What are omega-3 fatty acids, and why are they so important to consume? Omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, which means they must be consumed through the diet because our body cannot make them on its own. Omega-3s are most commonly found in seafood, specifically oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least two portions of oily fish per week. However, if you do not consume seafood often, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics lists other omega-3 rich food sources as nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. Another option would be taking omega-3 supplements, which are a quick, efficient way to increase consumption of these essential fats for those who do not consume enough in their diet.
There are several types of omega-3s. The three most common are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA aids in reducing inflammation while DHA is important for brain development and function. ALA can be converted into EPA or DHA, or used for energy. Omega-3s are scientifically proven to offer a wide array of health benefits. Read more to learn 5 of the major health benefits of omega-3s.
1. Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is the immune response to infections or injuries in the body. While inflammation is necessary for healing purposes, it can also occur over long periods of time even without infections present. This is referred to as “chronic inflammation.” Unfortunately, chronic inflammation is linked to developing many chronic illnesses including cancer and heart disease. Studies show that higher intakes of omega-3s result in reduced inflammation and thus reduced risk for developing certain chronic diseases.
2. Lowers Triglycerides
Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. High blood triglyceride levels can result from excess calorie and alcohol intake (along with other lifestyle factors) and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the National Institute of Health, high doses of omega-3s can reduce triglyceride levels. In fact, 4 grams a day of prescription omega-3s can lower triglyceride levels by 20% to 30% in most people!
In addition to lowering blood triglyceride levels, omega-3s can also improve other risk factors for heart disease including lowering blood pressure, raising HDL “good” cholesterol, preventing blood clots, and preventing plaque buildup in arteries.
3. Improves Bone and Joint Health
Omega-3s may improve both bone strength and joint health. A pilot study conducted in calcium deficient women showed that EPA paired with calcium supplements strengthened bones more than just the calcium supplements by itself. This finding suggests that omega-3s have beneficial effects on bone health. Additionally, studies have shown the effectiveness of omega-3 consumption on relieving symptoms of arthritis. Arthritis is inflammation in the joints, and the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s can help relieve pain and stiffness associated with arthritis.
4. Helps Fight Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health disorders in the world. Research has shown that omega-3 supplementation can help manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. One study found that short term supplementation of omega-3s resulted in a significant reduction in depression. In fact, 67% of those supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids no longer met the criteria for depression after the intervention. Another study found that medical students supplementing omega-3s experienced a 20% reduction in anxiety symptoms compared to the control group, which took a placebo pill with no omega-3s.
5. Improves Eye Health
DHA is a major component of the retina, the innermost layer of tissue of the eye. Research has suggested that DHA may help protect adult eyes from macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is a vision change that can gradually create blurry vision over time. A positive relationship exists between omega-3 consumption and eye health, suggesting omega-3s may act in a protective role against the pathology of eye diseases.
Written by: Shane Park, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern