These days almost anyone who is trying to lead a healthier lifestyle has heard of omega-3 fatty acids. Either you have read about them in the news, or a well-meaning friend or family member has told you to take them.
What you’ve heard is true: omega-3 fatty acids may benefit your health in several ways.
However, there is some conflicting information out there about omega-3 fatty acids. This confusion can sometimes create more questions than answers. In this article, we answer some common questions about omega-3 fatty acids and share how they may benefit your health.
Before we dive into the omega-3 fatty acid benefits, lets answer some common questions about this powerful compound.
What are omega-3s fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fats. The term “essential” means that the body cannot make them on its own. Therefore, you must consume omega-3 fatty acids through food or supplements every day.
How many omega-3s fatty acids are there?
There are three main types of omega-3s:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) come from fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, tuna, trout, and mackerel. Since EPA and DHA come from fish, they are often called fish oils.
Alphalinolenic acid (ALA) is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in most Western diets. ALA comes from plant foods such as vegetable oils, flaxseeds, and nuts.
Which omega-3 fatty acids benefit me?
All omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats. However, EPA and DHA from fish oil are the most studied. The research shows that these two types of omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for a variety of conditions.
How do omega-3 fatty acids benefit my health?
Omega-3 fatty acids benefit several different health conditions. Below are some examples of ways in which omega-3 fatty acids may benefit your health.
A heart-healthy diet is rich in EPA and DHA. One research study concluded that the more fish you eat, the lower risk you may have of stroke and heart failure. Another study found that higher dietary amounts of EPA plus DHA are associated with a lower risk of heart failure. The strongest evidence of benefit for omega-3 fatty acids is in reducing triglycerides levels, and for decreasing the risk of cardiovascular events and cardiac death.
Due to the strength of the evidence for fish oil, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the following health claim: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating a variety fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times per week. Consider adding salmon, sardines, trout, herring, tuna, or mackerel to your weekly meal plan.
Ideally increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake through foods is preferable. However, those not getting enough omega-3 through diet alone may want to consider taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation, while omega-6 fats can increase inflammation. This is important information because the typical American diet is rich in omega-6s fatty acids (from vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds) but are low in omega-3s fatty acids.
For this reason, research encourages us to replace the omega-6s in our diets with omega-3s to help reduce the risk of certain chronic health conditions.
An article by NUTRAIngredients highlighted a recent study that was a good reminder to us of the importance of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy.
Remember, growing babies cannot produce their own DHA efficiently, so babies depend on their mothers to get DHA. Therefore, a mother’s DHA reserve continues to decrease during pregnancy as her DHA transfers from her to her baby.
A Linus Pauling Institute article reminds us that experts recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women consume at least 200 mg of DHA every day.
Specifically, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is associated with improved birth weights, gestational lengths and a reduced risk for preterm delivery. DHA is also important for a baby’s mental and visual development during pregnancy and throughout infancy.
Recent research has started to look at the role of omega-3 fatty acids in depression and mood. Although the results are mixed, there are a few studies that find an association between higher intake of omega-3s and lower depressive symptoms. One study concluded that low concentrations of fish oil in the blood may one reason for the high levels of depressed mood among our soldiers returning from combat.
In a recent article, PCOS Nutrition expert Angela Grassi highlighted the numerous benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for women with PCOS. As she notes, one of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for women with PCOS is boosting mood!
Over the years there have been many studies reporting the possible benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on prostate health. Studies have linked fish intake or fish oil supplementation with reduced disease progression, reduced risk of advanced disease, and reduced death.
In 2013, a conflicting study reported that higher omega-3 blood levels were associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer. This study looked at blood levels of omega-3s and not at omega-3 fatty acid intake through a person’s diet or supplements. Because the results were conflicting to other study results, this report grabbed the news headlines. However, we have to remember this was just one study.
The majority of good evidence continues to suggest that omega-3s fatty acids may be beneficial for prostate health.
How much omega-3 fatty acids do I need?
Healthy individuals who eat fatty fish more than twice a week may not need to take a omega-3 (fish oil) supplement. For general healthy people who do not eat fish often, 500–1000 mg of supplemental EPA/DHA per day may be beneficial. For those with inflammatory conditions or other health concerns, speak to you doctor as higher doses of EPA/DHA may be beneficial.
Remember, before deciding to take any supplement, speak with your healthcare provider to make sure it is the best choice for you!
Is it safe to take omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil) supplements?
The FDA has ruled that daily intake of EPA and DHA up to 3 grams (3,000 mg) are safe.
The most common side effect of low-quality fish oil supplements is a fishy aftertaste. However, higher-quality fish oil supplements that have been molecularly distilled and steam-deodorized should not have this problem. If you experience a fishy aftertaste, try keeping your fish oil supplement in the freezer.
Some people can experience an upset stomach when taking fish oils, especially at higher doses. Taking fish oil supplements with food can help to reduce any stomach upset.
People taking certain medications such as blood thinners or having surgical procedure should speak to their healthcare providers before taking any fish oil supplements.
How can I tell if my fish oil supplement is free from contaminants?
Choose an independently tested and certified fish oil. These types of certifications guarantee content accuracy, purity, and freedom from contaminants. Organizations like NSF International or USP provide third-party testing and certification for dietary supplements. In addition, the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) program offers lot-specific fish oil test results for several products on the market.
We hope this article answered some questions about how omega-3 fatty acids benefit your health.
Remember, speak with your medical team if you are considering adding an omega-3 fish oil supplement to your regimen, and please SHARE this article with your family and friends.
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