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Omega fatty acids (popularly referred to as Ï‰âˆ’3 fatty acids or omega-3 fatty acids) are a family of unsaturated fatty acids that have in common a final carbonâ€“carbon double bond in the nâˆ’3 position; that is, the third bond from the methyl end of the fatty acid. Nutritionally important nâˆ’3 fatty acids include Î±-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are polyunsaturated. The human body cannot synthesize nâˆ’3 fatty acids de novo, but it can form “long chain” 20-carbon unsaturated nâˆ’3 fatty acids (like EPA) and 22-carbon unsaturated nâˆ’3 fatty acids (like DHA) from the “short chain” eighteen-carbon nâˆ’3 fatty acid Î±-linolenic acid. The short chain nâˆ’3 fatty acids are converted to long chain forms (EPA, DHA) with an efficiency of approximately 5% in men, and at a greater percentage in women.
These conversions occur competitively with nâˆ’6 fatty acids, which are essential closely related chemical analogues that are derived from linoleic acid. Both the nâˆ’3 Î±-linolenic acid and nâˆ’6 linoleic acid must be obtained from food. Synthesis of the longer nâˆ’3 fatty acids from linolenic acid within the body is competitively slowed by the nâˆ’6 analogues. Thus accumulation of long-chain nâˆ’3 fatty acids in tissues is more effective when they are obtained directly from food or when competing amounts of nâˆ’6 analogs do not greatly exceed the amounts of nâˆ’3. Although omega-3 fatty acids have been known as essential to normal growth and health since the 1930s, awareness of their health benefits has dramatically increased in the past few years. New versions of ethyl esterized omega-3 fatty acids, such as E-EPA and combinations of E-EPA and E-DHA, have drawn attention as highly purified and more effective products than the traditional ones. In the United States, these novel versions are often sold as prescription medications, such as Lovaza. In the European Union, they are available as dietary supplements.