What is Omega-3?

“Omega-3″ are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids mainly found in fish-, squid-, krill- and algae oils. The most important omega-3 fatty acids are the: “EPA” (Eicosa Pentaenoic Acid) and the “DHA” (Docosa Hexaenoic Acid)

The figure below shows the breakdown of “Lipids” into solid fats (like butter) and liquid oils. Solid fats consist mainly of saturated fatty acids. We all know that the saturated fats are not good for our health. Our body converts a part of these saturated fats into cholesterol and other substances which have a negative impact on our cardiovascular system. Liquid oils also contain saturated fats but much less. The liquid oils are dominated by “unsaturated” fatty acids. The more unsaturated fatty acids present in the oil the more liquid it is. Chemically a fatty acid is called “unsaturated” if it contains at least one “double bond”. In this case it is called “mono- (=1) unsaturated”. The most popular mono-unsaturated oil is olive oil. Should the oil contain fatty acids with more than one double bond then it is called “poly-unsaturated”. Depending on the position of the first double bond in the fatty acid molecule it is distinguished between “omega-6″ (= position 6 counting from the end (=omega) of the fatty acid molecule) or “omega-3″ (= position 3 counting from the end (=omega) of the fatty acid molecule).

This tiny difference of the position of the first double bond in the fatty acid molecule determines if this fatty acid can be converted to pro- or anti-inflammatory substances in our body. Below figure shows that according to the size of the fatty acid (chain length) and number of double bonds) there are several omega6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Although all of them play more-or-less important roles for our body the most important ones are:

OMEGA-6 fatty acids (most important ones)

  • 18:2n6 Linoleic Acid, an essential fatty acid! If consumed too much our body can convert it into pro-inflammatory ARA (see below).
  • 18:3n6 GLA Gama-Linolenic Acid, an anti-inflammatory fatty acid.
  • 20:4n6 ARA Arachidonic Acid a strong pro-inflammatory (only present in animal derived fats!).

OMEGA-3 fatty acids (most important ones)

  • 18:3n3 ALA alpha-Linolenic Acid, an essential fatty acid.
  • 20:5n3 EPA EicosaPentaenoic Acid a strong anti-inflammatory fatty acid.
  • 22:6n3 DHA DocosaHexaenoic Acid a strong anti-inflammatory fatty acid
ALA is the only plant derived omega-3 fatty acid. Unfortunately it has only 1/10th of the beneficial effects of EPA and DHA which both are only found in significant amounts in fish oils and other marine oils like squid oil, shrimp oil or krill oil.