The way the news and marketers have it, you’d think that antioxidants and omega-3s are swirling in the waters of the mythical Fountain of Youth.
You can read about antioxidants in another article. Today, the focus is on omega-3 fatty acids, a type of essential, unsaturated fatty acids (EFAs). The three nutritionally important EFAs are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), all of which are polyunsaturated.
While omega-3s are vital for normal metabolism:
DHA contributes to cognitive development and function, visual development and function and cardiovascular function. It also fights inflammation.
EPA also helps with cardiovascular function and fights inflammation.
ALA provides energy and serves as a building block for DHA and EPA.
However, the human body cannot synthesize any of these molecules. They thus must be consumed in the diet or in nutritional supplements. The same is true with omega-6 EFAs.
Short Chain & Long Chain EFAs
You may have heard the terms “short chain” and “long chain” EFAs; you’ll see the terms mentioned below. Unless you’re a biochemist or medical practitioner, don’t worry about mastering these terms (they have to do with how and where the EFA is absorbed into the body). Just get to know the benefits of the three important omega-3s.
What Is ALA?
ALA, an essential fatty acid, is a shorter-chain omega-3 fatty acid that serves as a source of energy. It is a precursor for EPA and DHA, and is needed for skin health.
Dietary sources of ALA include flaxseeds, walnuts and soy nuts.
Sprinkle them on cereal, grains (brown rice, quinoa, etc.) salads, vegetables and
yogurt, or enjoy as a snack.
What Does ALA Do?
ALA serves as a source of energy for the body and as a building block for the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.
While ALA can be converted by the body into EPA, research indicates that ALA is not converted efficiently to these important fatty acids. In fact, the body converts only 5%-10% of ALA to EPA, and less than 1% of ALA is converted to DHA.
What Doesn’t ALA Do?
Although it works in tandem with DHA and EPA, there are no known independent benefits of ALA on brain or retinal development or function.
There are insufficient data to support a direct role of ALA in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.