There are nutrients and there are super-nutrients. Omega-3 fats belong in the category of super-nutrients (or superfoods). These fats, it appears, can do it all. In This post we shall look at some of the health benefits of omega 3 fatty acids as well as other things one needs to know about them.
Also called n-3 fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. These are types of healthy fat that the body needs in order to function properly. They are also called essential fatty acids (EFAs for short) because the human body cannot make them on its own and they therefore must be obtained from outside sources.
There are three principal types of these fatty acids, namely DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
DHA and EPA are obtained from animal sources of omega-3 such as salmon, tuna and krill. ALA is obtained from plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds and soybeans. Since they are all omega-3 fatty acids, one can expect similar benefits from any one of them, right? Wrong.
Plant vs. Animal Omega-3 Sources
Whilst plant (or vegetable) sources of omega-3 are beneficial as well, the evidence is not as strong as that supporting omega-3 from fish and seafood, particularly fish oil.
Also, though ALA can be converted into DHA (considered the most important fatty acid), studies indicate that the process is limited. Much of the DHA gets lost in conversion and therefore offers you little benefit.
The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are enough to fill a book, and in fact books have been written about them. One article simply cannot fit them all in, and more keep getting discovered virtually daily. Let us look briefly take a look at some of these benefits:
Brain Function and Mental Health
The human brain consists of a large amount – up to 60 percent – of fat. To paraphrase someone (I forget who), we are “fat heads”. Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the human brain and appear to play a major part in cognitive and behavioral function.
Studies on school-age children have shown that omega-3 supplements, particularly DHA, may have positive benefit in learning skills as well as behavior. We have also featured a story about how fish oil is said to have helped one child improve learning skills.
Omega-3 fats may also help in maintaining mental health as well as warding off mental disorders. Studies have shown DHA and EPA fatty acids to have therapeutic effects on some mental conditions and disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, and even depression.
Now, this does not meant that one should discard any prescribed medications, but the fatty acids may work well in together with the medications under supervision of a licensed medical practitioner.
Babies whose diet are abundant in n-3 fatty acids and may also have an edge during early development. The same can be said of infants born of mothers with higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acid.
In at least two cases reported in mainstream media, fish oil had been linked to saving lives after a serious auto accident. It may also have helped prevent what could have been severe impairment caused by traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Though they may not actually reverse neurologic disorders such as diseases such as Alzheimer’s, some evidence suggests that n-3 fatty acids may help lower the risk or delay onset.
Scientific evidence exists to link omega-3, also known as n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA or PUFAs), to emotional health. Various studies have shown an association that people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression, and reduced PUFAs.
Even the US military has been reported as looking into omega-3 supplements as one of the ways to help reduce suicides.
In relatively large-scale study done in Canada, researchers found that omega-3 supplements helped improve depression symptoms in people who did not have an anxiety disorder. In fact, the improvements were sometimes similar to those found in studies on antidepressants.
Omega-3 fatty acids may also help reduce emotional symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) including anxiety, depression, and nervousness.
Most people have heard about omega-3 fatty acids being good for the heart. In fact, they may be good for the whole cardiovascular system. This includes the arteries, veins, and capillaries that transport blood throughout the body.
Various cardiac organizations (including the American Heart Association) recommend taking 1 gram per day of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids. This because various studies have shown that people with coronary heart disease (CHD) may benefit from consuming these fats.
Another benefit that the fatty acids offer is increase of good cholesterol (or HDL), which may result in reduction of bad cholesterol (or LDL). Omega-3 supplements are also used to help reduce blood fats, known as triglycerides.
N-3 polyunsaturated fats have been shown to have beneficial effects on atherosclerosis, the buildup of waxy plaque in the inside of the blood vessels. This can cause heart attack, stroke, and periphery vascular disease.
The blood-thinning properties of omega-3 fats make them a good a natural alternative or addition to medications such as Aspirin. A doctor’s advice should always be sought on this.
Interestingly, the buildup of plaque might not be the main cause of heart attack or stroke as once thought. According to some studies, the real culprit may be inflammation which leads to soft or “vulnerable” plaque. Omega-3s are known to have anti-inflammatory properties so they may be beneficial here as well.
A number of studies have found that omega-3 supplements may significantly reduce stiffness and pain in the joints. Stiff joints are usually a sign of rheumatoid arthritis, according to WebMD. Arthritis may be defined as inflammation in the joint(s).
Omega-3 fatty acids have been used for the treatment and management of arthritis. Omega-3 supplements have been used to decrease pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis, sometimes even reducing or eliminating the need for medication. Reduction or elimination of medication should only be done only under the supervision a healthcare professional.
Whilst most studies have been on rheumatoid arthritis, these essential fatty acids may also be beneficial for the management of osteoarthritis as well. A University of Bristol, UK, study showed that omega-3 fatty acids could prevent or slow down the progression of osteoarthritis.
Other Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Again, there are way too many health benefits of omega-3 EFAs, with more being discovered almost daily. One article just can’t do justice to all of the known ones. We shall now touch briefly on just a few more of these benefits:
- Eyes and vision: DHA is found in high concentrations in the retina of the eye. Studies on pre-term and post-term infants suggest that they may be important for optimal visual development.
- Skin health: Studies have found that omega-fatty acids may be beneficial in the prevention and management of psoriasis as well as skin cancer. Fish oil has been linked to benefits for eczema and sun sensitivity.
