Omega-3 fatty acids get a fair amount of time in the press and a great deal of respect at this point, but do you know what omega-3s are? What omega-3 benefits could convince you to add more oily fish (or maybe a supplement) to your diet? Are omega-3 foods really that big of a deal when it comes to eating a nutrient-dense diet? Could you be deficient in these fatty acids?
We’ll unpack these questions one by one, but let’s start by saying that omega-3 fatty acids are crucial nutrients for overall health. Your body doesn’t produce omega-3s on its own, which means they are “essential fatty acids” — you have to consume them.
When it comes to omega-3 benefits, there are rarely nutrients that pack this many positive health outcomes into one compound. The most commonly known benefit of omega-3s is a reduced risk of heart disease, but that’s not the only studied plus of getting lots of omega-3s in your diet. In fact, omega-3 benefits everything from from fetal development to retinal function, weight management and a lot more in between. These acids support and promote optimal health for anyone.
In fact, the FDA has already approved two omega-3 formulations as approved treatments for high triglycerides. One contains just one compound, and the other contains two of the animal-based omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA.
So, what are they, and why do you need them?
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3s are a specific type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. That means they contain more than one double bond in their chemical structure. The “3” refers to where in the chemical structure the first double bond occurs.
Your body is able to synthesize saturated fatty acids, but you don’t have an enzyme that allows you to stick a double bond in the right spot to create omega-3s yourself.
The four most comon omega-3s found in food are ALA, EPA, ETA and DHA.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): This plant-based omega-3 is found in green, leafy vegetables; flaxseeds and chia seeds; and canola, walnut and soybean oils (although those rancid oils are not ones I generally recommend). ALA is known as a short-chain omega-3. This means your body has to convert it into longer-chained EPA and DHA to synthesize it. This process is rather inefficient, and only about one percent of the ALA you consume is converted to the long-chain version your body needs (although this percentage is slightly higher for women).
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA): EPA is a 20-carbon fatty acid found in oily fish, algae oil and krill oil. Your body is able to synthesize this molecule in its original form. EPA and DHA are the omega-3s your body needs in high quantities to achieve the benefits they offer.
Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA): ETA is a lesser-known omega-3 fatty acid that also contains 20 carbons, like EPA, but only four bonds instead of five. It is found richly in roe oil and green-lipped mussel. It has only recently been recognized for its potent health benefits. Not only is it anti-inflammatory, like the other omega-3s, but ETA can also limit your body’s production of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA). In fact, ETA redirects the enzyme that normally creates ARA to convert it to EPA instead.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): This 22-carbon molecule is also found in oily fish, krill oil and algae oil. Your body converts some DHA molecules back to EPA in order to keep them at fairly equal levels if you consume more DHA.
Your body also needs omega-6s, another type of fatty acid, to function properly and prevent disease. Unfortunately, these are found in much more abundance than omega-3s in the standard American diet, although your body craves a 1:1 ratio to keep inflammation low. Most modern diets contain a ratio closer to 20:1 or 30:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-6s come in some form of linoleic acid. They are found in vegetable oils, safflower oils, meat, poultry and eggs.
Can You Have an Omega-3 Deficiency?
Most people don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids, according to an analysis and systematic review of dietary data about U.S. adults spanning 2003–2008. There is no official daily value assigned to omega-3s, but the American Heart Association recommends two or more 3.5-ounce fish servings (oily, if possible) each week.
In general, most health organizations agree 250–500 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined each day is a reasonable amount to support healthy individuals. However, people with heart problems (or those with a high risk of heart disease), depression, anxiety and cancer (and possibly more conditions) may benefit from higher doses — up to 4,000 milligrams per day for some heart-related conditions.
In 2009, the Harvard School of Public Health published a review of individual risk factors that are attributable to specific deaths. By its estimates, low omega-3 intake is eighth on the list of the most serious risk factors that contribute to death, labeling it responsible for up to 96,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
To reap all the omega-3 benefits, it may be difficult for some people to eat the required amounts of oily fish, particularly with the well-known dangers of farmed fish, which are more readily available to most Americans. That’s why some people consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement in addition to a well-rounded diet. I’ll discuss supplements in a moment, though.
First, let’s look at why it’s so very important to get enough omega-3s.
