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You might have heard that omega-3s, or omega-3 fatty acids, are healthy for your brain and heart, and you might’ve even seen omega-3 or fish oil pills in the drugstore. It’s true – there are many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Here are some of the latest findings about these long-chain polyunsaturated fats, where to find them and ways to help ensure you’re getting enough of them.
First off, there are three omega-3 fatty acids:
Omega-3s are “essential” nutrients, which means your body can’t produce them on its own, but they’re still vital to how your body functions. This means you need to get them from your diet. When you enjoy walnuts, flax or other foods with ALA, some will convert to EPA and DHA, but not enough for your body to gain any significant benefit.
And the heart, brain, eye, pregnancy and immunity benefits you might have heard of stem from EPA and DHA, the type of omega-3s found in fish, krill oil, algae and supplements.
There are more than 5,000 peer-reviewed studies that detail the health benefits of omega-3s. Here are five reasons to get more EPA and DHA in your diet.
Hundreds of studies show that EPA and DHA provide heart-health benefits. A 2020 review published in the International Journal of Molecular Science, concluded that those with higher levels of EPA and DHA in their diet have lower risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attack and reduced risk of death from any type of cardiovascular disease.
EPA and DHA improve heart health by lowering triglycerides, blood pressure and heart rate variability. They also help reduce inflammation and improve blood vessel function. Research from the American Heart Association shows 1,000 to 3,000 mg of EPA and DHA provided heart health benefits.
According to the American Heart Association, when EPA and DHA were provided as supplements among individuals with heart disease, those receiving the supplement experienced improved cognitive outcomes compared to subjects who did not take the supplements. While more research is needed to fully understand the role of omega-3s in brain health, there currently is no downside in getting about 500 mg per day of EPA and DHA per day.
While research is ongoing, and pregnant women should always follow the advice of their health care provider, several studies show that EPA and DHA during pregnancy may help support heart, brain and eye health in a mother’s unborn child and throughout infancy.
Data derived from observational studies have found that omega-3 fatty acid consumption during pregnancy either in the diet or via supplements is associated with improved neurodevelopmental outcomes in the child, according to a review paper published in Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
There is also evidence suggesting that EPA and DHA may help prevent pregnancy-related depression that afflicts about 10 to 20 percent of mothers. Studies are ongoing, but obtaining at least 700 mg of EPA + DHA during pregnancy is recommended. Of the total intake, at least 300 mg should be from DHA.
When it comes to improving the microbiome of your GI tract, most research has focused on fiber, pre- and probiotics for improving GI health. However, newer research shows that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (including DHA and EPA) also improve the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
This means that those omega-3s can help bolster your immune system to fend off infections and other illnesses. While more research is still needed, animal studies show that there are beneficial interactions between gut bacteria and omega-3 fatty acids to bolster immunity by strengthening your intestinal wall. The GI tract intestinal wall interacts with the microbiome and immune system cells. Disruptions to the intestinal wall can lead to abnormal immune responses.
In the retina of your eyes, DHA plays an important role in maintaining photoreceptors. DHA helps protect your eyes from damage from light and acts as an antioxidant to help protect cell damage that occurs in some eye disorders.
According to research, optimal DHA in one’s diet may help protect against age-related macular degeneration and other age-related conditions that can lead to reduced eyesight and blindness. The AREDS 2 study, a major study about age-related eye disease funded by the National Eye Institute, used a supplement with 350 mg DHA and 650 mg EPA. The individuals with the highest DHA and EPA had the lowest rating of age-related macular degeneration severity.
It is generally recognized that dietary intakes of EPA and DHA are lacking in most adults’ diets because so few foods contain EPA + DHA. Based on results of a national health survey published in the journal Nutrients, more than 95% of adults surveyed had blood levels of EPA and DHA below recommended levels.
That study identified the recommended level of EPA and DHA to be what comes from two 3 ounce servings of fatty fish. The American Heart Association also recommends at least two 3-ounce servings per week of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. The average fish and seafood intake is substantially lower than this recommendation.
Other organizations recommend 500 mg of combined EPA and DHA as the beneficial intake. If you don’t eat fatty fish at least twice a week, consider an omega-3 supplement made from fish oil, krill oil or algal oil (the only vegan source of EPA that provides at least 500 mg of EPA+DHA per day.
A supplement that provides 250 mg EPA and 250 mg DHA would be sufficient. Be sure to look for EPA and DHA on the label, as many supplements may state that they provide 1,000 mg of fish oil but may only provide a fraction of the EPA and DHA you need.
Some groups of people have different nutritional requirements or limitations to omega-3 consumption. Always consult your health care provider about adding supplements to your diet, and ask them about omega-3s specifically for your health.