When it comes to fat, there's one type you don’t want to cut back on: omega-3 fatty acids. Two crucial ones -- EPA and DHA -- are primarily found in certain fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), another omega-3 fatty acid, is found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds. Not only does your body need these fatty acids to function, but also they deliver some big health benefits.
Omega-3s can fight depression and anxiety
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the world.
Symptoms include sadness, lethargy and a general loss of interest in life.
Anxiety is also a very common disorder, and is characterized by constant worry and nervousness.
Interestingly, studies have found that people who consume omega-3s regularly are less likely to be depressed (1, 2).
What’s more, when people with depression or anxiety start taking omega-3 supplements, their symptoms get better (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. Of the three, EPA appears to be the best at fighting depression (9).
One study even found EPA to be as effective against depression as Prozac, an antidepressant drug (10).
Omega-3s can improve eye health
DHA, a type of omega-3, is a major structural component of the brain and retina of the eye (11).
Interestingly, getting enough omega-3 has been linked to a reduced risk of macular degeneration, one of the world’s leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness (15, 16).
Omega-3s can promote brain health during pregnancy and early life
Omega-3s are crucial for brain growth and development in infants.
DHA accounts for 40% of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain, and 60% in the retina of the eye (12, 17).
Therefore, it’s no surprise that infants fed a DHA-fortified formula have better eyesight than infants fed a formula without it (18).
Getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy has been associated with numerous benefits for the child, including (19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24):
- Higher intelligence.
- Better communication and social skills.
- Less behavioral problems.
- Decreased risk of developmental delay.
- Decreased risk of ADHD, autism and cerebral palsy.
Omega-3s can improve risk factors for heart disease
Heart attacks and strokes are the world’s leading causes of death.
Decades ago, researchers observed that fish-eating communities had very low rates of these diseases. This was later found to be partially due to omega-3 consumption (25, 26, 27, 28).
Since then, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have numerous benefits for heart health (29, 30, 31, 32, 33).
- Triglycerides: Omega-3s can cause a major reduction in triglycerides, usually in the range of 15–30% (34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40).
- Blood pressure: Omega-3s can reduce blood pressure levels in people with high blood pressure (34, 41, 42, 43, 44).
- HDL-cholesterol: Omega-3s can raise HDL (the “good”) cholesterol levels (45, 46, 47, 48, 49).
- Blood clots: Omega-3s can keep blood platelets from clumping together. This helps prevent the formation of harmful blood clots (50, 51).
- Plaque: By keeping the arteries smooth and free from damage, omega-3s help prevent the plaque that can restrict and harden the arteries (52, 53, 54).
- Inflammation: Omega-3s reduce the production of some substances released during the inflammatory response (36, 38, 55).
Omega-3s can reduce symptoms of ADHD in children
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioral disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
Several studies have found that children with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, compared to their healthy peers (56, 57).
What’s more, numerous studies have found that omega-3 supplements can actually reduce the symptoms of ADHD.
Omega-3s help improve inattention and the ability to complete tasks. They also decrease hyperactivity, impulsiveness, restlessness and aggression (58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65).
Recently, researchers evaluated the evidence behind different treatments for ADHD. They found fish oil supplementation to be one of the most promising treatments (66).
Omega-3s can reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions.
It includes central obesity (belly fat), high blood pressure, insulin resistance, high triglycerides and low HDL levels.
It is a major public health concern, since it increases your risk of developing many other diseases. These include heart disease and diabetes.
Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce insulin resistance and inflammation, and improve heart disease risk factors in people with metabolic syndrome (67, 68, 69, 70).
Omega-3s can fight inflammation
Inflammation is incredibly important. We need it to fight infections and repair damage in the body.
However, sometimes inflammation persists for a long time, even without an infection or injury being present. This is called chronic (long-term) inflammation.
It is known that long-term inflammation can contribute to almost every chronic Western disease, including heart disease and cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the production of molecules and substances linked to inflammation, such as inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines (71, 72, 73).
Studies have consistently shown a link between higher omega-3 intake and reduced inflammation (8, 74, 75, 76, 77).
Omega-3s can fight autoimmune diseases
In autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakes healthy cells for foreign cells and starts attacking them.
Type 1 diabetes is one prime example. In this disease, the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Omega-3s can help fight some of these diseases, and may be especially important during early life.
Studies show that getting enough omega-3s during your first year of life is linked to a reduced risk of many autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, autoimmune diabetes in adults and multiple sclerosis (78, 79, 80).
