Understanding omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids
Calder, P. C. and Yaqoob, P. (2009) Understanding omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Postgraduate Medicine, 121 (6). pp. 148-157. ISSN 0032-5481
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Current intakes of very long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are low in most individuals living in Western countries. A good natural source of these fatty acids is seafood, especially oily fish. Fish oil capsules contain these fatty acids also. Very long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are readily incorporated from capsules into transport (blood lipids), functional (cell and tissue), and storage (adipose) pools. This incorporation is dose-dependent and follows a kinetic pattern that is characteristic for each pool. At sufficient levels of incorporation, EPA and DHA influence the physical nature of cell membranes and membrane protein-mediated responses, lipid-mediator generation, cell signaling, and gene expression in many different cell types. Through these mechanisms, EPA and DHA influence cell and tissue physiology and the way cells and tissues respond to external signals. In most cases the effects seen are compatible with improvements in disease biomarker profiles or health-related outcomes. As a result, very long-chain omega-3 fatty acids play a role in achieving optimal health and in protection against disease. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids not only protect against cardiovascular morbidity but also against mortality. In some conditions, for example rheumatoid arthritis, they may be beneficial as therapeutic agents. On the basis of the recognized health improvements brought about by long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, recommendations have been made to increase their intake. The plant omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can be converted to EPA, but conversion to DHA appears to be poor in humans. Effects of ALA on human health-related outcomes appear to be due to conversion to EPA, and since this is limited, moderately increased consumption of ALA may be of little benefit in improving health outcomes compared with increased intake of preformed EPA + DHA.