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Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) found in fish and certain plants that provide important health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids are just as important to your health as vitamins, playing a crucial role in cardiovascular health and brain function, as well as normal growth and development. There are two main families of PUFAs: Omega-3s and Omega-6s. The predominant sources of Omega-3s are vegetable and fish oils.  Nutritionally important Omega-3 fatty acids include αlpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are polyunsaturated and are required by the body to perform vital functions.  Omega-3 is deemed "essential" because it cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from external sources, either through diet or supplements.

Benefits of Omega-3s
More than 8,000 studies published over the past 35 years have consistently shown that Omega-3 EPA and DHA are important to your health throughout every stage of your life.
DHA plays a critical role in maintaining healthy functioning of:

  • The nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and networks of nerves
  • The eyes, particularly the retina

EPA may be associated with reduced risk of: 

  • Coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other conditions of mental deterioration 
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ASHD) and other behavioral problems
  • Mental health conditions, including aggression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression and schizophrenia 
  • Inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease

EPA and DHA have complementary roles in human health: DHA plays a structural role as a component of cell membranes, while EPA plays a physiological role by helping reduce inflammation. Together, Omega-3 EPA and DHA have a wide variety of health benefits, which can be grouped into the following general categories:

  • Heart health
  • Brain health
  • Normal growth and development
  • Overall health and well-being

Health Benefits for Your Heart
Omega-3 is essential to a healthy heart. This is due to the fact that it combats inflammation, which scientists have recently discovered is closely linked to cardiovascular disease. Research suggests that Omega-3 EPA and DHA may help prevent plaque deposits and blood clots, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes from developing in your arteries. Studies also suggest that Omega-3 EPA and DHA may help reduce your risk of other coronary diseases and conditions that could lead to strokes and heart attacks. The following benefits have been recognized from Omega-3 EPA and DHA:
  • Reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes
  • Reduction in blood thickness (viscosity)
  • Relaxation of blood vessels (vasodilation)
  • Lowering of blood pressure
  • Reduced risk of blood clots in coronary arteries (thrombosis)
  • Protection against heartbeat abnormalities (arrhythmia, ventricular tachycardia, fibrillation)
  • Reduction of triglycerides (blood fat levels)
  • Protection against hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Protection against plaque rupture
  • Good overall heart health

Health Benefits for Your Brain
Your brain is one of the vital organs that require Omega-3 to perform optimally. In fact, 60% of your brain is made up of structural fat (a large part of which is DHA), and it requires a regular intake of good fats, such as Omega-3, to function properly. Research suggests that Omega-3 may reduce the risk of the following conditions: 
  • Memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other behavioral problems
  • Mental health conditions, including aggression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, and schizophrenia

Additionally, studies suggest that increasing Omega-3 EPA and DHA intake may improve:

  • Cognition and IQ (in babies and children)
  • Learning ability, reading, and writing

It’s particularly important that pregnant and breastfeeding women foods rich in Omega-3 EPA and DHA, because they are required for:

  • The development of a healthy nervous system, which includes the brain, the spinal cord, and the network of nerves
  • The development of healthy vision, particularly development of the retina

Plus, women with adequate intake of EPA and DHA are less likely to experience postpartum depression.
As you can see, consuming adequate amounts of Omega-3 is critical to the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system at all stages of life.

Health Benefits for Your Body
Not only are Omega-3 EPA and DHA essential for the health of your heart and brain, these essential fatty acids are needed throughout your whole body. They play a crucial role in normal growth and development and act as building blocks for the cells in your vital organs. Thanks to their ability to reduce levels of inflammation in the body, Omega-3 may also help reduce the risk of inflammatory conditions, including:
  • Asthma (in children) and exercise-induced asthma
  • Colorectal and prostate cancer
  • Type 1 diabetes (in children) and gestational diabetes (in pregnant women)
Additionally, research suggests that increased consumption of Omega-3 may improve symptoms of:
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
  • Inflammatory skin disorders (psoriasis)
  • Lupus
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

In addition to improving overall physical well-being, emerging research suggests that EPA and DHA may support weight loss and improve body composition.

Health Benefits for Overall Physical Well-Being

Unfortunately, the typical Western diet is high in pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids such as ARA (found abundantly in vegetable oils and animal products) but is low in anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA (concentrated in cold-water oily fish). Therefore, deficiencies of Omega-3 EPA/DHA are common. Since they are as important as vitamins and minerals to human health, it is not surprising that Omega-3 EPA/DHA have been shown to support overall physical well-being. Some evidence suggests they may even aid weight loss and body composition.

Support for Omega-3s
Omega-3s and their benefits have been identified as being an important part of general well-being by many national and international health organizations including:
  • The American Heart Association (AHA) – a national, voluntary health agency in the USA whose mission is to reduce disability and death from cardiovascular diseases and stroke
  • The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) – an independent British nutrition organization promoting the nutritional well-being of society
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – an American government health organization responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, America’s food supply, cosmetics and products that emit radiation
  • Health Canada - the federal department responsible for helping the people of Canada maintain and improve their health
  • The Institute of Medicine (IOM) – an independent, private, scientific advisor serving Canada and the USA, providing unbiased, evidence-based, and authoritative information and advice concerning health and science policy
  • The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids & Lipids (ISSFAL) - an international society of scientists, health professionals, administrators, educators, and communicators from more than 40 countries, all with an interest in the health effects of dietary fats
  • The National Heart Foundation of Australia – an independent, Australia-wide, non-profit health organization aiming to improve the heart health of Australians
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) – the United Nations specialized agency for health

Natural Sources of Omega-3s
Because your body cannot effectively produce Omega-3 EPA and DHA on its own, you need to consume them through either food or supplements. Omega-3 are naturally occurring as ALA in certain plant foods — such as flaxseed and chia — and as EPA and DHA in certain cold-water fatty fish — including mackerel, sardines and salmon. Because your body has difficulty converting ALA to the usable forms of EPA and DHA, you need to consume at least two servings of fatty fish per week or take an Omega-3 fish oil supplement or consume food fortified with Omega-3, to ensure that you get enough of these essential nutrients in your diet. If you are not eating fatty fish at least twice a week, then your body is likely not getting an adequate amount of Omega-3.

Essential Fatty Acids

Members of polyunsaturated family of fatty acids, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are similar to vitamins, in that they are essential to your health, but cannot be manufactured by your body. Therefore, EFAs must be obtained from food in sufficient quantities to ensure that you and are deriving all the health benefits these essential fats have to offer.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid. In the human body, Omega-3 have three main uses:

  • They are used as a source of energy
  • They function as an important structural element found in the membrane of every cell of the body
  • They act as chemical regulators that turn on and off important processes such as inflammation, smooth muscle relaxation, and blood clotting

For these reasons, Omega-3 fatty acids are critical to every cell, tissue, organ, and system in your body.

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