Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for our organism. However, due to general nutritional habits, content of omega-3 is usually lower than the reommended. When this happens, supplements of omega-3 can help you reaching recommended levels and avoiding the health consequences associated with deficiency of omega 3
In this post we'll give a brief introduction to sports supplementation to then talk more in depth about omega 3 and why they are so important. Scroll down and enjoy it!!
Why is Omega-3 Supplementation Relevant?
Western diets are generally low in Omega-3 and high in Omega-6. Because both families of compounds compete for the same transporter, the ratio omega 6/3 is the index to follow to achieve the correct Omega-3 content.
Being the recommended ratio around 3:1, general population show ratios of 20:1, 30:1 or even higher.
Supplements of Omega 3 are a viable strategy to achieve the recommended ratios. These compounds has a strong evidence and can benefit providing many improvements in our organism.
What are fatty acids?
Before getting more deep into supplements of Omega-3, you should know the basics of what fatty acids are.
Fatty acids are the simplest form of lipids, acting as building blocks. They are formed by a hydrocarbon chain, in where one end shows a carboxyl group, and in the other there is a methyl group. By looking at the hydrocarbon chain, fatty acids can be classified based on length, number of chains or, in our case, on number of unsaturations.
If the molecule doesn’t show any unsaturation (double bond) on its chain, then it’s considered a saturated fatty acid. On the other hand, those with only one saturation or more than one are called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, respectively. These unsaturations provide different biochemical properties such as rigidity, melting point, or stability to the molecules (source).
What are Omega-3?
Omega-3 are a series of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Also called n3-PUFAS, their chemical structure shows an unsaturation (double carbon bond) on the carbon omega-3, which is located on the third carbon counting from the end of the hydrocarbon chain.
When we talk about n3-PUFAS, we are mainly interested in two molecules, eicosanopentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Both molecules can be synthesized from alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) through a series of elongations and desaturations
Being the main dietary source of omega 3, ALA is considered the only “strictly essential” omega 3 since it can be converted into EPA and DHA through saturations and elongations. The main problem here is that the efficiency of these conversions are very low, with an 8% being converted to EPA and an even lower 0-4% to DHA (source).
There has been a lot of research around EPA and DHA, suggesting that they could provide benefits to both sports performance and overall health.
Sports institutions nowadays consider these molecules as safe, efficient, and with an emerging scientific support (source). In this post we’ll go through the main benefits of supplements omega-3.
Metabolism of Omega-3
First of all, you should know that although both EPA and DHA show a similar structure and are part of the same family of compounds, the potential benefits in our ourganism are different.
While DHA has been attributed to neuroprotective benefits and improvement on sight, EPA has been mainly linked to skeletal muscle and recovery. However, there are some other effects in where both substance act in synergy.
The metabolism of these compounds is quite simple. Starting from ALA, there are several metabolic reactions called elongations and desaturations to get first EPA, and finally DHA. The major site for these reactions is the liver, although it can take place in several other tissues.
As you know already, the efficiency of these reactions decreases as the pathways moves on, achieving a ridiculous efficiency of 0-4% for the synthesis of DHA.
n3-PUFAS are mainly found associated with phospholipids in the plasma membrane or in the adipocytes.
Being important constituents of the plasma membrane, they contribute to stability and integrity of this structure, ensuring a proper protein function and influencing membrane fluidity (source). Also, they regulate signal processes, cell recogition and gene expression.
Not only that, but n3-PUFAS also derive on a series of compounds such as leukotrienes, eicosanoides, prostaglandins, and thromoboxans, mainly.
These will activate different reactions in our metabolism, leading to the known effects of n3-PUFAS.
- Omega-3 are a series of polyunsaturated fatty acids showing an unsaturation on the last third carbon of the chain
- The main Omega-3 are EPA and DHA, bein synthesized from ALA.
- Conversion from ALA is very low and intake of EPA and DHA must be considered
Benefits of Supplements of Omega-3
Are several the effects attributed to these compounds, and most of them with quite strong evidence.
Attenuates Risk of Cardiovascular Events
N3-PUFAS have been highly linked to cardiovascular diseases and risk of mortality.
It was observed that the Inuits, who based their diets in fatty fishes, showed no or very low cardiovascular events.
Eicosanoides, compounds derived from n3-PUFAS, are involved in several actions, including antiplatelet aggregation and vasodilation (source). Also, DHA could improve HDL (the 'good' lipoprotein) and blood pressure, improving the lipids profile and transport through the blood stream.
Nowadays, we have enough evidence that n3-PUFAS lower the risk of cardiovascular outcomes.
In this meta-analysis (strongest scientific evidence), it was found that n3-PUFAS reduced risk of myocardial infraction, coronary heart disease events, myocardial fatality and coronary heart disease mortality (meta-analysis).
Chronic inflammation is one of the most seen problems worldwide. Our lifestyle and high chronic stress favours inflammatory processes.
