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What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Omega-3 fatty acids are oils that are usually taken orally in capsule form. They are often derived from fish, but can also be found in other natural substances like flax, walnuts, and hemp. Medical research has shown that taking These fatty acids can reduce risk of heart disease, assist those with some types of autoimmune disorders, and may help in mood regulation for those who suffer from manic depression.

The oils in Omega-3 fatty acids are called essential oils. They are considered essential because the human body needs them to grow and function normally, yet the body does not produce them. The Omega-3 are linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, and docosohexaenoic acid. These acids do not have recommended daily allowances (RDA) like vitamins and minerals, but are instead are based on doses of acceptable intake (AI).

Studies on the benefits of these fatty acids have been underway since the 1970s. Some of these studies represent clinical double blind testing, and are thus more reliable. Others are based on anecdotal evidence, which is less reliable. Overall, these studies have provided enough data for medical professionals to conclude that Omega-3s may be beneficial to heart health and the prevention of coronary disease.

These fatty acids affect the cell lining, and may have specific effect on those cells affected or inflamed by conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma. Better protected cells are less likely to become inflamed. Thus taking Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce arthritis flare-ups, asthma attacks or swelling in the major organs caused by lupus.

Perhaps the most interesting studies on Omega-3s are experiments on their effects on patients with manic depression, otherwise called bipolar. Studies show that these acids may provide a regulatory function for those who produce too much or too little of the chemicals responsible for mood regulation. Daily doses are often taken with regular bipolar medications, but over time, the bipolar medication may be taken at a lower dosage, when appropriate. They are not likely to completely address bipolar disorder, but they may affect things medication does not always address, like rapid cycling from depression to mania.

Recent research indicates that taking too much of Omega-3 fatty acids can be a problem for some. Those who have arrhythmias seem to have more arrhythmias as a result of daily doses of these capsules. Taking overly high doses may also cause the immunoresponse system of the body to become sluggish, which can lead to a higher risk of infection. As well, taking more than the recommended dose can lead to lower platelet counts and stroke from internal bleeding.

There is also concern about fatty acids derived from fish, because of scientific data regarding high mercury content in fish. The biggest concern is those derived from the liver of the fish, where toxins are highest. Omega-3 fatty acids derived from other parts of the fish, or from vegetable sources are the best types to select. Most brands offer and advertise the safer version of this supplement.

With the exception of those suffering from arrhythmias, however, recommended daily dosages are considered safe. To be certain taking Omega-3s is a good personal choice, one should consult his or her physician. Also, one can check with one’s pharmacist regarding possible drug interactions between Omega-3 fatty acids and other prescribed or over the counter medications.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon72913 — On Mar 24, 2010

Yes it does.

By anon15498 — On Jul 13, 2008

Do omega 3-6-9 have to be refrigerated?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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