Omega-3 fatty acids

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Structural formula of α-linolenic acid , left the carboxy group (-COOH), right the omega carbon atom (C)
Structural formula of eicosapentaenoic acid , left the carboxy group (-COOH), right the omega carbon atom (C) - (5 Z , 8 Z , 11 Z , 14 Z , 17 Z ) -Eicosa-5,8,11,14,17- pentaenoic acid
Structural formula of docosahexaenoic acid , left carboxy group (-COOH), right the omega carbon atom (C) - (4 Z , 7 Z , 10 Z , 13 Z , 16 Z , 19 Z ) -Docosa-4,7,10,13, 16,19-hexaenoic acid

The omega-3 fatty acids are a subgroup within the omega- n fatty acids that are unsaturated compounds . They are essential substances for human nutrition, so they are vital and cannot be produced by the body itself. The name comes from the old nomenclature of fatty acids . Before they are identified as such, they were commonly referred to as vitamin F , respectively. Omega-3 means that the last double bond in the polyunsaturated carbon chain of the fatty acid is at the third from the last CC bond - seen from the carboxy end. Omega (ω) is the last letter of the Greek alphabet and denotes the end of the carbon chain furthest away from the carboxy group.


Chia seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are contained in algae , plants and fish as carboxylic acid esters or triglycerides . Plants contain almost exclusively α-linolenic acid , while fatty fish - such as eel , carp and sardines - and algae, such as red algae , can mainly contain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Omega-3 fatty acid content of various vegetable oils:

Omega-3 fatty acid content of various fish

Fish take in the fatty acids EPA ( eicosapentaenoic acid ) and DHA ( docosahexaenoic acid ) through their algae food, but they can also synthesize them themselves. Certain microalgae are particularly suitable producers for the fatty acids. In the meantime, microalgae oils that were produced in bioreactors are also available . The biosynthetic pathway of the fatty acids and the algae genes involved have already been characterized and it is to be expected that genetically modified plants that master the synthesis will be patented.

Well-known omega-3 fatty acids

Common name Lipid name Chemical name
Roughanic acid 16: 3 (ω − 3) (7 Z , 10 Z , 13 Z ) -hexadecatrienoic acid
Alpha linolenic acid 18: 3 (ω − 3) (9 Z , 12 Z , 15 Z ) octadecatrienoic acid
Stearidonic acid 18: 4 (ω − 3) (6 Z 9 Z , 12 Z , 15 Z ) -Octadecatetraensäure
Eicosatrienoic acid
(dihomolinolenic acid)
20: 3 (ω − 3) (11 Z , 14 Z , 17 Z ) -Eicosatrienoic acid
Eicosatetraenoic acid 20: 4 (ω − 3) (8 Z , 11 Z , 14 Z , 17 Z ) -Eicosatetraenoic acid
Eicosapentaenoic acid 20: 5 (ω − 3) (5 Z , 8 Z , 11 Z , 14 Z , 17 Z ) -Eicosapentaenoic acid
Heneicosapentaenoic acid 21: 5 (ω − 3) (6 Z , 9 Z , 12 Z , 15 Z , 18 Z ) -henicosapentaenoic acid
Docosapentaenoic acid 22: 5 (ω − 3) (7 Z , 10 Z , 13 Z , 16 Z , 19 Z ) -Docosapentaenoic acid
Docosahexaenoic acid 22: 6 (ω − 3) (4 Z , 7 Z , 10 Z , 13 Z , 16 Z , 19 Z ) -Docosahexaenoic acid
Tetracosapentaenoic acid
(scoliodonic acid )
24: 5 (ω − 3) (9 Z , 12 Z , 15 Z , 18 Z , 21 Z ) -Tetracosapentaenoic acid
Tetracosahexaenoic acid
(nisic acid)
24: 6 (ω − 3) (6 Z , 9 Z , 12 Z , 15 Z , 18 Z , 21 Z ) -Tetracosahexaenoic acid

α-Linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are better known omega-3 fatty acids that have been intensively researched for human nutrition.

Importance as food

Vegetable omega-3 fatty acids ( α-linolenic acid , "ALA") are metabolized for energy production, built into cell membranes and are precursors of series 3 prostaglandins .

