Essential and non-essential are two basic nutrient categories. Both types are necessary for life and good health; whether or not they're considered essential refers to whether or not you need to get them from dietary sources. Non-essential nutrients are naturally produced by the human body, so you don't have to get them (at least not your full daily recommended quantity) from food or supplements. Essential nutrients must be fully obtained from dietary sources, as the human body cannot produce them.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Among the essential nutrients are omega-3 fatty acids, one of the few types of fats your body can't produce. Omega-3 fatty acids are important components of cell membranes that contribute to hormone production, gene regulation, brain function, and overall good health. Omega-3s are a family of the nutrients known as polyunsaturated fats. They can be broken down into three primary types: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Technically, ALA is the only purely essential omega-3, as the body converts it into EPA and DHA to a limited extent.
Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
As research has uncovered increasing benefits from a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, they've become ever more popular nutritional supplements, both from plant and animal oil sources. Omega-3s can be obtained from both types of foods, with the three different types being more plentiful from particular sources. ALA is mostly found in plant sources, especially nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables, as well as oils derived from these foods; it is however also present in some animal fat (particularly animals that graze on grass). Walnuts and walnut oil, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, garlic, canola oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Fish and other seafood is the primary source of EPA and DHA, and so they're sometimes called marine omega-3s. Salmon is probably the most widely touted source, but other fatty fish, such as tuna, mackerel, halibut, sardines, trout, and herring, are also rich in these nutrients.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Besides promoting general well-being, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to offer a number of other specific benefits. They are particularly good for reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of developing heart disease. They are also believed to help protect against other chronic conditions, including various types of cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids may also help enhance brain function and prevent cognitive decline, promote a steady heartbeat, maintain healthy cholesterol levels, prevent or lower high blood pressure (hypertension), improve circulation, reduce blood clot formation, stave off diabetes, and boost mood. Other possible but less scientifically supported benefits include reducing symptoms associated with lupus, inflammatory or allergic skin conditions, and the menstrual cycle; preventing osteoporosis and macular degeneration; preventing colon, breast, and prostate cancers; treating depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and improving inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and asthma.
Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
There's more to benefiting from omega-3s than simply eating a lot of it. It's also important to balance intake with another essential nutrient known as omega-6 fatty acids, which, in contrast to omega-3s, tend to promote inflammation. The typical western diet is much higher in omega-6s than omega-3s, which is believed to be unhealthy. In fact, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, most Americans consume 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s. This is far from an optimal ratio. A diet so imbalanced in favor of omega-6s is associated with development of heart disease, cancers, and a variety of inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. While recommendations vary, a ratio of at least 1:1 or slightly higher in omega-3 fatty acids (generally from 2:1 to 5:1 in favor of omega-3s) is considered healthy.
Eating and Supplementing with Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Eating a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and seafood generally provides a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and enough omega-3s for good health. The American Heart Association recommends healthy adults eat two servings of fatty fish per week. Adults with (or at increased risk for) cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and certain cancers should talk to their doctor about increasing their intake with fish oils or other forms of omega-3 supplements. Your doctor will provide specific dosing advice and can ensure you don't have any contraindications, such as bleeding disorders, taking certain medications, and others. Your doctor can also advise you about possible side effects, among which an increased risk of bleeding/decreased clotting is one of the more dangerous. Article Resources: www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/ umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/omega-3-fatty-acids www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909