Nutrient Spotlight: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

I feel like too many of my posts have been about my personal life lately… Sorry about that! Sure, I started this blog as an outlet for myself, but I also want to use it as a channel to provide you with information about nutrition, fitness and wellness. In order to help fix this problem, I’ve decided to start a “Nutrition Spotlight” series to give you a quick and dirty rundown of specific nutrients.

As a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that I am NOT a doctor, dietician or any type of medically-trained professional. This information is based solely on my online research. Please consult with your doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet or beginning a supplement routine!

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Flax is a great vegan source of omega-3 fatty acids. (Source)

Basics

    • There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. Only plants can make the vital omega-3 parent fatty acid called alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Enzymes in the human body can then convert these to other omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
    • We need omega-3 fatty acids to function properly. Because our bodies either don’t produce these fatty acids (ALA, DHA & EPA) or inefficiently convert them from ALA to EPA and DHA, they’re considered essential fatty acids. In other words, we need to get them from our diet!

Functions

  • Omega-3 fatty acids play several roles in the body. They are an important part of our cell membranes’ structure, making them flexible and allowing nutrients in and toxins out. These acids also have functions in cardiovascular health, immunity and the nervous system.

Sources

  • Algae (chorella, spirulina)
  • Fish (salmon, sardines)
  • Nuts (pecans, walnuts)
  • Seeds (flax, pumpkin)

Benefits

    • According to a number of studies, omega-3 fatty acids can decrease elevated triglyceride levels in the blood. High levels of triglycerides is a risk factor for heart disease.
    • Several studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce stiffness and joint pain associated with arthritis. Supplements also seem to increase the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs.
    • Researchers have found cultures that eat foods with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have lower levels of depression. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help reduce the depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Risks

  • Omega-3 fatty acids  supplements should be used with caution by people who bruise easily, have a bleeding disorder or take blood-thinning medications. High doses of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, even in people without a history of bleeding disorders or who are not taking other medications.
  • Fish oil supplements, often taken as source of omega-3 fatty acids, can cause gas, bloating, belching and diarrhea. However, time-release preparations may reduce these side effects.
  • People with diabetes or schizophrenia may lack the ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA and should make an effort to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their diets. Additionally, people with type 2 diabetes may experience increases in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements.
  • Some fish may contain potentially harmful contaminants, most notably heavy metals (including mercury). For sport-caught fish, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that pregnant or nursing women eat no more than one six-ounce serving per week, and young children eat less than two ounces per week. For farm raised, imported or marine fish, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that pregnant or nursing women and young children avoid eating types with higher levels of mercury, such as mackerel, shark or swordfish.

What nutrient would you like to see highlighted next?