Omega-3 fatty acids – vital for the brain, nervous system and heart. But do you get an adequate supply of them?

26. January 2023 from Marion Wäfler
An adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids is vital for the brain, nervous system and heart.

Everyone is talking about them and they are indeed important for the brain, nervous system and heart. And yet we can't take sufficient nutrition for granted. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital substances. What exactly is omega-3? Where is it found and how much of it do we need?

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Before people knew what omega-3 fatty acids were, they were collectively referred to as vitamin F. Omega-3 is the generic term for various fatty acids. Like omega-6, they are examples of long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids. As the name implies, there are also monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids. Monounsaturated fatty acids are found, for example, in olive oil, while saturated fatty acids are found in meat and milk. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids are listed below. Omega-3 fatty acids are “essential.” This means that the body needs them to stay alive, but cannot produce them on its own. We therefore need to absorb omega-3 fatty acids like other vital substances (e.g. vitamins and minerals) from our diet.

What are DHA, EPA and ALA?

The abbreviations DHA, EPA and ALA are often found in connection with omega-3 fatty acids. They may sound simple, but these abbreviations stand for complicated names:

  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

These three essential fatty acids are examples of omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid is found in plant-based foods. Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, on the other hand, occur exclusively in animal products. Our body can convert a small amount of alpha-linolenic acid into eicosapentaenoic acid. However, the conversion rate of alpha-linolenic acid to docosahexaenoic acid is practically zero. In order to be well supplied with all three omega-3 fatty acids, it is therefore very important to consider both vegetable and animal sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

How much omega-3 fatty acids do we need?

According to the recommendations of the Federal Commission for Nutrition, which the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office relies on, we should eat fish once or twice per week. This corresponds to about 100 to 240 g, which would cover our omega-3 requirements. The choice of fish is crucial: oily sea fish, in particular, contains a large amount of DHA and EPA. Alternatively, omega-3 can also be provided in the form of supplements. The daily dose is covered with 500 mg (EPA and DHA).

What are the sources of omega-3 fatty acids?

We therefore need to acquire omega-3 fatty acids from food or dietary supplements to meet our requirements. Plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid include rapeseed, linseed, walnuts and their oils. The animal sources of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are oily sea fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon and anchovies. DHA and EPA are also found in small, cold-water crustaceans (krill) and certain microalgae. Both krill oil and fish oil are used for the production of supplements containing omega-3.

What do you need to consider when it comes to omega-3?

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are sensitive to heat and light. This is also the reason why vegetable oils with a high proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids are not suitable for heating to high temperatures (such as when frying). Rapeseed and linseed oil are examples of this and should only be used in cold dishes. For example, in a salad dressing or a herb dip for boiled potatoes. Olive oil or peanut oil, on the other hand, contain more monounsaturated fatty acids, which are less sensitive to heat.

Vegetable oils are best sold in dark bottles, as this protects them better from light so that they become rancid less quickly. You should, however, keep oil bottles in a dark place in any case – for example, in a cupboard. Supplements also protect omega-3 fatty acids with special antioxidants such as astaxanthin or coenzyme Q10. Some supplements combine omega-3 fatty acids with vitamin D. This combination can reduce the incidence of cancer, as found in the European “Do Health” study1.

What are omega-3 fatty acids good for?

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in every cell in the body. They therefore play an important role in every aspect of our lives. The brain contains the largest amounts of unsaturated fatty acids. It therefore goes without saying that omega-3 fatty acids play a central role in brain development, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy and in the first months after birth, as this is when the brain and the central nervous system are formed. A good supply of omega-3 during pregnancy is also important for the child’s vision.

Even later, when the brain and central nervous system are fully developed, omega-3 fatty acids have key functions: docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid are anti-inflammatory and protect our blood vessels. They keep our cell membranes elastic and the blood fluid. They therefore have a positive effect on heart and brain function as well as blood pressure and blood lipid levels. The positive effects of omega-3 fatty acids are also discussed in connection with dementia.

In which situations is it particularly important to make sure you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acids?

It is worth finding out whether your personal eating habits provide you with enough omega-3 fatty acids. If not, supplements are a simple alternative. In the following phases of life and lifestyles, you should pay particular attention to your omega-3 fatty acid intake:

  • Pregnancy/breastfeeding
  • Vegan diet
  • Unbalanced diet

Measure your omega-3 index

There are simple blood tests for determining your omega-3 index. Ask your pharmacy/drugstore for advice.

What do you need to consider when it comes to omega-3?

  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids are sensitive to heat and light
  • Vegetable oils with a high proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids are not suitable for heating to high temperatures/frying
  • Rapeseed and linseed oil should only be used in cold dishes

Marion Wäfler

I have been active in the Swiss nutrition scene for almost 20 years, especially in the field of health promotion. I studied nutrition and dietetics and am also a druggist. Therefore, I not only have a sound knowledge of nutrition and food, but also of natural sciences and medicinal plants. I am creative and reliable, like to look behind the facades and have high expectations of my work. As a person with many interests, sustainability, health, travel, nature, society, countries and cultures (especially India, Sri Lanka, Armenia, Georgia) are among the topics that inspire and influence my life and work.