Omega-3s temper inflammation, improve brain and heart health, maintain healthy eye health, keep you thin and even help you live longer! Alas, most Americans don't get enough of the beneficial fatty acids in their diets (experts estimate that the majority of people in the U.S. are consuming one-quarter of the recommended daily intake). The 3 main kinds of omega-3s are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fatty fish are the best source of omega-3s, which makes it harder for non-fish eaters to get sufficient amounts of these essential fatty acids. For vegetarians, flaxseed oil, hempseed oil, algae and chia seeds are some of the best alternative sources of omega-3s. Read on to learn more about the benefits of including omega-3s in your diet.
1. Omega-3s Keep You Sharp
There's a reason why fish is referred to as "brain food." Some 60 percent of your grey matter is comprised of fats, and increasing your intake of omega-3s has been proven to improve brain health from infancy into old age. According to a study published in Cerebral Cortex in June 2013, adult subjects improved cognitive performance and measures of complex thinking when given 2.2 grams of omega-3s (EPA/DHA) per day. Omegas-3s improve brain health by helping to maintain healthy circulation (blood flow to the brain) and providing structure and integrity to the membranes of cells in your brain.
2. Omega-3s May Help You Stay Thinner
Population studies show a correlation between obesity and low levels of omega-3s. In one study of 124 adults, those with lower blood levels of omega-3s had higher BMIs and waist and hip measurements compared to adults with higher levels of omega-3s. They also provide metabolic advantages and stimulate hormones that help you control how much you eat and enable the body to burn fat as fuel. Omega-3s may also turn down hunger hormones and help to increase hormones related to feelings of fullness.
3. Omega-3s May Reduce the Risk of Certain Cancers
While research is still in its infancy and results are conflicting, there are several studies that suggest omega-3s may help prevent certain cancers — including breast and colon cancer. In several studies, omega-3s suppressed the growth of tumor cell lines. A recent analysis of studies conducted with omega-3 fatty acids and breast cancer found that women with the highest dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids had a 14% reduced risk in developing breast cancer.
4. Omega-3s Can Help You Live Longer
Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., and 80 percent of strokes are preventable. In addition to the hundreds of studies showing that omega-3s are heart-healthy, several studies suggest that they may play a role in preventing stroke. Stroke is considered a "brain attack," meaning that a blood vessel to the brain is blocked or breaks, both of which lead to brain damage. Omega-3s help reduce several of the controllable risk factors of stroke, which include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and atherosclerosis. According to a Harvard Public Health study, older adults with the highest blood levels of omega-3s had a lower risk of dying of a coronary event, like a heart attack or stroke.
Read more: 13 Types of Fish to Avoid Eating
5. Omega-3s Improve Skin Health
Research shows that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help protect the skin from the sun's harmful rays and from signs of photo-aging and damage, and omega-3s provide some of the same benefits too. Skin damage occurs most often from sunlight exposure and the response that is elicited on the cellular level. A recent study found that omega-3 fatty acids help protect skin cells from UV damage from sun exposure. Research published in Experimental Dermatology in 2011 reported that omega-3s are helpful in decreasing photosensitivity, decreasing immune response following sun exposure, as well as decreasing photoaging and oxidative stress that results from sun exposure. Omega-3s may play also play a role in helping to prevent skin cancer.
6. Omega-3s Raise Good and Lower Bad Cholesterol
Diets with more omega-3s and less saturated fat help to keep the good (HDL) cholesterol levels high while keep the bad (LDL) cholesterol levels low. That's why the American Heart Associations recommends healthy adults eat at least 2 servings of fish (preferably oily fish from cold waters) each week to get about 500mg to 1g of omega-3s a day. A great way to meet this recommendation is to enjoy wild and sustainable sources of salmon or cod. For example, a 3.5 oz serving of wild Alaska salmon provides about 1.5-1.7g of EPA/DHA. EPA and DHA from fish may be more absorbable than omega-3s from supplements. One study found that omega-3s from eating salmon raised blood levels of DHA/EPA more effectively than fish oil supplements.
7. Omega-3s Improve Your Mood
Evidence suggests that omega-3s may also help alleviate depression and other mental health disorders. Population-based studies show that people who eat more fish and seafood and have diets higher in omega-3s have reduced risk for depression and postpartum depression. Human clinical trials have found that supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce the risk for some psychotic episodes among those with schizophrenia. A 2013 study published in Human Pharmacology also showed that DHA has a positive impact on aggressive behaviors and acts to help improve and stabilize mood when individuals are under duress.
Read more: The 9 Safest Seafood Options
8. Omega-3s Reduce Blood Pressure
There is significant scientific agreement that omega-3s will help reduce your blood pressure. Studies show that people who eat more fish have lower blood pressure, compared to those who don't each fish. Omegas-3s make blood vessels healthier and more flexible to help control blood pressure. Randomized control trial results have shown indisputable evidence for the blood pressure-lowering effect of omega-3s. This change was most effective and most apparent in those who already suffer from hypertension, although those without elevated blood pressure will still benefit from omega-3s. A recent study also found that subjects taking high doses of fish oil supplements helped protect the heart from work-related stress.
