) should take an omega 3 fatty acid supplement found in fish oil and krill oils. For those who cannot include fatty fish regularly in their diets, adding a good quality omega-3 supplement to your health plan can provide important health benefits.