According to the Global Organization for EPA/DHA Omega-3s (GOED), omega-3s are among the most researched nutrients in the world. In fact, there are more studies on omega-3s than almost any other substance.
Long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are crucial for maintaining and improving cellular health. They are referred to as polyunsaturated because they contain more than one double bond that is “unsaturated” with hydrogen atoms. Unsaturated fatty acids are grouped into different classes depending on the position of the first double bond from the methyl end of the fatty acid chain. Hence, omega-3 fatty acids have their first double bond at three carbon atoms and omega-6 fatty acids at six carbon atoms from their methyl end.
The precursors for omega-3 fatty acids (α-linolenic acid, ALA) and omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid, LA) are not manufactured by the human body and must be obtained through the diet. The human body can convert ALA into the longer-chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA, but only at a low rate. EPA consists of 20 carbons and five double bonds and can be converted into DHA.
DHA is the longest fatty acid chain, with 22 carbons and six double bonds. The main product of the omega-6 precursor LA is called arachidonic acid (AA) and consists of 20 carbons and four double bonds.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are needed for optimal health, with an optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 being from 5:1 up to 1:1 (Simopoulos 2002).
In the last 30 years, the ratio between omega-6 to omega-3 can be as high as 10-20:1, while in the past the ratio was 1-2:1.
For example, deficient states of the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid are associated with abnormal liver pathology, reduced growth and reproductive failure, as well as skin and hair problems. However, since the Western diet is abundant in omega-6 fatty acids and relatively deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, the balance between the two is highly disturbed.
The high prevalence of omega-6 fatty acids is directly related to the overconsumption of vegetable oils rich in these fatty acids, which are typically present in corn, sunflower seeds, cottonseed, and soybeans, as well as industrially produced meat. At the same time, the consumption of omega-3-rich fish has decreased markedly during the last several decades. Because of this fatty acid imbalance, most consumers are living in a state of chronic inflammation, which might help explain the rise in diseases such as asthma, coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
It may also contribute to arthritis, allergies, obesity, depression, dyslexia, diabetes, hyperactivity, inflammatory disorders and even violent tendencies.
Striking the right balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is essential for health. This is because omega-6 fatty acids produce too many pro-inflammatory molecules that can lead to increased blood clotting, impaired immune response, and systemic inflammation. In addition, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same enzymes to be converted into pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory hormones, respectively (see Figure D ).
There are different kinds of phospholipids, but in the case of krill, the EPA and DHA are especially enriched in the phosphatidylcholine form. There are also phosphatidylethanolamine , -serine, and -inositol forms present. The phospholipid structure allows for the formation of phospholipid bilayers, which is the starting point for all living cell membranes—without them there would be no life on earth. These substances help transport omega 3s more efficiently throughout the human body and subsequently incorporate them into cell membranes.
Once anchored in the membranes, EPA and DHA influence the fluidity of these cell membranes, and thus cell signaling, cellular transport across the membrane of various chemicals and substrates, cell recognition and many other metabolic parameters as well as overall healthiness of the cells. Phospholipids are also highly bioavailable and readily absorbed.
About Lena Burri Ph.D.
Lena Burri, Ph.D., has been involved in fundamental research and is together with co-authors credited with several original protein discoveries. She has published scientific articles in leading journals, and contributed book chapters, review articles and peer-reviewed manuscripts on many subjects including omega-3 fatty acids. Lena earned her Master of Science from the University of Basel (Switzerland) and her Ph.D. at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (Switzerland). Her post-doctoral education included stays at Melbourne University (Australia), University of British Columbia (Canada) and University of Bergen (Norway). She now works as a scientific writer specializing in omega-3 phospholipids.
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Numerous studies in humans, such as the Framingham study, link low DHA levels in blood plasma to brain-related disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, leading to the conclusion that DHA likely plays several protective roles in the brain. Additionally, human studies have demonstrated that compared to triglycerides, phospholipids deliver DHA to red blood cells more efficiently.
In addition to the combined or complementary effects of omega-3 fatty acids bound to phospholipids, consumption of phospholipids and choline alone has also been shown to have its own health advantages (see Table 4). Phospholipids containing choline (i.e., phosphatidylcholine) are especially important for brain and liver metabolism.
These studies performed with phospholipids did not include omega-3 fatty acids, thus indicating that these lipids have their own beneficial effects. However, other studies have demonstrated that phospholipid-bound omega-3 fatty acids yield superior effects on liver lipid and blood plasma lipid levels, when compared to phospholipids without omega-3 fatty acids.
Hence, a combination of both in one molecule seems to be the most efficient way of enhancing these health benefits.