The human body of an adult converts omega-3 fatty acids of vegetable origin to a small extent into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). One study measured a conversion rate of α-linolenic acid into eicosapentaenoic acid of approx. 5% and into docosahexaenoic acid of less than 0.5%. Another study saw corresponding conversion rates of 6% and 3.8%. However, the higher conversion rates in this study were dependent on a high intake of saturated fatty acids through the diet. On the other hand, if high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids were taken in, the conversion rates fell by 40–50%. An omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of no more than 4: 1 to 6: 1 was therefore viewed as favorable.

Linseed oil, for example, has an omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of between 1: 6 and 1: 3 and is therefore well below 4: 1. Olive oil does not contain any omega-3 fatty acids (to a significant extent). In the case of butter, the ratio is between 0.33 and 4.43 (i.e. at most slightly over 4: 1), with a very high proportion of saturated fatty acids being present. However, the total amount of omega-3 fatty acids in butter is very low. The omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of (low-erucic acid) rapeseed oil is between 1: 1 and 6: 1 and does not yet exceed the 6: 1 limit. The proportion of omega-3 fatty acids in linseed oil, butter and rapeseed oil is all based entirely on α-linolenic acid.

A study by the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Australia shows that vegetable oil rich in α-linolenic acid (along with a diet low in linoleic acid ) increases tissue EPA levels in a manner similar to that of supplementing with fish oils . In contrast, the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) denies an increase in the DHA level in the blood through supplementation with additional ALA, EPA or other precursors for conversion . Barcel-Coblijn and Murphy, on the other hand, come to the conclusion that the body can produce sufficient DHA if enough α-linolenic acid (> 1200 mg) is consumed per day. The metabolism of newborns is capable of increased conversion, as they need the substances for their brain development. A 2016 review examining ALA to DHA conversion rates concluded that ALA is an unsuitable substitute for DHA.

The body needs the enzymes delta-6-desaturase and delta-5-desaturase to convert the vegetable α-linolenic acid. At the same time, they process the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid into DGLA and arachidonic acid . With a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, more arachidonic acid and less EPA and DHA are produced. In our diet today, the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of> 7: 1 is very unfavorable; the DGE recommends 5: 1. If EPA and DHA are not supplied directly via fish oil, but their precursor α-linolenic acid, e.g. B. from linseed oil, a reduction in omega-6 fatty acids is recommended so that more enzymes are available for the conversion of α-linolenic acid into EPA and DHA. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, stress and age can slow down the conversion. In contrast, vitamins B and C, magnesium and zinc can activate these enzymes.

Fish oils contain EPA and DHA directly . There are significantly fewer omega-3 fatty acids in beef, both in the form of α-linolenic acid and as EPA and DHA. However, the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio in animals from extensive grazing is significantly more favorable than in conventional animal husbandry.

α-linolenic acid (ALA) versus eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

In humans, α-linolenic acid (ALA) raises certain blood fats ( triglycerides ), while EPA or DHA lower these fats. α-Linolenic acid does not lower blood pressure, but docosahexaenoic acid does. This suggests that some effects of EPA and DHA cannot be achieved with α-linolenic acid. This also means that a health-promoting effect of α-linolenic acid would have to be proven separately in this regard. However, studies also indicate the effect of bone protection, e.g. against osteoporosis, and positive effects on bone stability with α-linolenic acid. Less is known about other omega-3 fatty acids, such as stearidonic acid or docosapentaenoic acid ; they seem to be of lesser importance. EPA and DHA can be obtained from algae (vegan food supplements); The EPA and DHA in fish and fish oil preparations also come from algae via the food chain.

Daily requirement, omega-3 index and interactions

Omega-3 fatty acids as a soft gel

Daily need

According to a 2007 article, some US health and government organizations recommend regular intake of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Typically between 100 mg and 600 mg were given for daily requirements. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also published nutrition-related recommendations in March 2010: A daily intake of 250 mg EPA and / or DHA is recommended. The German Nutrition Society (DGE) gives the same recommendation. In addition, the DGE recommends the intake of 200 mg DHA per day for pregnant and breastfeeding women to support healthy brain development in the fetus or newborn. The dosage recommendations given by health authorities, associations and organizations are general.