Being in this situation for long periods place us in a non-favoured situation to keep functioning properly.
Long chain fatty acids are one of the main influences on inflammatory processes. Changing the cell membrane status, they can favour / non-favour membrane fluidity, transport of molecules, cell signaling and recogition and many other interactions.
While n6-PUFAS show a pro-inflammatory action, n3-PUFAS could revert this and favour an anti-inflammatory situation.
Also, n3-PUFAS metabolites inhibit NF-kappa B, which is involved in the production of inflammatory cytokines (source)
EPA and DHA give rise to newly-discovered compounds called resolvins. These compounds interact with inflammatory processes favouring the anti-inflammatory status (study).
They have been shown to resolve inflammation by shutting off the ongoing inflammatory process and limiting tissue damage.
DHA Improves Cognitive Function
DHA is the main n3-PUFAS found in the membrane of brain-cells.
As you have seen earlier in this post, DHA leads to the increased production of phosphatidylserine, improving neuronal survival.
In other words, DHA may improve brain cell function by modifying phopholipids' composition and membrane properties (source).
Nerogenerative disorders occur in many aging people. This disease is related to malfunction of the energetic system, neurotransmissor, or decreased neuronal connections.
DHA and its metabolite neuroprotectin D1 (NDP1) prevent neuronal death and damage, block neuronal apoptosis and prevent stroke (study).
Eyes are such an important sense organs for our everyday life and survival. Surprisingly, they are highly connected to the brain as well as with the central nervous system (CNS).
DHA modulates membrane's composition in the retina, improving its fluidity, cell signalling, protein turnover and transmembrane transport.
It also acts as an antioxidant species, lowering the risk of chronic inflammation in this structure and favouring cell growth and proliferation (source)
Effects on the Inmune System
Omega-3 could potentially act on both the innate and adaptive immune system.
It improves phagocytosis of neutrophiles and macrophages, and it lowers the presentation of dendritic cells.
On the adaptive immune system, N3-PUFAS could increase the production of antigens IgM and lower the production of cytokines, which could lead to exaggerated and uncontrolled immune response (source).
Alteration of the Gut Microbiota
Last but not least, we have the gut microbiota. Thousands of different microbial species inhabit our gut and other tissues such as skin, mouth, nose, lungs, vagina, intestinal tract,..
Gut microbiota is so important for our organism that it's considered for many as another organ of our body.
The anti-inflammatory effect of n3-PUFAS is the main mechanism by which this compound could lower chronic inflammation in the intestinal tract and improve intestinal wall integrity.
Not only n3-PUFAS alter the immune response, but it also alters the microbiota composition. It restores the Firmicutes/Bacteroides ratio, important aspect for a healthy microbiota, and it decreases the growth of harmful bacteria.
These effects prevent from reaching dysbiosis, which is a reduction in microbiota richness and diversity (source)
- Omega-3 has been shown to lower cardiovascular events
- DHA is the main phospholipid found in the brain, acting as neuroprotective and avoiding neurogenerative disorders
- Eyesight can also be improved by the action of DHA
- Eicosanoides from n3-PUFAS have anti-inflammatory actions
- Gut microbiota and microbial composition is favoured by n3-PUFAS
Dosage and Use
One of the main problems and uncertainties with n3-PUFAS is the recommended dosage.
The general recommended dose by official institutions is to take 250-500mg of EPA+DHA daily.
This recommendation could be higher depending of your context and situation. If you have a risk or suffer from coronary heart disease or any other cardivascular related diseases, 1g of EPA+DHA could be benefitial. Furthermore, if your triglycerides levels are out of range, 2-4g EPA+DHA are recommended.
The main forms being sold are ethyl ester, and triglycerides, in where trigylycerides shows a higher bioavailabilty and more available evidence. About the sources, we mainly find fish oil and krill oil.
There are more ways of reaching the recommended intake of n3-PUFAS.
Foods such as fatty fishes, seeds, nuts or oils are the main dietary sources of n3-PUFAS. While fatty fish already contain EPA and DHA, the n3-PUFAS in vegetable sources such as nuts or flax seed is solely ALA
Reaching the recommended levels of Omega-3 through dietary sources is always the preferred option. Food is not only the bioactive compound of interest. In fact, the nutritional matrix 'wraps up' the compound of interest, often improving bioavailability, conservation or absorption.
However, supplementation can be useful if dietary recommedations are too high or can't be reached through dietary intake.
As we have seen in this post, n3-PUFAS show strong evidence on many aspects of our metabolism. There are many benefits we can take from this compounds, being an important aspect in our diets.
N3-PUFAS have been shown to lower cardiovascular events, improve cognitive function, eyesight, inmunity and the gut microbiota.
Omega-3 intake should be considered to improve overall health. If dietary intake is not possible, you should consider supplementing with omega-3 daily.