Omega-3s have also been shown to help treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis (71, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89).
Omega-3s can improve mental disorders
Low omega-3 levels have been reported in people with psychiatric disorders (90).
Studies have shown that omega-3 supplements can reduce the frequency of mood swings and relapses in people with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (1, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95).
Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may also decrease violent behavior (96).
Omega-3s can fight age-related mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease
A decline in brain function is one of the unavoidable consequences of aging.
Several studies have shown that higher omega-3 intake is linked to decreased age-related mental decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease (97, 98, 99, 100, 101).
Additionally, one study found that people who eat fatty fish tend to have more gray matter in the brain. This is brain tissue that processes information, memories and emotions (102).
Omega-3s may help prevent cancer
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the Western world, and omega-3 fatty acids have long been claimed to reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Interestingly, studies have shown that people who consume the most omega-3s have up to a 55% lower risk of colon cancer (103, 104).
Additionally, omega-3 consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women. However, not all studies agree on this (105, 106, 107, 108).
Omega-3s can reduce asthma in children
Asthma is a chronic lung disease with symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing.
Severe asthma attacks can be very dangerous. They are caused by inflammation and swelling in the airways of the lungs.
What’s more, asthma rates have been increasing over the past few decades.
Several studies have linked omega-3 consumption to a lower risk of asthma in children and young adults (109, 110).
Omega-3s can reduce fat in the liver
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is more common than you think.
It has increased with the obesity epidemic, and is now the most common cause of chronic liver disease in the Western world.
Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to reduce liver fat and inflammation in people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (111, 112, 113, 114).
Omega-3s may improve bone and joint health
Osteoporosis and arthritis are two common disorders that affect the skeletal system.
Studies indicate that omega-3s can improve bone strength by increasing the amount of calcium in bones. This should lead to a reduced risk of osteoporosis (115).
Omega-3s may also help with arthritis. Patients taking omega-3 supplements have reported reduced joint pain and increased grip strength (116, 117, 118).
Omega-3s can alleviate menstrual pain
Menstrual pain occurs in the lower abdomen and pelvis, and often radiates to the lower back and thighs.
It can result in significant negative effects on a person’s quality of life.
However, studies have repeatedly shown that women who consume the most omega-3s have milder menstrual pain (119, 120, 121, 122).
One study even found that an omega-3 supplement was more effective than ibuprofen in treating severe pain during menstruation (123).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Improve Sleep
Good sleep is one of the foundations of optimal health.
Studies show that sleep deprivation is linked to many diseases, including obesity, diabetes and depression.
Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with sleep problems in children and obstructive sleep apnea in adults (124, 125, 126, 127).
Low levels of DHA have also been linked to lower levels of the hormone melatonin, which helps you fall asleep (128).
Studies in both children and adults have shown that supplementing with omega-3 increases the length and quality of sleep (125, 129).
Omega-3 fats are good for your skin
DHA is a structural component of the skin. It is responsible for the health of cell membranes, which make up a large part of skin.
A healthy cell membrane results in soft, moist, supple and wrinkle-free skin.
- Managing oil production in skin.
- Managing hydration of the skin.
- Preventing hyperkeratinization of hair follicles (the little red bumps often seen on upper arms).
- Preventing premature ageing of the skin.
- Preventing acne.
- Omega-3s can also protect your skin from sun damage. EPA helps block the release of substances that eat away at the collagen in your skin after sun exposure (132).
Where to Get Omega 3s
When possible, try to get omega-3 fatty acids from foods rather than supplements. Aim to eat fish high in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids two to three times a week.
- Salmon (wild has more omega-3s than farmed)
- Lake trout
- Fish Roe (Caviar)
- Seafood (Oysters)
Avoid Farm-raised fish of any type. Experts have raised concerns about farm raised fish, which in some cases are raised on unnatural diets and crammed into small enclosures that can breed disease, prompting aquaculture operators to rely heavily on antibiotics. Chemicals and growth hormone may be used to speed production. Farm raised salmon are fed chemicals to provide a pinkish hue. They’re reportedly to have higher levels of PCBs, contaminants, and other toxins.
Good food sources of ALA are:
- Walnuts and walnut oil
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Canola (rapeseed) oil
- Soybeans and soybean oil
- Olive oil
- Pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil
- Perilla seed oil
- Rice bran
- Spinach, brussel sprouts kale, lettuce – It’s hard to imagine that this food contains omega 3, but they contain, and in great quantity.