Omega-3 index and cardiac death risk

A new view contrasts the daily requirement with desirable levels of omega-3 fatty acids in humans, which are recorded as the omega-3 index (proportion of eicosapentaeno-plus docosahexaenoic acid in red blood cells, expressed as a percentage of total fatty acids).

In observational studies such as those drawn up in the context of epidemiology , consumption of fish seems to be weakly correlated with the absence of cardiovascular disease . If the content of EPA and DHA in the eaten fish is taken into account, this correlation becomes stronger. The picture becomes clearest when the omega-3 index is considered. An omega-3 index of less than four percent means an approximately ten times higher risk of suffering sudden cardiac death than an omega-3 index of over eight percent. In the general population, the frequency of sudden cardiac death varies greatly depending on the omega-3 index: In Germany, where an omega-3 index is often measured around four percent, the incidence of sudden cardiac death is 148 per 100,000, while in Japan, where the omega-3 index is arguably eleven percent, 7.8 per 100,000 person-years. A similar but weaker correlation applies to non-fatal cardiovascular diseases.

Critical clinical studies

Current systematic reviews with meta-analyzes , however, paint an inconsistent picture overall and show no consistent benefits.

As part of the Health Claims Regulation , the European Food Safety Authority assessed the claimed health effects of EPA and DHA fatty acids. In October 2010, a scientific assessment was published in which the scientists concluded that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the intake of EPA and DHA and the maintenance of normal heart function. The recommended formulation is: "EPA and DHA contribute to the normal functioning of the heart." To achieve this effect, a daily intake of 250 mg is necessary, which is part of a balanced diet.

However, most of the alleged effects were rejected:

  • There is no demonstrable beneficial effect on cholesterol levels in human blood,
  • There is no demonstrable positive effect on the immune system or against certain eicosanoids and other inflammatory cell toxins in the blood or a general immunomodulating effect,
  • There is no demonstrable positive regulation of blood sugar,
  • There is no demonstrable protection of the skin from UV damage.

There is some speculation that the health-promoting properties attributed to omega-3 fatty acids could possibly be due to the furan fatty acids also contained in fish .

Fatty acid interactions

In small children, the utilization of omega-3 fatty acids in the human organism is u. a. also influenced by the concentration of omega-6 fatty acids, as these compete in some biochemical processes. It is therefore discussed what influence the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in food has on human health. Depending on the source, this ratio is now 15: 1 to 30: 1 in countries like Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This is often assessed as unfavorable and a lower ratio is recommended. The DGE recommends a ratio of 5 to 1.

The ratio is shifted in the meat of farm animals, since today's grain-based power foods have a significantly higher proportion of omega-6 fatty acids than natural foods based on green plants.

By far the highest relative proportion of omega-3 fatty acids contains linseed oil with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of around 1: 3. It is one of the few edible oils that contains - besides camelina oil , chia oil and perilla oil - more omega-3 fatty acids (in the form of α-linolenic acid) than omega-6 fatty acids. Other edible oils with a relatively low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio are rapeseed oil (2: 1), hemp oil (3: 1), walnut, wheat germ and soybean oil (6: 1) and olive oil (8: 1). Corn oil, on the other hand, has a ratio of approx. 50: 1, sunflower oil 120: 1 and safflower oil 150: 1.

A high omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio is associated with inflammatory processes in some studies.

In a US study, the positive influence of food with a higher omega-3 fatty acid content on heart disease was confirmed, but no significant impairment from omega-6 intake was found.

Physical effects

One possible effect would come from the biologically active metabolic products of these fatty acids, the eicosanoids . However, there is no reliable evidence that omega-3 fatty acids have any beneficial effects on health.

Lowering cardiovascular risks

The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are components of the cell membrane and have a modulating effect on the function of different cells in different ways. The following effects for EPA and DHA have been demonstrated in studies on humans:

The short chain (vegetable) α-linolenic acid (18: 3 ω-3) can be obtained by competitive inhibition of the linoleic acid (18: 2 ω-6) by the desaturase - and elongase displace enzymes and therefore the production and tissue concentrations of inflammatory arachidonic reduce .

