Healthy dietary fats have always been recognized as a good source of energy and fat-soluble minerals but it wasn’t until 1929 when they were given the status of essential nutrients. George and Mildred Burr, after testing rats that were fed a fat-free diet, reported that fatty acids were crucial to preventing deficiency diseases (1, 2).
Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of these essential fatty acids. They are polyunsaturated fats which have shown tremendous benefits to the body and brain.
There has been extensive research done to evaluate and test these benefits. Walnuts, flaxseeds and certain types of fish and fish oil are particularly high in these fatty acids.
- What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
- 18 Proven Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Helps Fight Anxiety and Depression
- Improves Eye Health
- Omega-3 During Pregnancy and Early Life Promotes Brain Health
- Can Reduce Risk for Heart Disease
- Reduces Symptoms of ADHD in Children
- Reduces Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome
- Omega-3s Can Fight Inflammation
- Fights Autoimmune Diseases
- Improves Mental Disorders
- Helps Fight Age-Related Cognitive Decline
- May Help Prevent Cancer
- Helps Reduce Asthma in Children
- May Help Reduce Fatty Liver
- May Improve Bone and Joint Health
- May Help Alleviate Menstrual Pain
- May Improve Sleep Quality
- Omega-3 Fats Can Improve Skin Health
- Decreases Risk of Allergies in Infants
- The Final Note
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to the human body and also provide various benefits. Since the body doesn’t make it on its own, we need to get it through the food we eat.
There are three most important types of omega-3 fatty acids – ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). ALA or alpha-linolenic acid is the most common fatty acid and can mainly be found in plants (3).
ALA is mainly used for energy in the body but it can also be converted to DHA and EPA, although in very small quantities. ALA is found in flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
DHA or docosahexaenoic acid is regarded as the most important omega-3 fatty acid in our body. It plays an important role in the development of the retina and several brain functions. This is why it is extremely important for pregnant and breastfeeding women to have sufficient DHA (4, 5). DHA can be found mainly in fatty fish, fish oils, meat, and eggs and other similar animal products. As a result, vegetarians can sometimes lack this fatty acid and need to take supplements.
EPA or Eicosapentaenoic acid is also found only in animal products like fatty fish and fish oils. Some microalgae like seaweed also contain EPA.
18 Proven Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Helps Fight Anxiety and Depression
Depression has become one of the most common mental health disorders today. It can show up with an array of symptoms including but not limited to unexplained sadness, lethargy, mood swings, and a lack of interest in life (6).
Anxiety is another common mental health issue and it is categorized by constant worrying and nervousness. Consumption of adequate omega-3 fatty acids has shown an inverse relationship with depression and anxiety.
It has even been noted that omega-3 fatty acids can even help alleviate some of the symptoms that accompany these disorders. Out of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, EPA has been found to be most effective in fighting depression (7).
An 8-week study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry reported that a combination of EPA and popular antidepressant fluoxetine showed superior therapeutic effects in major depressive disorders (8).
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids have shown great benefits in dealing with symptoms of depression and anxiety and even preventing it in some people. EPA has been found to be most effective in this regard.
Improves Eye Health
The retina of the eye has a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA. DHA forms an important structural component of the retina. A lack of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to vision problems (9).
There is evidence from studies to suggest that sufficient levels of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, have shown a reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration which is a leading cause of blindness worldwide (10, 11).
Some studies have also shown that omega-3 fatty acids may reverse the symptoms of dry eye syndrome (12).
Summary: DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, is an important structural component of the retina and insufficient DHA can cause vision problems. An adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids may slow down macular degeneration and reverse symptoms of dry eye syndrome.
Omega-3 During Pregnancy and Early Life Promotes Brain Health
Adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is extremely vital during pregnancy and lactation. They are critical to the growth and development of the fetal brain and retina. In this regard, DHA or docosahexaenoic acid has shown great benefits because the brain prefers using it first over other fatty acids (13).
A study has shown that when infant formula includes DHA, it positively influences their visual and cognitive development in early life and potential benefits to later health (14).
In one study conducted in 2003, there was a strong correlation between the intake of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA, during pregnancy and lactation and the intelligence level of the child at age 4 years (15).
Pregnant mothers who get enough omega-3 fatty acids go on to have children with higher intelligence, better social and communication skills, reduced risk of developmental delays and ADHD, autism and cerebral palsy (16, 17).
