Thanks to their many benefits, omega-3 fatty acids have become a popular topic in nutritional health. These “healthy fats” are found in many food sources, and there are many popular omega-3 supplements on the market.
From lowering your risk for heart disease to helping with anxiety, it’s easy to see why many people may want to boost their omega-3 intake. But are these benefits legitimate? And are there any downsides to omega-3s or their supplements? We’ll look at the science to help you sort it out.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are an essential part of the human diet. Unlike other fats that the body is capable of synthesizing (called non-essential fatty acids), omega-3s can’t be made from scratch. They’re vital for various bodily processes, such as making hormones for blood clotting, artery contraction and relaxation, and genetic functions. In other words, we need omega-3s, and we can only get them from food or supplements.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Adding omega-3s to your diet
Different types of foods provide different omega-3 fatty acids. The first two types (EPA and DHA) are abundant in fish, which is why they’re commonly called “marine omega-3s.” The third type (ALA) is common in a variety of food sources, including certain oils, nuts, leafy vegetables and some meats.
The best sources of omega-3s include:
- Wild salmon
- Bluefin tuna
- Lake trout
- Striped bass
- Flaxseed oil
- Meat from grass-fed animals
- Chia seeds
- Canola oil
Fish, by far, is the best source of omega-3s. If you’re vegan or otherwise don’t eat seafood, you may need to work especially hard to get enough of these important fats in your diet. In that case, omega-3 supplements may be helpful, especially for EPA and DHA. Although your body naturally converts a small amount of ALA to DHA and EPA, it may be a good idea to make sure you’re consuming fish or supplements that include these.
Science-backed benefits of omega-3s
Scientists have noted a variety of benefits that may be associated with omega-3 fatty acids. Some of these have more evidence than others, so we’ll look at the most notable benefits with some of the most promising scientific support.
Lower your risk of heart disease
A wide array of studies has shown a connection between heart health and omega-3 fatty acids. These fats appear to have a positive impact on various aspects of cardiovascular health. Most notably, though, omega-3s have been correlated with more stable heart rhythm, lower blood pressure and heart rate, better blood vessel function, and lower levels of inflammation.
Replacing saturated fats, such as red meat, butter and whole fat dairy, with unsaturated fats such as omega-3s may lower risk of developing heart disease.
Fight anxiety and depression
Although more research is needed as to the exact correlation between mental health and omega-3 intake, there appears to be strong evidence that these fats can help to reduce depression and anxiety for many people. EPA, in particular, has shown promising results as a treatment for mild-to-moderate depression.
Enhance eye health
Omega-3s — EPA and DHA in particular— play a major part in building the cellular makeup of our eyes. Not only do they help during our early stages of development, but research suggests a steady, adequate intake of these fats can help prevent vision problems, such as macular degeneration later in life.
Promote prenatal and infant brain development
Scientists are actively studying the general connection between omega-3s and brain health, particularly in the womb and during our early life. Some studies have shown that children of mothers who take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding may have better mental processing capabilities than those who don’t. Additionally, studies have shown that mothers who take DHA supplements can improve breast milk nutrition for infants, leading to better cognitive function and eyesight later in life.
Slow cognitive decline
Because of the connection between omega-3s and general brain health, it’s perhaps no surprise that some research supports that these fats may slow cognitive decline as we age. This may be particularly promising for helping to slow the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, though more research is still needed in this area.
Scientists are still studying these and many other benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, including their effect on ADHD, metabolic syndrome and certain autoimmune diseases.
Drawbacks to omega-3 supplements
Generally, doctors recommend that you get most or all of your omega-3 fatty acids from food sources. Broiled or baked fish (not fried) is the best thing to add to your diet, along with some of the other foods mentioned above.
Omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil or cod liver oil, offer many of the same benefits as getting these fats through food sources, though. These supplements are generally considered safe when taken in moderation. However, there are a few potential drawbacks to consider.
Risk of bleeding
There’s some indication that omega-3 supplements may enhance the effects of anti-blood clotting medications, herbs and supplements. When taken together, it may increase your risk of bleeding or reduce your ability to stop bleeding.
Other potential drug interactions
More research is needed as to how fish oil supplements interact with other drugs and dietary supplements. In particular, there may be adverse interactions between omega-3 supplements and drugs taken for blood pressure, birth control and weight loss.
General side effects
Some users of omega-3 supplements have noted general discomfort associated with them. This may include heartburn, nausea and diarrhea.
Other side effects of omega-3 supplements that some have noted include fishy aftertaste and bad breath, along with rashes in some cases. Those with seafood allergies should also consult their physicians before taking fish oil supplements.
Should you take omega-3 supplements?
Omega-3s are essential for cell growth and overall health, and it’s critical to include them in your normal dietary intake. Ideally, it’s best to do this through sources such as fish, walnuts, flaxseed oil and other foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
However, if you can’t include these foods in your diet, omega-3 supplements are a relatively safe alternative. It’s easy to find supplements that are packed with a balanced serving of all three major omega-3s, and they’re relatively inexpensive. Keep in mind, though, that these should be taken in moderation and in consultation with your doctor. Some omega-3 supplements may interact with other drugs or supplements you’re taking, and you may experience other side effects.
Although more research is needed to fully discover all the benefits of omega-3s, one thing is clear: they’re an important part of any balanced diet.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.