Omega-3: benefits, properties and contraindications

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat considered essential because the human body is unable to synthesize them in sufficient quantities to meet its needs. Their properties, contrasted with those of omega-6 fatty acids, are associated with beneficial effects on cardiovascular and nervous system health, and not only that: years of studies show their potential usefulness against diseases affecting other organs and systems as well.

To meet Omega-3 requirements, it is first of all possible to rely on thediet. However, not all sources of Omega-3 provide their biologically active forms; moreover, in some special conditions (such as pregnancy) meeting the body's demands can be particularly difficult. Fortunately, however, there are excellent quality dietary supplements that can help cope with such situations.

In general, Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements do not give serious side effects; the most common are gastrointestinal symptoms such as belching, poor digestion and diarrhea.

 However, there is no shortage of contraindications; therefore, in case you are taking medications, have allergies or are in special conditions (such as pregnancy or breastfeeding), in addition to making sure that you are buying first-rate and cost-effective products, it is a good idea to seek advice from your pharmacist or doctor.

Omega-3s, what's the use of taking them

The benefits of Omega-3 intake were first described in the 1970s by researchers who noticed that in Inuit Eskimos living in Greenland-a population that consumed high doses of marine-derived Omega-3s-the platelet membranes were very rich in these fatty acids and the risk of atherosclerosis was reduced.

Experts attributed the latter effect to Inuit eating habits and the impact of their diet on blood fat levels and blood clotting. Subsequent studies have further deepened our understanding of what Omega-3s are used for, revealing that once taken they are incorporated into all tissues of the body and that their concentrations are particularly high in nerve tissue, retina and heart muscle .

What Omega-3s are good for

A first role of Omega-3s is structural; in fact, these fatty acids fit between the phospholipids of cell membranes, making them more fluid. In addition, these molecules are used as starting material for the synthesis of other substances with important functional roles, particularly molecules withanti-inflammatory action. Omega-3 properties are useful as early as gestation, when they help the proper development of the baby's cardiovascular system, brain and eyes.

And again to protect the heart, arteries, nervous system and eyesight, it is important to ensure adequate levels during the rest of life as well. In fact, several studies have associated Omega-3s with anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant effects, the ability to control blood cholesterol and triglycerides, and the ability to lower blood pressure, but not only that. According to some research, these fatty acids may also reduce the risk and symptoms of issues such as stroke, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, diabetes, cognitive decline and stroke.

Health benefits

Omega-3 benefits and contraindications

Of all the possible benefits of omega-3s that have been most studied, the best known relate to the heart. Going into more detail, omega-3 fatty acids have numerous other benefits.

Reduction of triglycerides

Omega-3 contributes to the reduction of blood triglyceride levels after meals and on an empty stomach.

Increased HDL cholesterol

Omega-3s contribute to the increase in so-called "good" cholesterol (the HDL, High Density Lipoproteins).

Antithrombotic properties

Omega-3s have antithrombotic properties that could help reduce the risk of serious cardiovascular events (such as heart attack and stroke).

Antiarrhythmic effect

Omega-3s have an antiarrhythmic effect, that is, they help counteract cardiac arrhythmia phenomena.

Anti-inflammatory action

Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory action, which by affecting the dilation of arteries could help fight hypertension, especially during old age.

The action exerted by Omega-3s against inflammation has also been associated with positive effects against inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative rectocolitis and Crohn's disease) and some autoimmune-based rheumatologic diseases.
In addition, these fatty acids have been associated with the regulation of the immune response and certain growth factors-with potential implications also in controlling cell proliferation and fighting cancer.
Finally, Omega-3 intake has been associated with reducing symptoms of some neurological and psychiatric diseases and preventing one of the leading causes of vision loss in old age: age-related macular degeneration.

Contraindications of Omega-3s (specifically, Omega-3 supplements) concern people at risk of bleeding because they are taking particular drugs or substances, such as anticoagulants and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (the NSAIDs). In fact, these polyunsaturated fatty acids can increase the time it takes for blood to clot.

In addition, it has not yet been determined whether those who are allergic to fish or shellfish can take fish oil products, one of the main types of Omega-3 supplements. 


Omega three fatty acids: EPA, DHA and ALA

The progenitor of the Omega-3 family isalpha-linolenic acid(ALA), a nutrient considered
essential because human cells are unable to synthesize it. 

 Efsa (the European Food Safety Authority) has cleared the nutrition claim that ALA helps maintain normal blood cholesterol levels. 

