6 Health Benefits Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids


Expert Reviewed

Keri Gans is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified yoga teacher, spokesperson, speaker, writer and author of The Small Change Diet.
Keri Gans, R.D.N. Nutrition
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Omega-3 fatty acids have garnered a great deal of attention from health professionals, thanks to their numerous potential health benefits. In fact, ongoing research is investigating the role omega-3 fatty acids may play in aiding in the treatment of numerous conditions including heart disease, diabetes, dementia and depression. Omega-3s are found naturally in a variety of foods including fatty fish, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables, as well as in supplement form.

In this article, we take a closer look at some of the expert-backed benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, plus how you can increase your intake.

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in a variety of foods and supplements. In the body, omega-3s are components of cell membranes and affect cell receptors, impacting an array of bodily functions ranging from regulating blood clotting to lowering inflammation. They are associated with a variety of health benefits and play a key role in the health of the lungs, heart, brain and blood vessels.

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids found in different food sources:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential nutrients, as they aren’t naturally produced by the body and must be obtained from foods or supplements, explains Cheryl Mussatto, a Topeka, Kansas-based registered dietitian and author of The Nourished Brain.

Food and Supplement Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fatty varieties of fish (such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines) are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA. Plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids are also available and include nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. However, keep in mind that these foods contain ALA, which can only be converted to DHA and EPA in limited amounts.

Supplementation may also be worth considering, especially if seafood isn’t a regular part of your diet or if you’re having trouble meeting your needs through food sources alone. Common supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Fish oil
  • Fish liver oil
  • Krill oil
  • Algal oils
  • Flaxseed oil

Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Research shows promising results on the possible benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Below, we explore a few of the top ways that upping your intake of omega-3s can impact your health.

Supports Heart Health

Omega-3 fatty acids have been studied extensively for their ability to keep your heart healthy and protect against heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids may improve multiple aspects of heart health by lowering triglyceride levels, reducing the risk of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and slowing the build-up of plaque in the arteries, explains Mussatto.

In fact, one review of 38 studies found that omega-3 fatty acids could reduce the risk of dying from heart disease and improve outcomes for heart conditions, such as heart attack[1]. In another study, supplementing with fish oil significantly reduced the risk of heart attack and heart disease[2].

Promotes Prenatal Growth and Development

Omega-3 fatty acids are especially important during pregnancy, notes Hannah Whittaker, a registered dietitian that specializes in pediatric and prenatal nutrition based in Liverpool, U.K. “Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, are important for the development of babies’ brains and eyes,” she says. “Adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy has been linked to improved cognitive function and visual acuity in infants.”

Plus, Whittaker explains getting enough omega-3s in your diet may also support maternal health during pregnancy. In fact, studies show EPA decreases symptoms of depression and reduces the risk of postpartum depression after birth[3].Some studies also suggest that omega-3s could reduce the risk of preterm birth, though research is mixed.

Eases Inflammation

“Omega-3s also have anti-inflammatory properties that may help to reduce inflammation in the body,” says Whittaker. Chronic inflammation may contribute to a long list of health conditions, including obesity, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

One meta-analysis concluded that omega-3 fatty acids could reduce levels of c-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, in people with cancer[4]. Another large review had similar findings, reporting that omega-3 supplementation could decrease CRP and other inflammatory markers in adults with various health conditions[5].

May Improve Mental Health

“Research has found that omega-3 [fatty acids] may also be beneficial for mental health,” says Whittaker, adding that supplementation may help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to one study, both high and low doses of omega-3 supplementation were effective for the treatment of major depressive disorder compared to a placebo[6]. Another study showed that omega-3s could also help improve symptoms of anxiety[7].

Researchers believe omega-3s work by altering certain pathways in the brain, which regulate emotion and are involved in the development of certain psychiatric disorders. Although more research is needed, omega-3 fatty acids have also been tested for the treatment of other conditions, including schizophrenia, mood disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.

Enhances Brain Function

Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in regulating brain function. They’re believed to help protect the cells against oxidative stress, according to Mussatto, which could be involved in the development of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. A 2018 review in Nutritional Neuroscience concluded that omega-3 fatty acids could be especially beneficial at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, when brain function is slightly impaired[8].

Some studies show omega-3s could also help preserve brain function as you get older. One review of 14 studies found that omega-3s could positively affect certain aspects of brain function in older adults, including short-term memory, executive function and perceptual speed[9]. Plus, another study concluded that omega-3s could increase blood flow to the brain and improve learning, memory and cognitive well-being[10].

Supports Joint Health

“Omega-3 fatty acids may help to reduce joint pain and stiffness in people with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory joint conditions,” says Whittaker. This may be thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties and their ability to decrease the production of pro-inflammatory proteins in the body.

A 2021 study found that omega-3s may significantly reduce pain in people with osteoarthritis, a type of degenerative joint disease[11]. In another small study, taking omega-3 fatty acids alongside medications for rheumatoid arthritis led to greater improvements in symptoms[12].

When to See a Doctor

“Currently, there is no standardized test for omega-3 deficiency, so it can be hard to pinpoint or detect,” says Mussatto. However, certain symptoms can indicate a deficiency and may mean it’s time to check in with a doctor.

According to Mussatto, some of the key symptoms to keep an eye out for include:

  • Thinning or brittle hair
  • Skin problems, including rashes, irritation or acne
  • Brain fog
  • Joint pain or stiffness

Be sure to also talk to a doctor before starting supplementation if you have any underlying health conditions or are taking other medications. This is especially important if you’re taking blood thinners, such as warfarin, as high doses of omega-3s may increase the risk of bleeding.

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