These Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids Will Surprise You

We typically see the term omega-3s as a kind of health buzzword that appears on food and supplement labels. Sometimes these labels feature a heart shape around or near the words.

The average person may recognize omega-3s have some sort of role in cardiovascular health, but likely couldn’t tell you why or how. They might be at a loss as to what an omega-3 even is!

It turns out the benefits of omega-3s go far beyond heart health. Turns out the health benefits of omega-3s are quite extensive!

Did you know they play a role in helping babies develop in the womb? Or that they provide nutrition for the brain which allows it to function properly? How about the fact that sufficient intake of omega-3s is linked to improved health at every stage of the human lifespan?

So, what are omega-3s, their health benefits, and how do these remarkable nutrients work? Read on to find out!
 

 
 

The ABCs of Omega-3s

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids and sources of dietary fat (remember that in nutrition, essential means that a nutrient isn’t made in the body and must be obtained through your diet!)

Specifically, they are identified as polyunsaturated fatty acids, which refers to their chemical structure as chains of carbon atoms connected to hydrogen atoms (and sometimes other atoms and molecule groups).
 

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids and sources of dietary fat.

 
The term unsaturated refers to the presence of double bonds connecting the carbon and hydrogen atoms (saturated, by contrast, means the carbon and hydrogen are only connected by single bonds making the carbon fully “saturated” with hydrogen).

The prefix poly means “many” which indicates there is more than one double bond present in the fatty acid.

The omega-3 name also has to do with the structure and double bond placement. Each end of the fatty acid chain has a Greek name of either “alpha” (the start) or “omega” (the end).

A fatty acid is considered an omega-3 if the first double bond occurs three carbon atoms away from the “omega” end of the chain.

There are also omega-6 fatty acids which have the first double bond six carbon atoms away from the omega end. Like omega-3s, omega-6s are also polyunsaturated and essential.

However, studies have suggested omega-6s promote inflammation and increase risk for chronic diseases, particularly when combined with a low intake of omega-3s.

It is recommended to maintain a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of between 1:1 and 4:1 and avoid excessive intakes of omega-6s from processed foods and processed vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils.

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Omega-3s Come In Threes!

While there are multiple fatty acids that can be classified as omega-3s, there are three that are most common and recommended for consumption by experts. These are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
 

1. Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)

chiaseeds
ALA is the most common dietary omega-3 fatty acid and is found largely in plant-based foods with a high fat content. These include walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds as the most common sources.

ALA on its own doesn’t have many biological functions, so the human body converts it into more functional fatty acids like EPA.

However, the process is inefficient and only about 0.5% of ALA successfully converts into EPA and DHA. Because of this, ALA is not recommended as the sole dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids.
 

2. Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid found predominantly in fish and seafood like salmon, herring, shrimp and sturgeon as well as fish oil. Meat and dairy from grass-fed animals may also contain EPA.

It has several functions in the body, including the formation of signaling molecules known as eicosanoids which reduce inflammation. Multiple studies have shown EPA may play a role in improving mental health conditions, particularly depression.
 

 
 

3. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

Like EPA, DHA is found primarily in seafood, fatty fish, fish oil and algae. Its primary function is providing structure to cell membranes, particularly in the brain and eyes. In fact, DHA produces 40% of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain and 60% in the retina.

DHA is also a critical nutrient during pregnancy and breastfeeding as it supports the development of the nervous system in the growing fetus and infant. The mother’s dietary intake of DHA determines how much of the fatty acid is transmitted in breast milk.

Because they are largely found in foods from the ocean, EPA and DHA are commonly known as marine omega-3s.
 
 
Salmon Omegas

The Top 3 Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

The Omega-3 health benefits have been widely researched and promoted due to the many positive benefits they are associated with, both from dietary and supplement intake. These benefits include:
 

1. Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)

According to the American Heart Association journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, omega-3 are capable of lowering risk for CVD by decreasing risk for arrhythmias and thrombosis (which often lead to blood clots, strokes, and/or heart attacks),

They also note that omega-3 fatty acids aid in reducing fats in the bloodstream (known as triglycerides), slowing the rate of plaque that can lead to atherosclerosis, and reducing the inflammatory response.

A study published in Diabetes Care, the official journal of the American Diabetes Association, found omega-3s in the form of fish oil supplements significantly lowered the number of blood triglycerides in subjects with Type 2 diabetes.

An additional study demonstrated that supplementation of marine-derived polyunsaturated fatty acids contributed to reductions in markers of inflammation.
 

2. Neurological and Vision Health

Dietary omega-3s contribute to proper growth and development of the neurological system in the brain.

EPA and DHA play critical roles in brain development for the baby in utero and also work to maintain proper brain function throughout life by preserving the health of the brain cell membranes.

DHA aids in the structural integrity of photoreceptors in the retina, important in healthy vision.
 

Omega-3 fatty acids are important nutrients, offering a myriad of benefits for the heart and brain.

 
Additionally, adequate intake of omega-3s may help ward off cognitive and memory challenges associated with aging. Research literature has demonstrated that omega-3s, particularly DHA, provide neuroprotective effects against age-related cognitive decline.

A study in the Annual Review of Food Science and Technology found consumption of fish rich in omega-3s improved cognitive and memory symptoms in healthy older adults.
 

3. Improvements in Mental Health Symptoms

Regular omega-3 consumption in adults has been correlated with a decreased likelihood of experiencing depression, and research on omega-3 supplementation in mental health conditions has shown even more promising results.

Subjects in a study on medical students with anxiety saw improvements in their symptoms after supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids, and multiple studies have found that omega-3s, especially EPA, are effective in treating depression.
 
 
Omega3 2

Daily Intake Recommendations and More About Omega-3 Health Benefits

Most experts and trusted organizations list separate daily requirements for omega-3 consumption via ALA or EPA and DHA combined.

The National Institute of Health recommends 0.5 grams/day of total omega-3s for infants from birth to 12 months, while recommending daily ALA consumption of 1.6 grams for men, 1.1 grams for women, 1.4 grams for pregnant teens and women, and 1.3 grams for breastfeeding teens and women.

The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 250-500 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined per day for the healthy adult population.

The American Heart Association recommends adults consume fish (especially fatty fish) at least twice per week for sufficient intake of cardio-protective omega-3s.

Because large, predatory fish such as tuna and mackerel can contain high levels of mercury, the AHA recommends choosing a variety of different kinds of fish to minimize this risk.

The organization also recommends plant-based sources containing ALA including tofu, soybeans, walnuts, flaxseeds (and their oils) and canola oil.

While most omega-3 dietary supplements are deemed to be safe and any side effects are typically mild, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends that supplementation of EPA and DHA (combined) be limited to no more than 5 grams per day.

A vegetarian/vegan friendly supplement option is algae oil, which is another safe and effective
way to increase intake of omega-3s.

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The Takeaway on Omega-3s Health Benefits

Omega-3 fatty acids are important nutrients which offer a myriad of benefits particularly for the heart and brain. Their impact is seen throughout all stages of human growth and development, and higher intakes are correlated with positive health outcomes.

At the end of the day, there are many reasons to <3 (*heart*) omega-3 fatty acids! All included information is not intended to treat or diagnose. The views expressed are those of the author and should be attributed solely to the author. For medical questions, please consult your healthcare provider.

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Alison Rosenstock

Alison Rosenstock, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian, nutrition educator, and yoga enthusiast based in San Diego, CA. Her passions are food justice and equity, nutrition in public health, weight-neutral dietary approaches and wellness for healthcare professionals. Learn more at sdnutritionwriter.com.

sdnutritionwriter.com

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