The Omega Fatty Acids

Omega Fatty Acids

The Omega Fatty Acids (Oils)

The beneficial effects of the omega fatty acids in the diet have been long recognised, and here at Natures Healthbox we offer a range of omega fatty acid supplements, and fish oils rich in omega fatty acids. In this article, we try to help with understanding some of the jargon, and to highlight the health benefits of these natural products.  We also draw attention to dosage and health warnings.

Background Chemistry:

Several members of the group of fats known as the Omega Fatty Acids are vital for normal human metabolism and some are termed essential fatty acids. ‘Essential’ here, is used in the same way as in the term ‘essential’ amino acids: the substances cannot be made by the human body and therefore must form an essential part of the diet of a healthy individual.

There are various omega fatty acids, some more important than others in their contribution to general health and well-being.

The molecules of the omega fatty acids consist of chains of carbon atoms, each fat having a different number of carbon atoms in its chain. They have in common, a fatty acid group of atoms at one end of the chain, and a methyl group at the other.  The first carbon atom in the chain, next to the fatty acid group, is called the alpha-carbon (alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet) and the last carbon in the chain is termed the omega-carbon (omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet). Some of the carbon atoms in the chain are joined to each other by double bonds.  One of the factors in determining the metaboloic processes that each fatty acid can undergo is the position in the chain of these double bonds. For convenience,  and to avoid using complicated full chemical names, the fatty acids are therefore  given short names derived from the position of the first double bond in the carbon chain, counting the carbon atoms from the 'omega' end. Fatty acids with the first double bond occurring at the third carbon atom are termed Omega-3; those with the first double bond at the sixth carbon atom are termed Omega-6, and similarly for Omega-9.

Because some of the carbon atoms in the chain are joined to each other by double bonds the Omega fatty acids are said to be poly-unsaturated. The second bond in each double bond is chemically more reactive than a single carbon-carbon bond and is more easily broken open to allow chemical reactions to occur.  Fatty acids with double bonds in the chain can be more easily metabolised because of these reactive double bonds. Fats with carbon chains containing only single bonds are more difficult to metabolise and are termed saturated.

The Omega Fatty Acids and their Functions:

The two most essential Omega-3 fatty acids for humans are those with longer carbon chains: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid: 20 carbons and 5 double bonds; and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid: 22 carbons and 6 double bonds). Both are commonly found in fish oils, algal oil, egg oil, squid oils and krill oil. The other essential Omega-3 fatty acid  is the slightly shorter-chained ALA  (α-linolenic acid; 18 carbons and 3 double bonds) which is found in plant oils such as flaxseed, sacha Inchi, Echium, and hemp oils. The body needs the longer chained Onega-3 acids, but mammals, including humans, have a limited ability to convert the shorter-chained ALA, to the more important EPA and DHA. The process is less than 5% efficient in men and even this limited ability diminishes with age (the process is more efficient in women). Hence it is beneficial to intake EPA and DHA in the diet.

In a review produced by the Medical Center at the University of Maryland (USA), the authors say that research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. High concentrations of Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behaviour. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.
The omega-6 fatty acids are also essential and play a role in brain function, and normal growth and development. They help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system.  They are found in nuts and vegetable oils. Linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, constitutes about 70% of evening primrose oil, which has long been used in the treatment of eczema.
The omega-9 fatty acid is not considered essential because the body can produce this metabolically from saturated fats consumed in the diet. The body can use omega-9 as a substitute for omega-3 and omega-6 if they are not present in the system. Omega-9 is found in animal fats, vegetable oils and cooking oils, such as olive oil.


There is wide general agreement about the health benefits of the omega fatty acids, and there has been much discussion about the correct amounts to take and the proportions of the various types of omega fatty acid that should be taken in a balanced diet.
The dosage for fish oil supplements should be based on the EPA and DHA intake, not on the total amount of fish oil, as different fish oils contain varying amounts of the various omega-3 fats.  Supplements too vary in the amounts and ratios of EPA and DHA, so it is important to follow the manufacturer’s advice and instructions.
Incorrect dosing of omega fatty acid supplements have been claimed to cause medical problems.
Omega-3 fatty acids should be used cautiously by people who bruise easily, have a bleeding disorder, or take blood thinning medications such as warfarin or aspirin. High doses of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding.
Further research has indicated that if the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake is high, there is an increased, rather than a lowered risk of cardiovascular problems. This is because the anti-inflammatory effect of the omega-3 fats is more than counteracted by the inflammatory effects of the omega-6 fats.

Content written by Dr J.R.Welsman 2013