Summary: Getting enough omega-3 during pregnancy, infancy and early life is very important for children’s cognitive development. It is linked to higher intelligence, problem-solving skills, and reduced risk of several diseases.
Can Reduce Risk for Heart Disease
Omega-3 fatty acids contribute greatly toward heart health and there’s a long list of benefits. They can reduce triglycerides, lower blood pressure, and increase levels of the “good” cholesterol HDL.
Omega-3 fatty acids can stop platelets from clumping together and prevent forming harmful blood clots. They keep the arteries healthy and free of any damage and prevent plaque from forming in the arteries. They even reduce inflammation (18, 19, 20, 21, 22).
Can we say ‘a fatty fish a day keeps the cardiologist away’? Well, omega-3 fatty acids from fish have great benefits as we’ve already seen but studies show that they might not prevent heart attacks or strokes (23).
Summary: There are many benefits to our heart health when we increase omega-3 intake like improved HDL levels, lower blood pressure and triglycerides. There is however no concrete evidence that omega-3 can prevent heart attacks or strokes.
Reduces Symptoms of ADHD in Children
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be classified as a behavioral or psychiatric disorder. Children suffering from this condition are inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive (24).
There have been studies that show children with ADHD have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood (25).
ADHD is usually treated with medication but their long-term use can cause some unwanted side-effects like sleep difficulties, reduced appetite, and increased heart rate in some children.
One study conducted by the Yale Child Study Center among 699 children found that omega-3 supplements were able to moderately but significantly improve the ADHD symptoms and hence could be a better choice for parents who refuse to treat with medication (26).
A 2009 study conducted in Canada with 37 children as participants found that omega-3 supplements improved symptoms of ADHD in 26 of them (27).
Another study found significant improvement with omega-3 supplements with regard to a few symptoms like restlessness, aggression, completing work, and academic performance (28).
Summary: Omega-3 supplements have shown great improvement in children with ADHD by improving their attention, reducing restlessness and aggression.
Reduces Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome can be defined as a cluster of conditions that occur together. Some of these conditions are high blood pressure, insulin resistance, belly fat, low levels of HDL or the “good” cholesterol and also high triglycerides. These are a dangerous combination for our health and greatly increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke (29).
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids can be of great help to people with metabolic syndrome because they can improve their insulin resistance, reduce inflammation and also reduce risks of heart disease.
Omega-3s Can Fight Inflammation
Inflammation is the response of our immune system to any injury or infection. It is a natural response and very vital to send signals to begin the healing and repair process. But when inflammation persists for a long time without any reasonable cause like infection or injury, it can be called chronic or long-term inflammation.
Long-term inflammation can be traced back as the root cause of many diseases today, including heart disease and cancer (33).
Summary: Omega-3 intake can help reduce long-term or chronic inflammation, which is known to contribute to heart disease and cancer.
Fights Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune disease is a condition in which the immune system starts attacking healthy cells of the body mistaking them to be foreign cells. Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and type 1 diabetes are examples of autoimmune diseases. In the case of type 1 diabetes, the immune system starts attacking the pancreatic cells which produce insulin.
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially when taken in the first year of life, may play a significant role in fighting some of these diseases.
Studies have shown that a higher intake of fatty fish can reduce the risk of latent autoimmune diabetes in adults (38).
The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids have also been associated with reduced risk of type 1 diabetes (39).
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids may be used in combating some autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, lupus, autoimmune diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Improves Mental Disorders
Several studies have reported an inverse relationship between the intake of oily fish and mental disorders like depression and bipolar disorder. This means that omega-3 fatty acids may have a preventive role in dealing with psychiatric disorders (44).
It has been reported that when EPA, a form of omega-3 fatty acid, is added on to existing medication of people suffering from schizophrenia, they have had therapeutic benefits.
Summary: Increasing omega-3 levels in people with mental disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia have shown improvement.
Helps Fight Age-Related Cognitive Decline
Cognitive decline is a common symptom of aging and inescapable for some. There have been several studies conducted to identify the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on age-related mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2018 study conducted in Brazil even indicated that if Alzheimer’s symptoms are mild and are caught early, omega-3 supplementation may be beneficial for the treatment of the patients (49).
It is important to note that more in-depth research is needed with regard to omega-3 fatty acids and brain health.