So far, the results of four large clinical intervention studies on a total of more than 30,000 people are available: Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART), Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto miocardico-Prevenzione (GISSI-P), DART-2, and Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study. (JELIS). DART and GISSI-P showed a reduction in all-cause mortality between 20 and 29 percent of sudden cardiac death of around 45 percent and cardiac events after administration of just under one gram of EPA and DHA per day. DART-2 was surveyed so poorly that reliable conclusions could not be drawn. JELIS was attended by 18,645 hyperlipidemic Japanese people with additional cardiovascular risk factors for five years. Traditionally, a lot of fish, including EPA and DHA, is consumed in Japan, which leads to high levels. These levels were further increased by the administration of 1.8 grams per day of eicosapentaenoic acid. The incidence of sudden cardiac death in JELIS was 40 per 100,000, which is well below the incidence of the general German population (see above). Other cardiac events were also rare in JELIS and were further reduced by taking eicosapentaenoic acid.

Omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and breastfeeding

The placenta supplies the growing fetus with 50–60 mg docosahexaenoic acid per day. Omega-3 index values ​​between 2.6 and 14.9% were measured in 25 unselected pregnant women in Germany. Regulatory mechanisms in the placenta try to adjust the fetus to an omega-3 index of 10 to 11%. In mothers with low levels, this leads to the emptying of existing storage. A good supply of eicosapentenic and docosahexaenoic acid to the mother showed a better result in the following criteria in intervention studies:

  • Efforts to give birth prematurely are less common if supplementation is started early. A start after the 33rd week is ineffective, as has been shown in intervention studies.
  • Postpartum depression rarely occurs in populations that are characterized by a high consumption of fish or high levels of DHA in breast milk. Interventional studies are ongoing.
  • The brain development proceeds in children with high levels of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid cheaper how acquired in intervention studies with tests that more complex brain functions, let show.
  • The intelligence quotient of 4-year-old children whose mothers supplemented 2 g of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid daily during pregnancy and during the first three months after birth was 106 points higher in a rather small intervention study with 83 participants than in Children of mothers who took corn oil, which contains virtually no omega-3 fatty acids. This has been attributed to the fact that the levels of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid in the umbilical cord blood of the more intelligent children were twice as high.
  • Breast milk can be enriched with eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid in a dose-dependent manner through the mother's diet. The results of the intervention studies are not entirely consistent, but generally show better complex brain functions in children whose mothers supplemented eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid while breastfeeding. Individual manufacturers supplement milk food with DHA.

According to a study by the Technical University of Munich, however, the hope that the targeted intake of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy could prevent obesity in children does not seem to be confirmed for the time being.

At the end of August 2007 a group of scientists held a consensus conference sponsored by the EU: “New EU Recommendation Suggests Pregnant Women Need Higher Levels of Omega-3”. It was recommended that at least 200 mg / day DHA be taken during pregnancy, although it was noted that up to 2.7 g / day of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid had been given in intervention studies without significant side effects. Here, too, there was agreement on the assessment of the value of omega-3 fatty acids in pregnancy, but disagreement regarding the dose.

The consensus conference recommends eating two servings of oily fish (e.g. salmon or mackerel) per week for pregnant and breastfeeding women, which is also in line with the recommendations of the European Food Standards Agency. Women who eat little or no fish should consider using omega-3 supplements.


In observational studies, indications of a protective effect against prostate cancer from the consumption of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid were obtained, while α-linolenic acid may have the opposite effect. Higher levels of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid, but not α-linolenic acid, were associated with a lower likelihood of prostate cancer. Several interventional studies on the subject are currently in progress.

However, the 2013 SELECT study found that docosahexaenoic acid also had a higher risk of prostate cancer. For the second time, the study suggested that polyunsaturated fatty acids could promote the formation of prostate cancer.

For other cancers such as colorectal cancer or breast cancer , the higher the level of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid in the erythrocytes (red blood cells), the lower the risk of the disease . Previous research looking at fish consumption showed less clear results. Here, too, no final assessment can be given.