Omega-3 foods are believed to help lower the risk for heart disease due to their inflammation-reducing abilities. They also are needed for proper neurological function, cell membrane maintenance, mood regulation and hormone production.
This is the reason omega-3 foods are known as “good fat” sources, the kinds that provide polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS) known as alpha-linolenic acids. While most consume enough of the other kinds of essential fatty acids known as omega-6s (found in modified cooking oils like canola, sunflower and safflower oil, plus some nuts), most people are low in omega-3s and can afford to up their intake of omega-3 foods.
Studies show that a lower ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is more desirable to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases that have become epidemics in most Western societies. For example, researchers from the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health of Washington, D.C. found that the lower the omega-6/omega-3 ratio was in women, the lower their risk of breast cancer. A ratio of 2:1 suppresses inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and a ratio of 5:1 has a beneficial effect on patients with asthma.
The average person suffers from omega-3 deficiency because she doesn’t include the best omega-3 foods in her weekly diet, such as fish, sea vegetables/algae, flaxseeds or grass-fed meat. Depending on whom you ask, these numbers vary, but I advise people that the ideal ratio of omega-6 foods to omega-3 foods is about equal to, or at least at, a 2:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.
What are the risks of consuming too little omega-3s (plus too many omega-6s)?
- Inflammation (sometimes severe)
- Higher risk for heart disease and high cholesterol
- Digestive disorders
- Joint and muscle pain
- Mental disorders like depression
- Poor brain development
- Cognitive decline
11 Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fats
1. Good for Heart Health
One of the most well-known benefits of omega-3s is the way they positively affect risk factors associated with heart disease. That’s one reason the American Heart Association is very clear about encouraging people to get enough in their diets. Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death worldwide, but communities who eat diets rich in fish have remarkably low instances of these diseases. This is at least partially due to their high omega-3 consumption.
While some studies have found no correlation indicating omega-3s significantly reduce risk of stroke or heart attacks, other reviews disagree. Here is what we do know about heart disease risks and omega-3s:
- Lowering High Triglycerides: The American Heart Association recognizes that the highest amount of omega-3s are generally needed for people with high triglycerides, a major risk factor for heart disease. Doses of omega-3 supplements are associated with lowered triglyceride levels in patients with or without other diseases.
- Regulating Cholesterol: Research finds omega-3 benefits cholesterol levels by raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, although some results also find a slight increase in LDL cholesterol. The ratio of HDL:LDL should be very close to 2:1.
- Lowering High Blood Pressure: A 2010 study found that three servings of salmon each week successfully lowered blood pressure in young, overweight people over an eight-week period. While this is not definitive proof that omega-3s lower blood pressure, it’s an encouraging preliminary result.
- Preventing Plaque Buildup: Keeping arteries clear of damage, omega-3s may aid your body in preventing plaque buildup responsible for hardening and restriction of the arteries.
- Reduce Metabolic Syndrome Symptoms: The cluster of risk factors known as metabolic syndrome includes abdominal obesity, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and low HDL cholesterol. These risk factors are indicative of a high chance you might develop heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Multiple studies have found omega-3 supplementation improves the symptoms of metabolic syndrome and may help to protect you from the related diseases.
- Preventing Blood Clots: It’s possible omega-3s help your platelets not clump together, aiding in the prevention of blood clots that may cause major harm.
2. May Fight Mental Disorders and Decline
There are a number of conditions related to brain and mental health that seem to improve when individuals get good omega-3s.
Depression and Anxiety: These common mental health concerns are some of the most prevalent in the world today, and conventional remedies for depression are, for the most part, disappointingly ineffective. However, people who regularly get large amounts of omega-3s are less likely to be depressed than those who are deficient.
Several studies suggest that people suffering signs of depression and/or anxiety see improvement after adding an omega-3 supplement to their routines, even in double-blinded, randomized, controlled trials. At least one study comparing a common depression medication found omega-3 supplements to be just as effective in combating depression symptoms.
ADHD: Studies comparing omega-3 levels in children have discovered those with ADHD diagnoses have lower blood omega-3 fatty acids compared to healthy comparison subjects. Limited but promising results seem to agree that there is some effectiveness of omega-3s for ADHD.
