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. In another study, supplementing with fish oil significantly reduced the risk of heart attack and heart disease.
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.Some studies also suggest that omega-3s could reduce the risk of preterm birth, though research is mixed.
“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. Another large review had similar findings, reporting that omega-3 supplementation could decrease CRP and other inflammatory markers in adults with various health conditions.
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. Another study showed that omega-3s could also help improve symptoms of anxiety.
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.
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. Plus, another study concluded that omega-3s could increase blood flow to the brain and improve learning, memory and cognitive well-being.
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. In another small study, taking omega-3 fatty acids alongside medications for rheumatoid arthritis led to greater improvements in symptoms.