 After being taken in, the alpha-linolenic acid is converted into other polyunsaturatedfats-EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)-which are the biologically active Omega-3s responsible for the benefits associated with these fatty acids.

Unfortunately, however, the body cannot produce sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA to meet its needs. In fact, to do so it must first convert ALA to EPA, but this one reaction has an efficiency of only 5 percent. A second step then allows DHA to be obtained from EPA, but
the efficiency of converting ALA to EPA plus DHA is less than 0.4 percent, and less than 0.1 percent of the ALA intake is converted by the human body into DHA.

For all these reasons, not only ALA but all Omega-3s are often considered essential fatty acids.

The different types of fatty acids and their benefits

Of all the possible benefits of omega-3s that have been most studied, the best known relate to the heart. Going into more detail, omega-3 fatty acids have numerous other benefits.

EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids

EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids

Efsa approved the nutrition claims that EPA and DHA:

  • help maintain normal blood pressure and triglyceride blood levels;
  • contribute to the proper functioning of the heart.

In addition, Efsa also authorizes stating that DHA:

  • Contributes to the normal development of the brain and its proper functioning;
  • Promotes proper eye development, vision in the first year of life and good visual health.

In fact, this Omega-3 is a key component of the brain and corresponds to about 50 percent of the weight of the membranes of neurons.Its presence and activity directly influence brain development and function through numerous mechanisms, including maintenance of membrane integrity, nerve signal transmission, production of neurons from stem cells, functioning of membrane receptors, and passage of signals within cells.

Omega-6 and Omega-9

Omega-6 and Omega-9

Omega-3s are not the only unsaturated fats friendly to heart and artery health. In fact, Omega-9s - monounsaturated fats such asoleic acid found in foods such as olive, sunflower and canola oils - have also been associated with benefits such as reduced cardiovascular and stroke risk. Their benefits would depend on increasing "good" cholesterol and reducing "bad" cholesterol.

Omega-9 can also be produced by the body.Linoleic acid (LA), on the other hand, is another essential fatty acid.

Present mainly in vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, soybean, and safflower), linoleic acid is the progenitor of the Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which like Omega-3 are structural components of cell membranes and are the starting material for the synthesis of molecules involved in inflammation; however, from Omega-6 fatty acids we derive arachidonic acid, a substance that has aproinflammatory action.

In general, Omega-6s, which are abundant in foods typical of the modern Western diet, exert opposite effects on inflammation and immunity than Omega-3s. For this reason, the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 (to be precise, the Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio) is commonly used to define the inflammatory potential of the diet; in addition, increased linoleic acid intake and Omega-3 deficiency are considered important risk factors for both cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease and for allergies and cancer. 

Linoleic acid and conjugated linoleic acid

Linoleic acid and conjugated linoleic acid

Although they usually exert opposite effects to those of Omega-3, Omega-6 can also lead to health benefits. In particular, linoleic acid can also occur in a form that has been associated with several health properties:conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). 

Conjugated linoleic acid can prevent the development of atherosclerosis, reduce body fat by improving lean body mass, and regulate immune and inflammatory responses, and has been associated with properties: 

  • antimutagen
  • anticarcinogenic
  • antiobesiogen
  • antidiabetic
  • antihypertensive

However, different forms of conjugated linoleic acid may have different properties. Therefore, to obtain specific benefits it may be necessary to take equally specific forms.           

Benefits in food

Omega-3 fatty acids, where are they found?

When discussing where Omega-3s are found, it is important to make a
distinction between those found in foods that contain Omega-3s of marine origin and those that may instead be contributed by foods found
on land. 

The latter are plant-based and contain ALA. This means that in order to reap the benefits of the Omega-3s in these foods, the body will have to convert ALA to EPA and this to DHA, an operation that
as has been mentioned has very low efficiency.

Instead, marine sources of Omega-3 are often rich in EPA and DHA
ready to use. In particular, fishery products are rich in EPA and DHA. Therefore from a nutritional point of view, the strategy m take up these fatty acids is to consume foods that contain Omega-3 from animal sources.

Omega-3 rich fish

Omega-3 rich fish

In terms of everyday nutrition, fish is one of the best sources of Omega-3 fats. In particular, the fish with the most Omega-3s are the fatty fish that live in cold seas, such as:

  • the salmon
  • mackerel
  • tuna
  • herrings
  • sardines
  • the swordfish


Leaner fish (such as sea bass, cod, and tilapia), on the other hand, are less rich in Omega-3. 