Schizophrenia: A meta-analysis conducted by the Saint Louis University School of Medicine found that multiple studies comparing omega-3s and schizophrenia found modestly positive results, specifically in the early stages of the disease.
Bipolar Disorder: Also known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is a complex and sometimes debilitating condition. There is some evidence that omega-3 benefits bipolar sufferers by stabilizing mood.
Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Mental Decline: Small clinical trials have seen a potentially neuroprotective effect of omega-3 fats on people suffering from dementia, age-related mental decline and even Alzheimer’s disease. It seems that high levels of omega-3s in the blood can help to slow or even reverse some cognitive decline.
3. Reduce Inflammation
One reason omega-3 fatty acids may be so beneficial to this many aspects of health could be that they help decrease system-wide inflammation. Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and is related to the development of nearly every major illness. By eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet, you give your body its best chance to fight disease like it was designed to do.
An animal study involving the omega-3 ETA discovered that subjects experienced a drop in overall inflammation similar to that caused by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) but without the dangers of NSAIDs, such as gastrointestinal side effects. The study authors also pointed out that eicosapentaenoic acid seems to be even more potent than the conventional omega-3s found in fish oil supplements (EPA/DHA).
4. Linked to Preventing and Managing Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune disease is a sometimes frustrating branch of medicine. On average, it takes six to 10 visits to a doctor for autoimmune disease to be suspected as the root cause of the plethora of symptoms these conditions cause.
Characterized by the immune system attacking healthy cells, mistaking them for foreign intruders, autoimmune conditions include diseases such as type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, leaky gut syndrome and many more.
Multiple studies have found links between high omega-3 intake and a decreased risk for autoimmune diseases or an improvement in autoimmune disease symptoms. Some of these suggest the best protective effect comes when omega-3 fatty acids are consumed in high amounts in the first year of life.
5. Associated with Lowered Cancer Risks
Through several epidemiological studies, in which researchers observe trends in large population samples over time, it seems possible that high levels of omega-3 fats may be associated with a lowered risk of certain cancers.
After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate cancer and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. The evidence is somewhat conflicting in some reports, but there is some evidence to suggest breast cancer and prostate cancer may be potentially slowed (or the risk reduced) in people who eat a lot of oily fish and possibly those who supplement with omega-3.
A lab study in 2014 found that the pancreatic cancer-fighting impact of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, may be enhanced when combined with omega-3 fatty acids, encouraging further studies in animal and human models to investigate the potential of this combination.
6. May Support Healthy Bones and Joints
The issue of osteoporosis is a major factor for older adults, affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide and resulting in osteoporotic fractures once every three seconds.
Essential fatty acids, including omega-3s, are recognized in scientific research as able to increase the amount of calcium you absorb from your gut (partly by enhancing the vitamin D effect) and improve the strength of your bones and synthesis of bone collagen.
Small, randomized, controlled trials have seen an increase in bone density in older people with osteoporosis when supplementing with EPA, compared with placebo groups, whose bone density decreased over time.
Omega-3 fats may also impact the development of arthritis. As far back as 1959, studies were published about the effectiveness of cod liver oil on arthritic patients. In the 1959 study, 93 percent of participants “showed major clinical improvement.” While there is no evidence that high omega-3 levels can prevent the development of arthritis, it seems clear that they can reduce inflammation that causes the typical bone and joint pain experienced in the disease.
7. Might Improve Sleep Quality
Can’t sleep? That’s not good for your health! Getting healthy sleep allows your body to fight illness the way it was designed in addition to contributing to a large number of natural processes (digestion, hormonal balance, cognitive health and the list goes on…).
Children, in particular, seem to experience problems with sleep when they don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. In adults, low omega-3 levels are associated with obstructive sleep apnea. One reason for this may be that low omega-3s are linked to lower levels of melatonin, the hormone partly responsible for helping you to get to sleep in the first place.
8. Beneficial for Infant and Child Development
It seems that infancy and childhood are some of the most important periods of time in a person’s life to get plenty omega-3s in the diet, probably because of the amount of long-chain fatty acids found in the brain and retina. It’s crucial for developing babies and children to get a good amount of DHA and EPA so their brains and eyes develop fully and properly.
