Omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3 FA) are constituents of the membranes of all cells in the body and are precursors of locally produced hormones, eicosanoids, which are important in the prevention and treatment of various diseases, especially in women. Omega-3 FA are of interest in some of the most common conditions affecting women. One mechanism underlying dysmenorrhea is a disturbed balance between antiinflammatory, vasodilator eicosanoids derived from omega-3 FA and proinflammatory, vasoconstrictor eicosanoids derived from omega-6 FA. Increased intake of omega-3 FA can reverse the symptoms in this condition by decreasing the amount of omega-6 FA in cell membranes. An increased prostacyclin/thromboxane ratio induced by omega-3 FA can facilitate pregnancy in women with infertility problems by increasing uterine blood flow. Supplementation with omega-3 FA during pregnancy lowers the risk of premature birth and can increase the length of pregnancy and birth weight by altering the balance of eicosanoids involved in labor and promote fetal growth by improving placental blood flow. Intake of omega-3 FA during pregnancy and breast feeding may facilitate the child’s brain development. There is also some evidence that supplementation with omega-3 FA might help to prevent preeclampsia, postpartum depression, menopausal problems, postmenopausal osteoporosis, and breast cancer. Furthermore, because elevated triglyceride levels are associated with cardiovascular disease, especially in women; and because omega-3 FA have powerful effects on triglycerides, women in particular gain from an increased intake of these fatty acids. This is especially important in women receiving hormone therapy, which can increase triglyceride levels. The quality of the omega-3 FA preparation is important. It should have an appropriate antioxidant content not to induce lipid peroxidation, and its content of dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) should be well below the established safe limit.
Obstetricians & Gynecologists, Family Physicians
After completion of this article, the reader should be able to describe the function and actions of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, to outline the potential advantages of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, and to list the potential sources of omega-3 fatty acids.