The importance of omega-3 fatty acids has been recognized for decades by health professionals across the board. Not only have more and more people started adding fish oil supplements to their medicine cabinets to take advantage of the multitude of potential omega-3 benefits, but manufacturers have even started making more specialty products as well, including omega-3 fatty acids for dogs and other furry friends.
So what are omega 3 fatty acids good for? How does omega-3 work? And how can I get omega-3 naturally? Let’s dive in and take a closer look at this essential fatty acid and how it can impact health.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
So what do omega-3 fatty acids do and why should you be sure to get in your daily dose? According to the official omega-3 fatty acids definition, omega-3s are a class of essential fatty acid that have been associated with a long list of potential health benefits.
Because your body is unable to produce omega-3 fatty acids on its own, you must obtain them from supplementation or dietary sources such as fatty fish, nuts and seeds.
There are three different types of omega-3 fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are the two active forms of omega-3 fatty acids and are the most readily absorbed and utilized by the body. ALA, on the other hand, is converted to EPA and DHA in small amounts in the body and is found primarily in plant-based sources. Most supplements contain a combination of EPA, DHA and/or ALA in varying amounts.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important because they play a central role in nearly every aspect of health. In fact, omega-3 fatty acids benefits range from decreased inflammation to improved brain health, lower triglyceride levels, better sleep and beyond.
1. Decreases Inflammation
Which benefit is associated with omega-3 fatty acids? While there are plenty of ways that omega-3 fatty acids can improve health, its ability to relieve inflammation is perhaps the most well-studied benefit.
According to one large review of 68 trials, supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids can help significantly decrease levels of C-reactive protein, interleukin 6 and tumor necrosis factor α, all of which are markers of inflammation in the body.
In addition to aiding in the treatment of inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, some research also suggests that decreasing inflammation could protect against chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer as well.
2. Boosts Mood
Several studies have found that filling up on foods high in omega 3 fatty acids can bring big benefits when it comes to your mood and mental health. In fact, studies show that those who have a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to be depressed than those with a lower intake.
One study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity also found that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids decreased symptoms of anxiety among medical students by 20 percent. What’s more, omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to be beneficial for those suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as well.
3. Preserves Brain Function
Taking an omega-3 fatty acids supplement is often recommended for older adults thanks to its beneficial effects on aging and inflammation. One study conducted by the Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, for example, reported that omega-3 fatty acid consumption may help slow cognitive decline in elderly patients without dementia.
Additionally, although more research is needed to determine whether omega-3 fatty acids could play a role in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, a 2018 review out of Brazil concluded that supplementation may be most beneficial when used at disease onset.
4. Promotes Heart Health
As the leading cause of death worldwide, heart disease is a problem that affects millions around the globe. Fortunately, studies show that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce several risk factors for heart disease to help optimize heart health.
Not only can it reduce inflammation, but studies show that it may also decrease triglycerides and increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol in the blood. Plus, according to a study out of Iceland, consuming omega-3-rich fatty fish three times per week can also decrease diastolic blood pressure, another major risk factor for heart disease.
5. May Help Protect Against Cancer
More and more emerging research continues to demonstrate the link between diet and cancer development, making it increasingly clear that what you put on your plate can impact your risk of cancer. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, have been associated with a reduced risk of several types of cancer.
According to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, consuming higher amounts of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids was associated with a significantly lower risk of colorectal cancer. Similarly, other research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may also be linked to a lower risk of breast and prostate cancer as well, although more studies are needed to evaluate how they may directly impact cancer development.
6. Improves Sleep
If you’re having difficulty sleeping at night, you may want to consider upping your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. There are plenty of factors that can take a toll on sleep quality, but some research suggests that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids may be tied to an increased risk of sleep disturbances in children as well as obstructive sleep apnea in adults.
Not only that, but a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine looked at the effects of fatty fish consumption on sleep. Interestingly enough, they found that consuming three servings of omega-3-rich fatty fish per week had beneficial effects on sleep compared to a control group.
7. Supports Healthy Bones and Joints
As you start to get older, issues like arthritis and osteoporosis become increasingly common, upping the risk of joint pain, fractures and deceased bone density. Luckily, studies show that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids can help keep your bones and joints strong to support healthy aging.
Omega-3s can help increase calcium absorption, which could potentially protect against bone loss and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. They can also decrease inflammation and may be beneficial in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic condition that causes stiffness, swelling and pain in the joints.
How to Boost Intake
There are several different ways to boost your intake of this essential fatty acid. However, the best way to increase consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is to switch up your diet and start including more sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
So what foods are high in omega-3? A good source of omega-3 fatty acids is fatty fish, including varieties such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna.
Other omega-3 foods include walnuts, chia seeds, flax and hemp seeds. Ideally, try to consume at least two servings of fish per week along with a good variety of plant-based, vegan omega-3 sources as well.
Supplementation is also an option, which can be especially useful for those who don’t regularly consume fish. Fish oil, cod liver oil, krill oil and roe oil are a few of the most common omega-3-based supplements on the market. For vegans and vegetarians, algal oil is another option available that is derived from algae and is completely plant-based.
Although dosage recommendations can vary based on which supplement you select, the recommended daily intake is 1,100 milligrams of total omega-3s per day for women and 1,600 milligrams daily for men. Taking up to 2,000 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA is generally considered safe by the FDA.
Risks and Side Effects
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are safe, effective and associated with minimal adverse effects on health. Some of the most common side effects include abdominal discomfort, fishy breath, acid reflux and diarrhea.
For best results, however, take as directed and consult with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
Note that these side effects are mostly associated with omega-3 supplements. Consuming foods with omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, is unlikely to cause any negative symptoms or side effects and is a great alternative to help boost your intake of this essential fatty acid.