By stimulating myeloid-derived suppressor cells (MDSC), polyunsaturated fatty acids can interfere with the tumor microenvironment depending on the ROS production.

Inflammatory diseases with an autoimmune component

In inflammatory disease patterns with autoimmune components, such as rheumatoid arthritis , inflammatory bowel diseases , asthma or primary sclerosing cholangitis , mechanisms of action, such as the reduction in inflammatory mediators, speak for a therapeutic effect. The first intervention studies had positive results, but a final evaluation is still pending as further intervention studies have to be carried out.

In 2013, Yan, Jiang and co-workers discovered that the anti-inflammatory (anti-inflammatory) effect of omega-3 fatty acids is based on an inhibition of the activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome , followed by caspase-1 activation and secretion of IL-1 β.

Age-related degenerative diseases

Although observational studies suggested that an increased content of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet could counteract age-related macular degeneration, this could not be confirmed in the ARED-II study .

Omega-3 fatty acids in neurology and psychiatry

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the structure and function of the brain and eyes, among other things. Various mechanisms of action that are relevant for this have been described: changes in dopaminergic function, regulation of hormone systems, changes in intracellular signal systems , increased dendritic branching and synapse formation and a number of others. This applies in particular to docosahexaenoic acid, less so to eicosapentaenoic acid and not to α-linolenic acid.


A systematic review showed that ischemic stroke occurs around 30% less in people who consume omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acid levels do not appear to be associated with the occurrence of hemorrhagic strokes.

Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer's Disease

Observational studies on patients with cognitive impairments and Alzheimer's disease showed that the consumption of more fish, but above all higher levels of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid, are associated with a lower risk of loss of cognition and the development of dementia . A first small intervention study had promising results, and more are currently being prepared.


(Unipolar) depression and bipolar disorder occur more often in people with low intake of omega-3 fatty acids and / or low levels of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid . A low omega-3 index is a risk factor for future suicide attempts . Several meta-analyzes are available for various intervention studies (doses between 1 and 9.6 g / day) , the results of which do not agree. There seems to be some evidence that demonstrating an antidepressant effect depends on which of the omega-3 fatty acids was administered to the participants in the studies. It has been shown that EPA has an antidepressant effect when administered more than 1 g / day, while DHA alone shows only a slight or no antidepressant effect. Several combination studies that administered both omega-3 fatty acids in a ratio of> 1 EPA: DHA could also show positive antidepressant effects. On the other hand, if the ratio of EPA to DHA was less than 1, no antidepressant effects could be measured. There seems to be a need for further research in order to be able to issue precise dietary instructions (i.e. monotherapy of individual omega-3 fatty acids versus combination therapy and also the level of the daily dose used). However, there is sustained interest in further research in this area, as the results so far are promising insofar as depression was alleviated or completely eliminated in a number of test subjects. It has been suggested that future studies should be based on omega-3 fatty acid levels.


The omega-3 fatty acid levels of the schizophrenic patients are significantly lower than the omega-3 fatty acid levels of the subjects in healthy control groups. Positive effects were seen in 3 of 4 intervention studies and in studies on the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid. Further intervention studies are currently being carried out.

Borderline personality

Initial data from intervention studies in borderline personalities showed that eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids can reduce hostility and aggression, as well as depressive symptoms.

Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder

In adolescents and adults with attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder , lower omega-3 fatty acid levels have been found than in healthy people.

A cross-sectional study from 2016 concludes that the results of the studies examined with omega-3 supplements are contradictory, but that there are possible indications of successful treatment of the ADHD symptoms.

See also


  • A. Hahn, A. Ströhl: Omega-3 fatty acids . In: Chemistry in Our Time . tape 38 , 2004, p. 310-318 .
  • Chapter 9: The Omega-3 Fatty Acids Revolution . In: David Servan-Schreiber (Ed.): The new medicine of emotions . 10th edition. 2005, ISBN 3-88897-353-8 , pp. 155–178 (Treats omega-3 fatty acids, especially used in depression).
  • Andrew L. Stoll: The Omega-3 Connection: The Groundbreaking Antidepression Diet and Brain Program . Simon & Schuster, New York 2001, ISBN 0-684-87139-4 .

Web links

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