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What Are the Functions of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Body?

author image Sandi Busch
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.
What Are the Functions of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Body?
A healthy salmon meal. Photo Credit: Rafal Stachura/iStock/Getty Images

You may hear the three omega-3 fatty acids called by their individual names or collective names, such as essential fatty acids and polyunsaturated fats. All three fill vital roles, but each one also has unique benefits. Omega-3s are the good fats that should be a regular part of your daily diet. They reduce inflammation, keep your brain working and lower your risk of heart disease.

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Three Omega-3s

One of the omega-3 fatty acids -- alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA -- comes from a limited number of plant-based foods, including walnuts, flaxseeds, soybean oil and canola oil. The Harvard School of Public Health notes that ALA is generally used for energy and to make the other omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. However, ALA may not make enough of the others to meet your body's needs. You can also get EPA and DHA from fatty fish.

Fight Unhealthy Inflammation

Your immune system triggers the inflammatory response when your body suffers damage or illness. Inflammation increases blood flow, which fights infection and supports healing. Then the inflammation goes away when the job is done. Under some conditions, inflammation persists for a long time. This type of chronic inflammation damages healthy tissues and may lead to serious medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease, asthma, arthritis, diabetes and cancer. The omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil -- EPA and DHA -- fight chronic inflammation. They synthesize special anti-inflammatory lipids, which reduce inflammation and stop the inflammatory cycle, according to the Medical Biochemistry Page.

Cardiovascular Protection

The omega-3 fatty acids are best known for their ability to lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. They help prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure and keep artery walls healthy. Getting enough omega-3 may protect you from fatal heart arrhythmias and decrease your chances of dying from a heart attack. For all of these reasons, the American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish weekly, especially fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. Women should consume 1.1 grams of omega-3 daily, while men need 1.6 grams, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. The AHA also advises people diagnosed with coronary heart disease to consume 1 gram of combined EPA and DHA daily.

Keep Your Brain Working

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the normal development of a baby’s brain and eyes. They’re also critical to keep your brain working at optimal capacity throughout your life. DHA is the most important omega-3 for normal brain development and functioning. In fact, it’s the most abundant fat in the brain, according to the Franklin Institute. EPA has a bigger impact on behavior and moods. It may help treat major depression and bipolar disorder. It also shows promise for treating other mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, but more research is needed to verify its potential.

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