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Definition of Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Omega-3 fatty acids: A class of essential fatty acids found in fish oils, especially from salmon and other cold-water fish, that acts to lower the levels of cholesterol and LDL (low-density lipoproteins) in the blood. (LDL cholesterol is the "bad" cholesterol.)

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are the two principal omega-3 fatty acids. The body has a limited ability to manufacture EPA and DHA by converting the essential fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is found in flaxseed oil, canola oil or walnuts.

Omega-3 fish oil is considered a nutraceutical, a food that provides health benefits. Eating fish has been reported, for example, to protect against late age-related macular degeneration, a common eye disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (particularly fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon) at least two times a week.

(In technical terms, omega-3 fatty acids have a double bond three carbons from the methyl moiety.)

Reviewed on 12/11/2018

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