- Prenatal health: Fish oil supplements are typically recommended, even prescribed, for expectant mothers. This is only because they are beneficial to both the mother and the unborn baby. DHA is particularly important for the baby’s neurological and visual development.
- Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS): We pointed out that omega-3s may help reduce emotional symptoms of PMS (see “Emotional Balance” above). Well, they may also help reduce physical symptoms such as bloating, breast tenderness and headache.
- Anti-aging: Both your mind and body may benefit from the anti-aging properties of omega-3 fatty acids. In one study, researchers from the University of California linked reduced omega-3 to faster brain aging. The fatty acids may also slow down the biological process linked to aging, another study found. Some experts say they may even help fight or reduce wrinkles.
Krill Oil versus Fish Oil
So, which one is better, fish oil or krill oil? Well, both have benefits, and both are good sources of n-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA. Data to actually compare the two is too limited to be conclusive. However, whilst most research studies have been based on fish oil and fish oil supplements, krill oil may have certain advantages. These include:
- Krill oil may be easier to absorb: Phospholipids in krill oil make it easier to digest. This may be the reason users who have tried both in supplements report virtually no fishy “burps” or aftertaste when on krill oil.
- Krill oil contains powerful antioxidants: Krill oil contains astaxanthin and vitamin E. These help protect the oil from oxidation and may also protect you from free radicals that are linked to aging and some forms of cancer.
The downside of using krill oil is the cost as, gram for gram, krill oil costs significantly more than fish oil. Therefore unless you have a really big problem with heartburn or burps after taking fish oil, or the extra cost of krill oil will not really cause an issue to your budget, you may want to stick with fish oil. You can always get anti-oxidants through other dietary sources.
Most people can use omega-3 supplements safely, presuming a good quality product. Those on blood-thinning medications or medication of any kind should first seek the advice of a healthcare professional due to the blood-thinning properties of the fatty acids.
Of course, if you have an allergy for seafood or shellfish, you should avoid fish oil or krill oil.
Side note: seafood and shellfish allergies are not the same. Some people can eat fish without a problem but react to shellfish such as shrimp.
Some side effects, often mild, reported include fishy aftertaste, belching (burps) or breath and sometimes heartburn, loose stools and nausea. These are mainly from taking fish oil though it does not necessarily mean fish oil is the problem: it may be because it is used more.
Sometimes fishy burps and heartburn can be avoided by taking krill oil instead of fish oil (as krill oil is more easily absorbed). Taking high quality fish oil supplements may also help minimize the burps and other gastrointestinal-related other side effects. Freezing fish oil capsules has also been found to help.
Getting Your Omega-3s
Since your body cannot produce omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, you have to get them from an outside source. The typical Western diet is high in omega-6 fats but low in omega-3, which creates an (unhealthy) imbalance. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include (not in any order):
- Flaxseed oil also called linseed oil
- Hoki or blue grenadier
The above list, by no means comprehensive, includes marine animal and plant sources of omega-3. But remember that plant sources do not supply the important DHA and EPA fatty acids but ALA.
Eating Fatty Acids vs. Swallowing a Pill
It is simple, yet not easy to get them through your diet. Eating cold water fish or seafood regularly may be enough to get these fats. But this is easier said than done, even presuming that you like to eat relatively large amounts of fish or seafood on a regular basis. Why?
You see, wild-caught fish and other seafood do not come cheap. And you want it as fresh as possible as omega-3 fats are prone to oxidation, which causes them to become rancid.
Eating lots of fish may also expose you to toxins and contaminants such as dioxins, PCBs, lead, and mercury, due to pollution in the seas. What about farm-raised fish?
Avoid Farm-Raised Fish! Here’s Why
Farm-raised fish are not fed with the right diet (that is, sea algae) that gives wild fish the fatty acids. Also, farm-raised fish are often treated with antibiotics and the waters with pesticides, traces of which that may end in your system after you ingest the fish.
Moreover, farm-raised fish as a sustainable alternative for wild-caught fish – a major selling-point for fish farming proponents – has been questioned.
Currently, there is no established or official recommended daily allowance (RDA) for omega-3 fatty acids (at the time of this post). It is not the amount of fish oil that matters, but the amounts of DHA and EPA. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fatty fish at least twice, which we think is a good thing whether or not you take supplements.
For adults without major health problems, a combined dose of EPA and DHA totaling about 250 milligrams to 1000 milligrams should be sufficient. People with heart disease or high triglycerides may need to take with the supervision of a doctor.
Choosing Omega-3 Supplements
For most of us, the most convenient and economical way to get these essential fats is by taking a good quality omega-3 supplement. But there are pitfalls to look out for here.
Whilst many hold the belief that big mass-marketing brand name products are best, a consumer Lab tests showed this is not always the case, and that contamination is possible with these as well. Some smaller but reputable supplements manufacturers make higher quality products.
To find a good supplement, first read the label. Make sure that:
- The product contains optimal levels of DHA and EPA. If the label does not list amounts of these fatty acids, don’t buy.
- Processing is done through a low-heat method such as molecular distillation. This removes impurities without destroying the beneficial compounds.
Make the decision to add omega-3 EPA and DHA to your daily diet, beginning today. Supplements that typically contain high concentrations of EPA and DHA are fish oil and krill oil, as long as you find good quality ones.
Information provided on this page is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease nor substitute advice from your healthcare professional. Consult a licensed medical practitioner before starting on a new supplement especially if you are pregnant, nursing, on medication, or have a medical condition.