Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids essential for the proper functioning of multiple processes in the human body. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids – Alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While ALA is mostly used as an energy source, EPA and DHA play critical roles in the body. Although our body can convert some amount of ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion is very limited with only up to 20% and 9 % ALA being converted to EPA and DHA respectively.

Omega-3 Benefits

Omega-3 plays multiple key roles to help maintain our overall health.

  • Cardiovascular Health
    Studies have shown improved heart conditions when fatty fish and seafood are consumed regularly. According to NCCIH’s research, omega-3 reduces a person’s triglyceride levels, which are fats, when in excess lead to heart diseases. [1]
  • Joint Health
    Knee pain is the most common sign of joint related issues. This is followed by pain in the shoulder, fingers, and hips. Arthritis, an inflammatory condition of the joints is often the cause of unbearable joint pain. Omega-3 can help relieve this pain due to its anti-inflammatory properties. [2]
  • Skin Health
    Skin, the largest organ of our body, acts as a necessary interface between the internal and the external environment. Therefore, our skin is exceptionally vulnerable to pollution and exposure to UV rays which lead to sun damage and oxidative stress. Omega-3 helps promote skin health by protecting it against damage caused by external factors and preventing skin related issues like dryness, photoaging, and dermatitis. [3]
  • Infant Health During Pregnancy
    Pregnant women are recommended to consume fish and omega-3 supplements. Studies have observed docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) along with arachidonic acid (Aa) to be critical for the fetal development of the infant central system. [4]
  • Eye Health
    Omega-3 plays a key role in regulating our eye health. DHA is present in large amounts in the retina, specifically in the disk membranes of the outer segments of photoreceptor cells. Omega-3 also promotes vessel regrowth after injury and reduce the hypoxic stimulus. They also aid in the synthesis of disk membranes, promotion of conformational rhodopsin changes, renewal of photoreceptors, and in modifying the activity of retinal enzymes. [5]
  • Inflammation
    Inflammation is a part of the defence mechanism of the body where pathogens are recognized, and the healing process can begin. A chronic inflammation, however, can cause severe damage to body cells, tissues, and organs. Omega-3 has strong anti-inflammatory properties and helps in reducing inflammation by inhibiting the production of inflammation causing cytokines. [6]

Need for Omega-3 Supplements

In the last decade, research has brought the use and importance of omega-3 in a sharp focus. Omega-3 is found naturally in foods like fatty fishes, seafood, seeds, nuts, dairy, etc.

Over the years, the Indian Council of Medical Research has been recommending an increase in the intake of omega-3 keeping their benefits in mind. While there is no recommended dietary allowance set for omega-3, experts recommend at least 1000 mg of omega-3 consumption. The requirement can go up to 2000 mg in specific cases. Fulfilling such a higher omega-3 requirement from diet alone is difficult in most cases, making the supplementation of omega-3 extremely essential.

While fatty fishes are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, it is not always viable to have fish every day for everyone due to dietary, availability and financial constraints. Vegan or vegetarians are at an increased risk of missing out on omega-3 benefits because plant sources of omega-3 contain mostly the ALA form of omega-3 and therefore misses out on adequate EPA & DHA consumption through their daily diet. Therefore, omega-3 supplements play a crucial role in supplementing the required omega-3 in adequate form and amount and bridging the omega-3 intake gap.

Types of Omega-3 Supplements

There are several omega-3 supplements available in the market like fish oil, krill oil, algal oil, fish liver oil, etc. Check out the list below to find out the benefits of each supplement, how each is different from the other and how they affect our bodies.

1. Fish Oil

Fish oil is one of the most potent natural sources of omega-3. As the name suggests, fish oil is extracted from fatty or oily fishes. The benefits of fish oil are primarily attributed to its high content of omega-3 fatty acids. The extracted fish oil is available from multiple species such as sardines, herring, mackerel, shark, tuna, capelin, polar cod, saithe, and sprat [7]. The EPA and DHA content in fish oil range from 18- 31% depending on the fish source. [8]

Natural fish oil can be further processed to manage the concentration of DHA and EPA in the oil. Processing of fish oil allows for the removal of any metal contaminants while at the same allowing for a more concentrated amount of EPA and DHA in it. Natural fish oil contains omega-3 in triglycerides form. Depending on the type of supplement, the triglyceride form of fish oil can be converted into ethyl esters to adjust EPA and DHA concentration in the oil. These ethyl esters can again be converted into triglycerides which are called reformed triglycerides or re-esterified triglycerides.

2. Cod Liver Oil

The oil pressed from the liver of codfish is known as cod liver oil. Cod liver oil is commonly used as a cure for rickets as well as a dietary supplement to boost physical activities. Cod liver oil is a potent source of omega-3 and helps in reducing inflammation and regulating the cholesterol levels of the body. The presence of the fatty acids in the liver oil also helps reduce pain, swelling and prevents clotting to occur in wounds. [9] [10]

Cod liver oil also contains Vitamin A in abundance that is essential for a strong immune system, bone, and cellular growth, and Vitamin D to prevent rickets, prevent diabetes and hypertension.

3. Krill Oil

Krill oil is extracted from the Antarctic Krill which is a good source of omega-3 [11].  It provides EPA and DHA in triglyceride and phospholipid form. Both these forms of fatty acids are good for absorption in the human body.