Pregnant moms need to be particularly aware of this, because children with mothers who supplement with omega-3s during pregnancy score better on mental processing, psychomotor, hand-eye coordination and audial processing tests at nine months and four years of age. These children also seem to have lowered ADHD risk.
While breast milk is a great source of omega-3 fats for nursing infants (as long as mom is getting a lot herself), formulas don’t always contain enough of the nutrient. DHA-fortified formula, on the other hand, can help formula-fed babies with both visual and cognitive development.
9. May Fight Menstrual Pain
PMS cramps affect about 75 percent of menstruating women and, for some of them, become debilitating and affect work or home life. However, research shows that supplementing with omega-3s significantly affects menstrual symptoms, making them milder.
In fact, one study comparing ibuprofen and fish oil supplements during adolescent PMS found that the supplement actually worked better to relieve menstrual pain than the standard medication.
10. Linked to Lowered Macular Degeneration Risk
Your retina contains quite a bit of DHA, making it necessary for that fatty acid to function. The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, concludes that there is “consistent evidence” suggesting long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and EPA are necessary for retinal health and may help protect the eyes from disease.
11. Support Healthy Skin and Slow Aging
In some of the same ways omega-3 fatty acids protect your bone density, they can also help your skin stay beautiful from the inside out. DHA and EPA both benefit your skin by managing oil production and naturally slowing aging.
Some studies even show omega-3 benefits the skin by helping to prevent acne and related inflammation.
Omega-3 Foods and Supplements
Like I mentioned earlier, there are no official guidelines for the proper amount of omega-3s you should consume each day. However, most organization agree that at least two servings of a 3.5-ounce serving of fish (preferably oily) each week is a good start. That equals about 500 milligrams of EPA/DHA each day. For treating disease, up to 4,000 milligrams per day is recommended by various studies, although values do vary. It’s why a pescatarian diet or a keto diet rich in healthy omega-3s can have such health-protective effects.
Some high-quality omega-3 supplements have lower amounts of EPA/DHA but accompany them with digestive enzymes. While it looks counterintuitive on a nutrition label, this is often done because there is debate about how much of the omega-3s you actually absorb from supplements when taken alone. By coupling omega-3s with a digestive enzyme blend, you are likely able to absorb more of the nutrient without having to consume as many grams.
If possible, I recommend getting an omegas supplement that utilizes ancient medicinal practices, such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, to create a blend that will be well-absorbed and beneficial. It may also be very beneficial to look for one including ETA in addition to EPA and DHA.
Keep in mind that ALA found in plant-based foods takes a lot of energy for your body to convert to EPA and DHA. I understand that many people following a vegan diet struggle with the concept of fish oil or eating fish, but animal products contain the necessary omega-3 fatty acids to allow your body to absorb and synthesize what you take in. However, there are plant-based options. You’ll just need more ALA because of the way your body processes the medium-chain fatty acid.
The percentages listed below are based on a 4,000 milligrams (four grams)/day guideline. The foods highest in dietary omega-3 fats include fatty fish, certain nuts and sees, and more.
- Atlantic Mackerel: 6,982 milligrams in 1 cup cooked (174 precent DV)
- Salmon Fish Oil: 4,767 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (119 percent DV)
- Cod Liver Oil: 2.664 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (66 percent DV)
- Walnuts: 2,664 milligrams in 1/4 cup (66 percent DV)
- Chia Seeds: 2,457 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (61 percent DV)
- Herring: 1,885 milligrams in 3 ounces (47 percent DV)
- Alaskan Salmon (wild-caught): 1,716 milligrams in 3 ounces (42 percent DV)
- Flaxseeds(ground): 1,597 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (39 percent DV)
- Albacore Tuna: 1,414 milligrams in 3 ounces (35 percent DV)
- White Fish: 1,363 milligrams in 3 ounces (34 percent DV)
- Sardines: 1,363 milligrams in 1 can/3.75 ounces (34 percent DV)
- Hemp Seeds: 1,000 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (25 percent DV)
- Anchovies: 951 milligrams in 1 can/2 ounces (23 percent DV)
- Natto: 428 milligrams in 1/4 cup (10 percent DV)
- Egg Yolks: 240 milligrams in 1/2 cup (6 percent DV)
How Do Different Omega-3 Fish Oils Compare?
