What I Need to Know About Omega Fatty Acids

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are omega-3 fatty acids. They are found in fish and sometimes called "fish oil." Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is also an omega-3 fatty acid. It is found in soy, canola oil, flaxseed, and English walnuts.

For what problems are omega-3 fatty acids helpful?

Foods that have omega-3 fatty acids, mainly fish, might prevent heart disease and stroke. Fish oil also lowers triglycerides. Fish oil might also help rheumatoid arthritis, certain mental health problems, and menstrual pain.

What is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids?

The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is fatty fish, like salmon. The American Heart Association (AHA) says everyone should eat at least two fatty fish meals (baked or broiled) weekly. People who have heart disease should eat a fatty fish meal daily. Also add foods rich in ALA to your diet. But these are not good substitutes for fish because they do not provide enough EPA/DHA. Oil from krill (small shrimp-like creatures) contains EPA and DHA. But krill oil contains smaller amounts than fish oil. Fish oil capsules are an easy way to get your omega-3 fatty acids if you need high doses. Fish oil capsules are sold over-the-counter or by prescription (Lovaza (U.S.)). Ask your prescriber if fish oil capsules are right for you.

Should I worry about mercury in fish?

Women who are pregnant (or may become pregnant) or who are breastfeeding should limit their mercury intake. So should young children. The EPA (U.S.) and Health Canada say these at-risk persons should avoid or not eat too much of certain fish. There are also certain fish that no one should eat too much of. Fish low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna (not albacore), salmon, pollack and catfish. Fish oil capsules are often low in mercury and other pollutants. For more information, see http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fishadvice/advice.html (U.S.) or http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fnan/securit/chem-chim/environ/mercur/cons-adv-etud-eng.php (Canada).

How do I choose a fish oil product?

Over-the-counter fish oil is a dietary supplement. It is not a drug. Quality and content varies. Look for the amount of EPA and DHA (not total fish oil) on the label. The omega-3 content is the amount of DHA plus EPA. Choose products with the "USP Verified Mark" (or Natural Product Number (NPN) in Canada) on the label. These have been tested for good quality. Stay away from cod liver oil. It contains a lot of vitamin A, which can be harmful in large amounts.

If you are taking fish oil to treat high triglycerides, ask your prescriber about Lovaza (U.S.). It is an FDA-approved prescription fish oil product. It is expensive. But some health insurance plans cover part of the cost. It is a concentrated form of fish oil. So you will take fewer capsules compared to over-the-counter fish oil.

Are there side effects or drug interactions with omega-3 fatty acids?

Fish oil can cause nausea, heartburn, or loose stool. It can have a fishy aftertaste. Taking fish oil capsules with meals or refrigerating or freezing them may reduce these side effects. (Prescription Lovaza should NOT be frozen.) Throw out capsules with a very strong or spoiled taste. There is a small increased risk of bleeding or bruising. Ask your prescriber before taking fish oil at doses greater than 3 grams daily. Also check with your prescriber if you are taking aspirin or a "blood thinner."

Who should not take omega-3 fatty acid supplements?

If you are allergic to fish, get the o.k. from your prescriber before taking fish oil capsules.

Should children take omega-3 fatty acid supplements?

Fish oil might help kids with ADHD, autism, or some mental health problems. In these cases, fish oil supplements are mostly used in addition to (not in place of) medication. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain growth. But there's no proof that omega-3 supplements make kids smarter. Kids should get omega-3s from diet, mainly fish. Try a serving per week of fatty fish like canned light tuna or broiled salmon burgers. For kids who won't eat fish, ask your child's prescriber if an omega-3 supplement is worth a try.

What about omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids?

Omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are heart healthy. Olive oil is a source of omega-9 fatty acid. A diet high in olive oil can help reduce cholesterol. It may also reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer. Omega-6 is found in many foods, like fish and nuts. Omega-6 is also found in vegetable oils like canola, corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils. You don't need to buy omega-6 or omega-9 supplements. You can easily get these fatty acids from your diet. Plus, the body can make omega-9. Replace animal fats with foods containing omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids as part of a healthy diet.

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