n−3 fatty acids (popularly referred to as ω−3 fatty acids or omega-3 fatty acids) are a family of unsaturated fatty acids that have in common a final carbon–carbon double bond in the n−3 position; that is, the third bond from the methyl end of the fatty acid.
Important nutritionally-essential n−3 fatty acids are: α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are polyunsaturated. The human body cannot synthesize n−3 fatty acids de novo, but it can form 20-carbon unsaturated n−3 fatty acids (like EPA) and 22-carbon unsaturated n−3 fatty acids (like DHA) from the eighteen-carbon n−3 fatty acid α-linolenic acid. These conversions occur competitively with n−6 fatty acids, which are essential closely related chemical analogues that are derived from linoleic acid. Both the n−3 α-linolenic acid and n−6 linoleic acid are essential nutrients which must be obtained from food. Synthesis of the longer n−3 fatty acids from linolenic acid within the body is competitively slowed by the n−6 analogues. Thus accumulation of long-chain n−3 fatty acids in tissues is more effective when they are obtained directly from food or when competing amounts of n−6 analogs do not greatly exceed the amounts of n−3.
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