They are also considered good sources of Omega-3:

  • trout
  • carp
  • the mullet


However, it is good to remember that even in the case of fatty fish, Omega-3 intake may vary depending on how they are fed. In the case of farmed fish, for example, the content of EPA and DHA is higher if the animals are fed traditional feed made from marine ingredients rather than other ingredients.    

Omega-3 and 6 supplements

Omega-3 and 6 supplements

Taking supplements makes it possible to ensure a proper balance of Omega-3, 6 and 9, to meet the body's needs even under conditions of increased Omega-3 requirements (such as during pregnancy), and to take full advantage of the health benefits exerted by these fatty acids.

Products found in pharmacies, parapharmacies, mass retailers, or on the Web are not all the same. A first difference between different Omega-3 supplements concerns cost; from this point of view, it is important to base your choice not only on the price per package, but also on the Omega-3 content for each of the capsules (or tablets, pills, pearls, or opercula).

Multiplying the Omega-3 content per capsule by the number of capsules gives the Omega-3 content per package, and dividing the price by the latter goes back to the price per 1,000 mg of Omega-3.

With this simple calculation, it is possible to identify the most cost-effective Omega-3 supplements. However, the choice should also be based on other factors: theorigin of the Omega-3 in the supplement and the quality of the product in terms of purity and freshness


Vegetable omega-3s

Vegetable omega-3s

The world of plant-based Omega-3s deserves separate attention. In fact, not all plant-based Omega-3 sources are equivalent.

Micro algae and algae oil are sources of the biologically active Omega-3s, EPA and DHA. Omega-3 fish themselves take up these valuable polyunsaturated fatty acids precisely by feeding on micro algae. 

Other plant sources of Omega-3, however, are rich in alpha-linolenic acid.       

Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)

Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)

Alpha-linolenic acid, progenitor of the Omega-3 family, can help keep blood cholesterol levels in the normal range.

The human body converts it into the biologically active Omega-3s, EPA and DHA, but unfortunately the efficiency of this conversion is very low, and it is estimated that less than 0.1% of ALA intake is converted to DHA.  

Omega-3, where is alpha-linoleic acid found?

Omega-3, where is alpha-linoleic acid found?

Alpha-linoleic acid is particularly abundant in plant sources of Omega-3 other than microalgae and algal oil. In particular, it is present in:

  • walnuts
  • flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • rapeseed oil
  • soybean and soybean oil
  • chia seeds
  • Green leafy vegetables.          


EPA and DHA can be found in fish such as: salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, swordfish, trout, carp, and mullet.

Crustaceans and algae

can also be found in crustaceans such as the Krill, a small crustacean that mainly inhabits Antarctic waters, or in plant sources such as the algae Schizochytrium sp.

Oils and seeds

ALA can be found in: walnuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans and soybean oil, chia seeds, and green leafy vegetables.

Omega-3 supplements

Omega-3, Omega-6 and DHA supplements


Omega-3 supplements: what are they for?

Omega-3 supplements are mainly used for 3 purposes:

  • Protect cardiovascular health;
  • Provide Omega-3s needed for the development of the nervous system and eyes;
  • Meeting the daily requirement of EPA and DHA when not eating enough fish with Omega-3.

Studies over the years have also suggested that they may be useful in combating various issues-from diabetes to depression-and there is no shortage of those who use them in veterinary settings (Omega-3s for dogs are sometimes recommended, for example).

Omega-3 supplements

The best omega-3 supplements

Dietary supplements may contain different forms of Omega-3:natural triglycerides, free fatty acids, ethyl esters, re-esterified triglycerides, and phospholipids.

Dietary supplements may contain different forms of Omega-3:
natural triglycerides, free fatty acids, ethyl esters, re-esterified triglycerides and phospholipids.

The former are those found naturally in fish oil, while phospholipids are the
main form of Omega-3 in krill oil. Ethyl esters can be obtained from naturally occurring triglycerides by replacing the glycerol molecule in them with ethanol; finally, re-esterified triglycerides are produced by converting ethyl esters back to triglycerides.
All forms of Omega-3 allow increased levels of EPA and DHA in the blood. However, it appears that the bioavailability of ethyl esters is lower than that of naturally occurring triglycerides, the re-esterified triglycerides and free fatty acids.

Read more

In addition, when buying Omega-3 supplements, it is important to choose products with certified purity, freshness and concentration.

To choose the best Omega-3 supplement, you can rely on certifications issued by third-party laboratories based on the reference standards established by the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). Well-known laboratories include those of Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc.'s International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) testing and certification program, the only one dedicated exclusively to fish oil.  

