Omega-3

How do Omega-3 fatty acids work?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the body to function properly.They are crucial structural components of the membranes that surround every cell throughout the body and affect the functioning of cell receptors in these membranes.

Physiological roles of omega-3s include the support of normal heart function, the maintenance of normal blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and the maintenance of normal vision and brain function, among others.

Cardiovascular health is the first to come to mind when talking about omega-3s and with good reason: it has been shown that the omega-3 fatty acid ALA helps maintain normal blood cholesterol levels while EPA and DHA promote the maintenance of normal blood triglyceride levels. Moreover, DHA and EPA play a role in the maintenance of normal heart function and normal blood pressure.

DHA is the main structural lipid in brain tissue, and membrane lipids of the brain's grey matter and the retina contain very high concentrations of DHA. A cause and effect relationship has been established between the DHA intake and the maintenance of normal brain function, as well as between its intake and the maintenance of normal vision.

How to take Omega-3 fatty acids*

There are plenty of food sources of omega-3 fatty acids. From vegetable oils to oily fish and other seafood, there are various options to choose from that, when combined, provide all three main omega-3s. They are also available in food supplements.

Although ALA intake should not be an issue for vegetarians and vegans, DHA and EPA intake may impose a challenge to them, especially for those with increased needs or difficulty in converting ALA. In such cases, an algal-oil based supplement containing DHA and EPA can be used to meet their omega-3 requirements.

While there is insufficient data to derive an average requirement, the daily adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids for adults is set at 250 mg DHA + EPA, whereas the ALA adequate intake is set at 0.5% of daily energy expenditure. These intakes are based on the lowest estimated mean intakes of various population groups and also based on knowledge about their health benefits.

Concerning the benefial effects claimed, it shoud be noted that:
  • the contribution to the maintenance of normal blood triglyceride levels is obtained with a daily intake of 2 g of EPA and DHA
  • the contribution to the maintenance of normal blood pressure is obtained with a daily intake of 3 g of EPA and DHA
  • the contribution to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels is obtained with a daily intake of 2 g of ALA
  • the beneficial effect to the normal function of the heart is obtained with a daily intake of 250 mg of EPA and DHA
  • the contribution of DHA to the maintenance of normal vision and/or normal brain function is obtained with a daily intake of 250 mg of DHA

*This information may vary depending on the product. Always read and follow the label directions provided by the manufacturer.

References

Calder PC. Mechanisms of Action of (n-3) Fatty Acids. The Journal of Nutrition. 2012;142(3). doi:10.3945/jn.111.155259

EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA); Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to alpha-linolenic acid and maintenance of normal blood cholesterol concentrations (ID 493) and maintenance of normal blood pressure (ID 625) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006 on request from the European Commission. EFSA Journal 2009; 7(9):1252. [17 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2009.1252

EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA); Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) and maintenance of normal cardiac function (ID 504, 506, 516, 527, 538, 703, 1128, 1317, 1324, 1325), maintenance of normal blood glucose concentrations (ID 566), maintenance of normal blood pressure (ID 506, 516, 703, 1317, 1324), maintenance of normal blood HDL-cholesterol concentrations (ID 506), maintenance of normal (fasting) blood concentrations of triglycerides (ID 506, 527, 538, 1317, 1324, 1325), maintenance of normal blood LDL-cholesterol concentrations (ID 527, 538, 1317, 1325, 4689), protection of the skin from photo-oxidative (UV-induced) damage (ID 530), improved absorption of EPA and DHA (ID 522, 523), contribution to the normal function of the immune system by decreasing the levels of eicosanoids, arachidonic acid-derived mediators and pro-inflammatory cytokines (ID 520, 2914), and “immunomodulating agent” (4690) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal 2010;8(10):1796. [32 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1796.

EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition, and Allergies (NDA); Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for fats, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol. EFSA Journal 2010; 8(3):1461. [107 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1461

Jones PJH, Rideout T. Lipids, sterols, and their metabolites. In: Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, Tucker KL, Ziegler TR, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 11th ed. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014.

Saunders AV, Davis BC, Garg ML. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets. The Medical Journal of Australia. 2012;1(2):22-26. doi:10.5694/mjao11.11507

EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA); Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and maintenance of normal (fasting) blood concentrations of triglycerides (ID 533, 691, 3150), protection of blood lipids from oxidative damage (ID 630), contribution to the maintenance or achievement of a normal body weight (ID 629), brain, eye and nerve development (ID 627, 689, 704, 742, 3148, 3151), maintenance of normal brain function (ID 565, 626, 631, 689, 690, 704, 742, 3148, 3151), maintenance of normal vision (ID 627, 632, 743, 3149) and maintenance of normal spermatozoa motility (ID 628) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal 2010;8(10):1734 doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1734

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