How Omega-3 Fatty Acids Function in the Body

Cell Membrane | Fights Cancer | Other Functions

Omega-3 Molecule

Omega-3 is a long skinny molecule. (The image at right is one type of Omega-3.) It is a long carbon chain with a hydrogen and hydroxide molecule attached to one end, on the other there is a double carbon bond three positions from the end. It is classed as a lipid, which means it is a fat.

There are several kinds of fat in the average diet. Saturated fat remains solid at room temperature, but will melt under the heat of cooking. Lard and butter contain saturated fat. Omega-3's, such as linseed oil and fish oil are polyunsaturated. Even refrigerated they will not turn solid. (There is also mono-unsaturated - olive oil is a good example.) It will harden if refrigerated, but melt at room temperature.

There are three important types of omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Alpha-linolenic acid is found in plant based oils such as safflower, sunflower, or canola oil. It is called an essential oil because it cannot be manufactured by the body and must be gotten from what is eaten. From it both EPA and DHA are made by the body.

Fatty Acids in the Cell Membrane

Oils or lipids make up much of the lining or membrane of the average cell. This lining is what allows water and nutrients to pass into the cell, and for waste products to pass out of the cell (called active transport). It also facilitates communication between cells. The more supple the cell lining is, the better it can perform its functions. As noted above, saturated fats harden at room temperature, therefore, they make a more rigid cell structure. This is one reason omega-3 fatty acids are good for the body. They make cells more supple and reactive.

Omega-3 and Cancer

Omega-3 fatty acids also stimulate receptors (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors) which create an enzyme that kills certain types of cancer cells through a process called apoptosis. They increase the expression of DNA repairing BRCA1 and BRCA2. Omega-3 fatty acids stimulate an enzyme called sphingomyelinase, which in turn produces ceramide. This compound can stimulate the production of p21, a gene which can cause the death of cancer cells.

Other Functions of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Prostaglandins help regulate many body functions, including nerve transmission, allergic responses, blood pressure, blood clotting, and kidney function. There are several types of prostaglandins. Some of them are produced in the presence of omega-3 fatty acids. Other prostaglandins require omega-6 fatty acids. Because there needs to be a balance of prostaglandins for them to properly perform their function there must also be a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 is necessary for the body and is found in grains and cereals. However, it does cause inflammation and omega-3 counteracts this process.

Omega-3 fatty acids then perform many vital functions within the body.

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