9. Omega-3s Act as a Pain Reliever
Omegas-3s have the ability to lower markers of inflammation that are linked to joint and muscle pain that is often managed with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) drugs, such as ibuprofen. In one study, 250 patients experiencing chronic pain took 1.2g of DHA/EPA daily. The results found that 60 percent of the participants said that their pain was improved, and 80% were satisfied with the level of improvement they received from taking fish oil. The authors concluded that taking EPA/DHA supplements may be safer than NSAIDs for treating pain. And in a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study, a daily dose of 1.8 grams omega-3s helped reduce pain associated with exercise-induced delayed onset muscle soreness in men.
10. Omega-3s Improve Eye Health
DHA omega-3 is concentrated in the retina, macula and other areas of the eye, and studies show that DHA plays an important role in healthy vision. In fact, DHA represents 93 percent of the omega-3 fats in the eye tissue. Some studies have found that DHA supplementation can improve visual outcomes among pre-term infants. While studies with older adults have found that DHA along with the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxathin, may play a role in protecting against age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness among older Americans.
11. Omega-3s Fight Wrinkles and Inflammation
Chronic, systemic inflammation is linked to many diseases and conditions —from heart disease, arthritis, bronchial issues to inflammatory bowel disease and signs of accelerated aging, like wrinkles. Studies show that when omega-3s are high, the body has an increased production of anti-inflammatory agents that help turn down the body's inflammatory response. While it's unclear how omega-3s temper inflammation, researchers at the University of California, San Diego reported that omega-3s inhibited pro-inflammatory hormone production. How much is enough? Most health authorities suggest that a healthy baseline is 500 mg per day.
12. Omega-3s Lower Harmful Triglycerides
High triglycerides can lead to metabolic disorders, pancreatitis and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends 2-4 g of EPA/DHA taken per day, under medical supervision, to lower high triglycerides. In one study, published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, high doses of DHA (and medium-chain triglycerides) slashed blood triglycerides by up to 50 percent. Total cholesterol and fasting glucose levels also decreased. To get more than 1 gram of omega-3s per day, a supplement or fortified food is generally necessary. When choosing a fish oil supplement, look for reputable brand that has been found to deliver high quality products. When adding supplements to your diet, we always recommend consulting with your doctor.
Read more: The 9 Best Foods for Your Brain
13. Omega-3s Improve Asthma
Asthma has been linked to many environmental and dietary factors that can act as triggers for episodes. Some studies show that people suffering from asthma have lower levels of omega-3s compared to those without the condition. Several studies show that diets that are rich in omega-3s (and lower in omega-6 fatty acids) improve outcomes among those with asthma. Omega-3s may even provide relief for exercise-induced asthma, the condition whereby people experience bronchoconstriction during exercise. A recent study published in Respiratory Medicine, reported a 59 percent improvement in lung function and reduced airway inflammation in participants after they took an omega-3 supplement.
14. Omega-3s Improve Joint Pain and Stiffness from Arthritis
Arthritis is "inflammation of the joint," and there are many different forms of the condition. The good news is that arthritis is no longer considered an inevitable part of aging. Research shows that keeping joints mobile through physical activity and eating a diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3s may help reduce inflammation of the joints. One study, published in Arthritis and Rheumatism, reported a 20-25 percent improvement of arthritis symptoms in participants taking at least 2.6 g/day of omega-3s, compared to those taking a placebo. Participants were able to reduce their intake of traditional medications, like NSAIDs (ibuprofen).
15. Omega-3s Improve Bone Health
Multiple studies show that omega-3s can improve bone density and may help reduce fractures due to their bone-building effects. While too large of an amount of omega-6s in one's diet will produce inflammation that increases bone loss, the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s have been shown to stimulate markers for bone-forming cells while turning down the cells that promote bone loss. To boost your bone health here's an easy way to increase omega-3s in your diet: adding a tablespoon of Nutiva chia seeds or shelled hemp seeds to yogurt or non-dairy smoothies adds 2.5 g and 1 g of ALA omega-3, respectively. These seeds can also be used on top of salads, chicken dishes, casseroles and veggie or grain-based side dishes.
16. Omega-3s Reduce the Risk of Cardiac Events
One of the ways omega-3s reduce risk for cardiac events like, stroke and heart attacks, is by making the blood less sticky and likely to form blood clots or atherosclerotic plaques in arteries that can rupture and lead to strokes or heart attacks. Omega-3s are also involved with maintaining a healthy heart beat and rhythm to reduce risk of cardiac arrhythmias. In one study reported in JAMA, men who consumed salmon one or more times a week experienced a 50-70 percent reduction in risk of a heart attack. Additionally, the Physician's Health Study showed that eating fish once a week was associated with a 52 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death compared to participants who ate less or no fish.
17. Vegetarians and Vegans Need Omega-3 Supplements
Vegetarians who don't eat fish or seafood can have a hard time meeting their omega-3 quota from plant-based sources of ALA only. The good news is that there are several supplements that you can find that are algae-based (that's how fish and seafood at the bottom of the food chain get their EPA and DHA). Flaxseed oil, hempseed oil and chia seeds are some of the best plant-based vegan sources of omega-3s. NOTE: Vegans should be very conscious of how much omega 6 and saturated fats they consume. Conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is greatly diminished when you consume too many plant foods, such as nuts, that contain high amounts of omega-6s and saturated fats like coconut oils or palm kernel oils.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you try to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into your diet? How many times a week do you have foods that are rich in omega-3s, like salmon? Share in the comments section!