There are some incredible foods that contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, but depending on your diet and limitations, you may also benefit from taking a supplement that contains these nutrients.
My preferred omega-3 supplements include:
- Salmon Fish Oil: 4,767 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (119 percent DV)
- Cod Liver Oil: 2,664 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (66 percent DV)
- Roe Oil: Serving sizes vary. This is one of two main sources from which you can obtain ETA, so some omega supplements contain this in addition to EPA/DHA.
- Algal Oil: (up to) 400 milligrams in 1 soft gel (10 percent DV)
Some sources also recommend krill oil, mammalian oil (made from seal blubber), green-lipped mussel oil and ALA oil. However, I prefer the three options listed above for safety and sustainability reasons.
Because there is such debate over waters being contaminated with toxins and pollutants like mercury, many people find it hard to get enough omega-3s from eating fish alone. This is one reason why some people prefer supplementing with fish oil in addition to eating some omega-3 foods.
The difference between “fish oil” and “cod oil” can be confusing. Fish oil and cod liver oil are actually two different oils, although they are molecularly similar and both extracted in the same way. The difference lies in their sources. Fish oil is extracted from tuna, herring, cod or other deep-sea fish. Cod liver oil comes from the liver of cod fish only.
How do they compare nutritionally? Fish oil is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, but it doesn’t have much vitamin A or D. On the other hand, cod liver oil is lower in omega-3s and very high in vitamins A and D.
According to some sources, cod liver oil contains about 8 percent EPA and 10 percent DHA, much less than fish oil, which has around 18 percent EPA and 12 percent DHA.
Due to its vitamin concentration, cod liver oil traditionally has been given to young children since the 1960s, since it helps support brain function and development. Because many people today suffer from vitamin D deficiency, cod liver oil has made a comeback. A lot of people who use cod liver oil rely on it in the winter months, when they spend less time outdoors, to supply a high level of absorbable vitamin D.
What is the ideal kind of fish oil if you want to supplement your diet? I believe that the best form of omega-3 fish oil contains astaxanthin (a powerful antioxidant that also helps stabilize fish oil), so my preferred choice is fish oil made from wild-caught Pacific salmon, which has high levels of DHA/EPA and astaxanthin.
The best thing about omega-3 foods and supplements is that omega-3 fatty acids don’t have any known drug interactions or adverse effects, according to some reliable sources.
WebMD does list some moderate and minor medicinal interactions with taking extremely high levels of fish oils, including interactions with birth control pills, high blood pressure medications, anticoagulents (to slow blood clotting) and Orlistat, a weight loss drug.
The major precaution when introducing more omega-3s into your diet generally comes from the byproducts found in some seafood, such as mercury and other industrial chemicals. Omega-3 supplements do not contain these contaminants, according to a number of tests that show the processing to create the supplements filters out concerning toxins.
As always, if you decide to start using a supplement to boost your omega-3 intake, make sure you do so under the supervision of your physician/naturopath, who can monitor and advise you in the event you experience an adverse reaction.
- Omega-3s are a type of essential fatty acid your body needs for a great number of natural system functions.
- Most Americans do not consume enough omega-3 fats and/or have an improper ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s (the right ratio is about 1:1, but many people get that out of whack even to a 20:1 ratio).
- The three types of omega-3s are APA, EPA and DHA. The first is a medium-chain fatty acid and must be converted into EPA before being synthesized by the body, and only about 1 percent of the APA consumed is able to be converted. EPA and DHA are already in a form ready to be synthesized (and are the subject of most scientific research regarding omega-3s).
- Getting plenty omega-3 fats in your diet is associated with a ton of great benefits. Some of the most notable omega-3 benefits include promoting heart health, preventing or improving symptoms of mental illness or brain decline, reducing disease-causing inflammation, and reducing your risk for autoimmune diseases and cancer.
- The best way to get enough omega-3s is by eating foods rich in the nutrient, like Atlantic mackerel, herring and Alaskan salmon. Plant-based foods high in omega-3 fatty acids contain ALA, so you’ll need to eat more of them to get the same effect as their animal-based counterparts.
- You may also benefit from taking a high-quality omega-3 supplement. The two animal-based types I recommend are fish oil and cod liver oil, and you can also try algal oil for a plant-based option.
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