There are four evaluation criteria :

  • The correspondence between the concentration of active ingredients detected in the product and that stated on the label;
  • The level of oxidation, which must be less than 75 percent to the standard set by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN);
  • The PCB level, which must be less than 50 percent of the CRN standard;
  • the level of dioxin, which must be less than 50 percent of the standard specified by the World Health Organization (WHO).

For each criterion met, the system awards one star; in addition, a fifth star is awarded to those products that received positive ratings in all the tests performed.

Omegor Vitality, VitaDHA 1000 and Meaquor 1000 are all IFOS 5-star certified on each batch.



Health benefits

Omega-3 rx

Omega-3 Rx supplements are pharmaceutical grade supplements, that is, they meet standards suitable for medicinal use.

These supplements feature higher EPA and DHA concentrations and a high degree of purification. The Omega-3 content of each capsule is closer to 100 percent, and the risk of the presence of contaminants, oxidized fatty acids, toxins (such as mercury) and other undesirable substances (e.g., cholesterol or saturated fats) is lower than in other dietary supplements.

Omega-3 supplements

Omega-3: foods or supplements

The benefits of a diet rich in foods containing Omega-3s have been widely demonstrated. However, daily DHA and EPA requirements cannot always be met by diet alone; therefore, supplements can be a valuable aid for those who want to ensure a nutritionally balanced diet.

In addition, in some cases-particularly during pregnancy-theconsumption of fish with Omega-3 should be limited to no more than 150 grams per week because of the risk of mercury contamination. Relying on plant sources of Omega-3s-which contain ALA-is not sufficient to meet the DHA requirements of the developing fetus; therefore, Omega-3 supplements are also a valuable aid during gestation. 

Finally, taking Omega-3 supplements may be recommended to combat specific health problems, such as high triglycerides.

In general, relying on the advice of a nutritionist can help you understand whether and how to take Omega-3 in supplement form.  

Omega-3: daily dose

According to the Larns (the Reference Intake Levels of Nutrients and Energy for the Italian population) the adequate intake level of Omega-3 for adults and the elderly is 250 mg of EPA+DHA per day; exceptions are women during pregnancy and lactation, in which case the daily intake of Omega-3 is 250 mg of EPA+DHA plus 100-200 mg of DHA.

In the case of Omega-3s for children and adolescents according to LARNs, on the other hand, the adequate intake is 250 mg per day of EPA+DHA, plus 100 mg of DHA up to age 2.

Regarding dietary supplements specifically, according to Efsa, Omega-3 products can boast beneficial properties only in the cases shown in Table 1.

Regarding maximum intake levels, to know how many grams of EPA and DHA Omega-3 per day not to exceed you can consult Table 2.

Since different supplements may contain different amounts of Omega-3, the dosage may vary from case to case.

Table 1





Maintenance of normal cholesterol levels



Normal functioning of the heart



Normal brain and eye development of the fetus and breastfed babies

200 mg (maternal intake)

Table 2




4 to 14 years old

Males and females

5 grams

From 15 years old


5 grams

From 15 years old


5 grams

Side effects

Omega-3 supplements: side effects

As mentioned, omega-3 supplements are generally well tolerated. Possible side effects, particularly with low-quality omega-3 supplements, mostly include gastrointestinal symptoms such as:

  • Eutotations
  • Stomach pain or stomach discomfort
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

It is a good idea to seek medical advice if these complaints are severe or do not hint at disappearing.



Omega-3: contraindications

Omega-3 supplements may have contraindications because they may increase the time it takes for blood to clot; therefore, they may be contraindicated if you are taking medications that may in turn affect it.

In general, it is a good idea to inform your doctor or pharmacist about all medications, supplements, and herbal medicines that you take, especially:

  • anticoagulants
  • antiplatelet
  • beta blockers
  • diuretics
  • estrogen-based contraceptives
  • hormone replacement therapy
  • Fans

On the other hand, it has not yet been fully clarified whether the contraindications of Omega-3 fish oil supplements include allergies to fish and shellfish. In case you suffer from them, you should consult with your doctor before taking them.

More generally, you should inform your doctor or pharmacist in case of:

  • any type of allergy
  • diabetes
  • atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter
  • Liver, thyroid or pancreatic diseases
  • pregnancy
  • breastfeeding

Be careful if you take

anticoagulants, antiplatelets, beta-blockers, diuretics, estrogen-based contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy, and NSAIDs.

Caution in case of

any type of allergy, diabetes, arterial or flutterarterial fibrillation, thyroid or pancreatic liver disease, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.

Ask the pharmacist

Our pharmacists will answer all your nutritional questions or curiosities


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