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids have shown benefits in preventing age-related cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s disease.
May Help Prevent Cancer
Cancer is undoubtedly one of the leading causes of death today and it has been noted that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of certain types of cancers.
Some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids in some fish may protect women against breast cancer and men against prostate cancer. It is still quite early and more research needs to be done before making recommendations of omega-3 fatty acids for cancer prevention (52, 53, 54).
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the risk of colon, breast and prostate cancer.
Helps Reduce Asthma in Children
Asthma is usually accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. It is a chronic lung disease that can cause inflammation and swelling in the airways of the lungs which can be very dangerous.
Summary: Children and young adults may have a reduced risk of asthma with a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
May Help Reduce Fatty Liver
The liver plays a significant role in the breaking down of the fat we eat so that it can be used as energy. This directly affects weight gain.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease has increasingly become one of the most common chronic diseases where fat gets accumulated on the liver and affects its functioning. This increase can be attributed to the growing obesity epidemic (57).
Studies report that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may reduce liver fat and improve liver function. Further studies need to be done to establish a dosage (58).
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce liver fat in people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
May Improve Bone and Joint Health
Essential fatty acids benefit bone health by increasing calcium absorption in the gut and calcium deposition in bone. This increases bone strength and enhances the synthesis of bone collagen (59). This, in turn, reduces the risk of osteoporosis especially in the elderly (60).
Sometimes there can be loss of bone and muscle due to aging and this is a major health concern in the elderly. It has been noted that people who have a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids have a higher bone mineral density.
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids can potentially reduce the risk of osteoporosis and arthritis by improving bone strength and overall health of the joints.
May Help Alleviate Menstrual Pain
Menstrual pain is a common problem experienced by most women on a monthly basis. In fact, one in ten women experience severe pain and even feel the need for medication because it affects their quality of life (63).
Studies have shown that women who consumed higher levels of omega-3 fats, benefited in managing menstrual pain (64). A study conducted amongst Danish women concluded that women with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids had milder menstrual pain (65, 66).
Another study reported that an omega-3 supplement proved more effective in treating severe menstrual pain than ibuprofen (67).
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids can help women in reducing the severity of menstrual pain and may even be better than ibuprofen.
May Improve Sleep Quality
Quality and quantity of sleep can be key in preventing many diseases like depression, diabetes, and obesity. Lack of sleep has become very common and may cause frequent headaches and trouble concentrating (68, 69, 70).
Studies show that low levels of DHA affect the nighttime production of melatonin which is a sleep hormone (71).
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acids have shown benefits in improving sleep quality and length in both children and adults.
Omega-3 Fats Can Improve Skin Health
DHA is an important structural component of the skin and it ensures that the skin membranes are healthy. When the skin membrane is healthy, it results in skin that is moist, soft, supple and wrinkle-free.
High levels of omega-3 fatty acids, even EPA, have shown to reduce the risk of acne and premature aging of this skin. EPA has also shown benefits like managing oil production and hydration of the skin and also preventing sun damage.
Summary: Omega-3 fatty acid intake can prevent damage to the skin due to premature aging, sun damage, and hyperkeratinization of hair follicles and keep skin healthy.
Decreases Risk of Allergies in Infants
We’ve already seen the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in infant brain health. It has also been noted that adequate consumption of omega-3s by pregnant mothers reduces the risk of allergies in their babies.
A 2009 study conducted in Sweden showed that when pregnant and lactating mothers, who themselves had allergies or had a husband with an allergy, were given fish oil supplements from the 25th week of pregnancy to 3-4 months postpartum, had a much lower prevalence of allergies in their infants (78).
Summary: Fish oils with EPA and DHA in the mother can help reduce the chance of allergies in the infant.
The Final Note
There is exceeding scientific research and evidence available regarding the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in various aspects of our health.
Fatty fish and other seafood like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts also have a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
Another good source of omega-3 is plant oils like flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil. In addition to these, there are some fortified foods like certain brands of eggs, milk, yogurt, juices and infant formula that have a considerable amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
However, people who do not manage to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their diet may consider supplementing with fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, and algal oil. These come in a range of doses and forms that you can choose from.
Consuming sufficient omega-3 fatty acids can help in preventing a range of chronic diseases, ensuring healthy brain and eye development and overall mental wellness.