We hear a lot about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Not only are foods rich in them purported, but we see a whole line in the supplement industry devoted to helping people get more of them in their diet. Let’s take a deeper look at these fatty acids, so that we can better understand why we need them, where we get them, and what the health benefits actually are that we get when we have them in our diet.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids and What Is Their Function in the Body?
Omega-3 fatty acids provide support for a number of important functions in the body. They are incorporated into cell membranes, fight inflammation, promote healthy development of the fetus and aid in the aging process. Brain health especially is affected by omega-3s.1 There are three main types of omega-3s: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). EPA and DHA are most abundantly found in seafood and fatty fish, while ALA comes from plant oils.2 It is difficult for the body to convert ALA into DHA and EPA, which are more beneficial, so it is better to consume DHA and EPA directly.1 The standard American diet (SAD) is high in fat, but it is high in saturated fats, which are detrimental to health when consumed in large quantities. However, most people struggle to get enough omega-3s in their diet.2
Benefits of Omega-3s During Fetal Development
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that pregnant women should consume between 8 and 12 ounces of seafood per week, focusing on seafood that is lower in methyl mercury which can negatively impact pregnancy.2 All omega-3s that the fetus received must be ingested by the mother and have been shown to be important in development of the brain and retinas. During the third trimester in particular, DHA accumulates in the tissues of the fetus. Studies have shown that children whose mothers took DHA and EPA supplements while they were pregnant had improved hand-eye coordination and were even immune to some degree to allergies. This could be related to omega-3s ability to reduce inflammation in the body. EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy can also reduce chances of the mother having a premature delivery of the child by 44 percent.2
Omega-3s and Inflammation
EPA and DHA are known to have anti-inflammatory properties and can fight against oxidative stress. Omega-3s can actually work at the level of gene transcription and decrease transcription of pathways that cause inflammation.1 Inflammatory cells often contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and low amounts of omega-3, but supplementation of EPA and DHA can change that composition, which reduces the amount of proteins that cause inflammation. Though inflammation is a normal and healthy response to infection and wounds, it can become deregulated in the body and result in chronic inflammation. Studies have shown that adding more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet can decrease this kind of inflammation and can even help to decrease the severity of inflammatory diseases within the body.3 For example, in a study done with individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, consumption of fish oil and seafood helped to ameliorate symptoms of the condition like joint pain and swelling.2
Omega-3 and Cardiovascular Health
Omega-3’s abilities to reduce inflammation are tied with its effect on cardiovascular health and heart disease. According to Advances in Nutrition, chronic inflammation can be the source of heart disease. When certain proteins associated with inflammatory responses like C-reactive proteins circulate in the body, there is an increased chance of experiencing a heart attack or similar cardiac event.1 EPA and DHA also play a role in improving plaque stability and vascular permeability in the arteries, reducing risks of blockages and thus reducing risks of cardiovascular complications.1 Even the consumption of omega-3-rich seafood once a week can reduce the risk of fatal complications due to heart disease, according to NIH. However, consuming DHA and EPA from seafood was shown to be much more effective at reducing risk of heart disease than taking omega-3 supplements alone.2
Omega-3s and Cognitive Function
Several studies have been done examining the correlation between consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive function, especially in connection with the neurological impairment that comes with dementia. Out of the three main types of omega-3s (ALA, EPA and DHA), DHA was shown to significantly decrease the occurrence of Alzheimer’s in subjects. There is much less sound evidence that indicates DHA can be effective in treating forms of dementia that have already onset. There is also little to suggest that omega-3s can ameliorate the effects of other neurological impairments such as Parkinson’s disease.4
Where Can You Get Omega-3s?
Salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel are all very high in EPA and DHA. Walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseed all contain high amounts of ALA, but this type of omega-3 is not efficiently used by the body as it must be converted into EPA and DHA with a yield of only 15 percent, according to NIH. When opting for fish, I recommend Chilean-farmed salmon, as it contains no mercury or antibiotics. Supplements like krill and fish oil can also be taken and have high amounts of both EPA and DHA. If you are vegetarian, have an allergy to seafood, or simply do not like fish, there are options of supplements that derive their omega-3s from algae. Algae is actually the initial source of omega-3s found in seafood, and is incorporated into the tissue of sea animals after they consume the plant.5
Omega-3 fatty acids are still being thoroughly researched, but it is clear that they serve a crucial role in the body in the areas of development, heart health and cognitive function. These kinds of unsaturated fats are much healthier than the saturated fats that dominate Western diets, and should become more of a nutritional priority for the population.
1 Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 Fatty Acids EPA and EHA: Health Benefits Throughout Life. Advances in Nutrition, 2012. 3(1): 1-7. Retrieved from: https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/3/1/1/4557081.
2 National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 7 Things To Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved from: www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-to-know-about-omega-fatty-acids.
3 Calder PC. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammatory Processes. Nutrients, 2010. 2(3): 355-374. Retrieved from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257651/.
4 Maclean CH, Issa AM, Newberry SJ, Mojica WA, Morton SC, Garland RH, Hilton LG, Traina SB, Shekelle PG. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cognitive Function with Aging, Dementia, and Neurological Diseases: Summary. AHRQ Evidence Report Summaries, 2005. Retrieved from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11893/.
5 National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.