Due to the presence of astaxanthin, Krill has a higher antioxidant level as compared to other fish sources, which helps in preventing the fish oil from oxidation and combating oxidative damage [12]. Krill oil has a shorter lifespan leading to low contaminant rates and therefore doesn’t need a lot of purification.

However, it should be noted that krill is an endangered species and is essential for the marine ecosystem. Severe exploitation can lead to critical break down of marine ecology

4. ALA Oil

ALA Oil or Alpha-Linolenic Acid is the plant-derived form of omega-3. ALA oil is found naturally occurring in flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, etc. ALA oils are most popularly used to help reduce the risk of heart attacks by maintaining the heart rhythm and pumping at a normal rate [13]. Consumption of the ALA oil is best suited for vegetarians who are wary of consuming fish and seafood for their omega-3 intake. When plants and seeds high in ALA oil are consumed, the human body converts ALA into EPA and DHA. EPA & DHA play critical roles in maintaining heart health. [14]

5. Algal Oil

Algal Oil is an oil that is derived from marine algae and contains omega-3 in the form of triglycerides. The word algae incite images of the green film that develops on top of ponds and water bodies. Certain algae are high in omega-3 and are processed in laboratories to extract omega-3. The key feature of Algal oil is that even though it’s a plant source, Algal oil also contains a good amount of EPA and DHA. Due to its composition, algal oil is also used to fortify infant formula [15]. Since it is plant based, algal oil is a good supplementation option for vegans/vegetarians as well as those who don’t prefer fish intake.

6. Green-Lipped Mussels

Green-Lipped Mussels is a variety of mussels that is native to New Zealand. The shellfish has been used to make medicines for years, due to the presence of essential fatty acids like eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA). A particular extract of the Green-Lipped Mussels has been observed to decrease wheezing and breathing in asthmatics by inhibiting the production of inflammation causing lipids [16]. This is possible due to the presence of Lyprinol and Pharmalink. The presence of certain chemicals also helps in reducing swelling and inflammation in people [17].  Consuming Green-Lipped Mussels is preferred because it is more environment-friendly, as all the mussels are harvested in a sustainable and eco-friendly way.

7. Mammalian Oil

Mammalian Oil also called Seal Oil is the oil derived from seal blubber. Mammalian oil has EPA, DHA and also DPA or Docosapentaenoic acid [18].  Research done on DPA reveals that it can heal wounds quicker. A study reported that the athletes who were given mammalian oil for 21 days, showed improvements in the neuromuscular function. [19]

8. Omega-3 Capsules

Omega-3 capsules are a convenient option for completing the daily requirement of omega-3. They provide an easy to access solution if you are not able to take omega-3 in your diet due to dietary preferences or irregular diets or any other factor.  Omega-3 capsules are generally in the soft gelatine form containing the concentrated form of essential fatty acids like EPA and DHA. Some manufacturers also add enteric coating on the capsules. This helps in ensuring that omega-3 capsules dissolve at the right place (intestine) in your body and help avoid the fishy aftertaste.

Selecting the Right Supplement

Confused by the sheer number of omega-3 supplements available in the market? Check out the key factors below that should be kept in mind while selecting the right omega-3 supplement.

  • Know your requirement – Before consuming any type of supplement, first, determine your omega-3 requirements.  This includes how much to consume, dietary preference (marine vs plant sources) and form (triglycerides, Ethyl esters, etc.). Your omega-3 requirements vary with age, lifestyle, diet, and overall health. Consult your doctor, if need to figure out your omega-3 requirements.
  • Ensure EPA & DHA presence – EPA & DHA are the functionally active forms of omega-3 and the key factors behind the touted benefits of omega-3. Ensure that your omega-3 supplement has EPA & DHA in it.
  • Check EPA & DHA amount – It is important to check the actual EPA & DHA content in the omega-3 supplement. A 1000 mg supplement would have 1000 mg omega-3 but not necessarily 1000 mg of EPA+DHA. The actual amount of EPA & DHA would always be less than the total omega-3 content. Check the product label to find out actual EPA+DHA content and choose the supplement which fulfills your actual EPA+DHA requirements.
  • Check the source – Check the source of omega-3 in the supplement carefully. This is important because of dietary preference (vegetarian vs non-vegetarian sources), intended benefits (fish oil, cod liver oil, algal oil, etc.) or simply personal preference (more sustainable salmon/ sardines vs endangered krill).
  • Read the composition – All supplements, by law, have a list of its ingredients in the back. It goes without saying that you should check the composition label of your omega-3 supplement carefully. Check the overall omega-3 content, presence of EPA + DHA, additives, potential allergens, antioxidants, etc.
  • Check the purity – Traditionally, omega-3 supplements are derived from marine or plant based sources. Marine sources are prone to contamination from ocean sources. Omega-3 supplements are also prone to raw material and process contamination. Therefore, check the purity of the omega-3 supplement under consideration.
  • Choose branded products – While this is true for any product, the omega-3 supplements market is overloaded with cheap, counterfeit and subpar quality supplements. Chose a reputed brand with an established market presence and consumer trust. 

In Conclusion…

Omega-3, naturally occurring in fatty fishes, marine sources, nuts, and seeds, are essential fatty acids. Their requirement can only be fulfilled by external dietary sources. However, a regular diet often falls short of recommended intake due to dietary preferences, availability, and financial constraints. Omega-3 supplements help bridge this gap by providing a convenient option to fulfill the daily EPA & DHA requirement. Chose the right omega-3 supplement for you specifically suited to your lifestyle to reap the benefits of omega-3.


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