What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are important for a number of functions in the body. They are found in foods such as fatty fish and vegetable oils and are also available as dietary supplements. People take omega-3 supplements to improve their health and prevent various diseases. This fact sheet provides a general overview of omega-3 fatty acids—with a focus on dietary supplements—and suggests sources for additional information.

Key Points

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found in foods and are also available as dietary supplements. Omega-3s are the natural product (defined as nonvitamin/nonmineral supplements) most commonly used by adults in the United States.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are being studied for a wide variety of diseases and conditions. Studies show that fish oil supplements are effective in reducing several cardiovascular disease risk factors and may help with some aspects of rheumatoid arthritis. Evidence for the health effects of omega-3s for other conditions is limited, and more research is needed.
  • Additional research, including studies supported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and other components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is under way.
  • Omega-3s appear to be safe for most adults at low-to-moderate doses. However, fish oil supplements may cause minor gastrointestinal upset and at high doses can interact with certain medications, including blood thinners and drugs used for high blood pressure.
  • Tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

About Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids—also known as n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)—are important for a number of bodily functions, including the relaxation and contraction of muscles, blood clotting, digestion, fertility, cell division, growth, and movement of calcium and other substances in and out of cells.

The three major types of are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in seeds, vegetable oils (canola, flaxseed, and soybean), green leafy vegetables, nuts, and beans. ALA is converted, usually in small amounts, into EPA and DHA, after it is ingested. Fish oil and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and tuna are the primary sources of EPA and DHA. Algae oils are a vegetarian source of DHA. Omega-3s are available as dietary supplements, usually in the form of capsules or oils. Commonly used supplements include fish oil, flaxseed oil, and walnut oil.

Most American diets provide at least 10 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. Scientists generally agree that people should consume less omega-6s and more omega-3s for good health; however, the best ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s has not been determined.

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