6 science-backed benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and how to add more to your diet
Omega-3fatty acids can improve your heart healthby lowering blood pressure and reducing triglycerides.
- Omega-3 fatty acids can also combat chronic inflammation, which has been linked to diabetes, cancer, and high cholesterol levels.
- To get enough omega-3 in your diet, you should eat fatty fish like salmon or mackerel two to three times per week.
- This article was medically reviewed by Scott Kaiser, MD, geriatrician, and the director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a category of fats that are essential to our health. These fats come in three main forms:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These fatty acids are found in some nuts and seeds, like walnuts and chia seeds.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These fatty acids are found in fish, like salmon and mackerel.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are found in fish, like herring and sardines.
Here are six benefits of eating these omega-3 fatty acids and how to incorporate all three types into your diet:
1. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce your risk of heart disease
Omega-3 fatty acids have many benefits for cardiovascular health. A few ways omega-3s may help improve your heart health include:
- Decreasing triglycerides, a type of
fatin the blood
- Increasing HDL levels, the healthy type of cholesterol
- Lowering blood pressure
A very large 2016 review that collected data from 16 countries found that people who regularly consumed seafood and plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids had a lower risk of dying from coronary heart disease.
2. Omega-3 fatty acids improve eye health
DHA, one of the three types of omega-3s, is found in high concentrations in the retina — the part of your eye that senses light and sends signals to the brain so you can see. Sufficient amounts of DHA are important for the structure and function of your retinas.
"Most of the DHA accumulates in the retina when babies are in the womb," says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a nutritionist with a virtual private practice. Therefore, it is especially important for pregnant women to consume enough omega-3 fatty acids to ensure their child has proper eye development.
Omega-3s may also improve dry eye symptoms. A large 2018 review looked at treating dry eyes with omega-3 and omega-6 dietary supplements. It found that supplementation increased eye lubrication, but the results were not strong enough to recommend supplementation as a stand-alone treatment for dry eyes.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids combat inflammation
Inflammation is a natural immune response to injury and infection. Acute inflammation, like swelling or redness after you scrape a knee, is beneficial and helps tissues heal after damage.
However, according to Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, a registered dietitian based in New York City, chronic inflammation, which occurs when the inflammatory response persists after the injury heals, is associated with diabetes, cancer, and high cholesterol.
Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties, meaning they can help reduce chronic inflammation. Foods high in EPA and DHA, like salmon and sardines, are more effective anti-inflammatory agents than the ALAs found in plants. Aim to eat two to three servings of fatty fish a week to see maximum benefits.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce liver fat
Omega 3 fatty acids have shown promise in treating non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD occurs when too much fat accumulates in the liver and can cause symptoms like abdominal swelling and an enlarged spleen.
A 2016 meta-analysis of studies involving NAFLD patients found that omega-3 supplementation improved liver fat, optimized liver enzyme levels, and regulated fat content in the blood.
5. Omega-3 fatty acids boost joint health
Rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that causes tender, swollen, and stiff joints, involves high degrees of chronic inflammation. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3 fatty acids may relieve pain and stiffness associated with the condition.
A small 2016 study found that patients being treated for rheumatoid arthritis who also took omega-3 supplements (1.8g EPA and 2.1g DHA) twice daily over a 12 week period experienced reduced pain, decreased joint swelling, and increased physical strength than those who received a placebo.
6. Omega-3 fatty acids promote healthy brain growth during pregnancy
DHA is the main structural fatty acid in the central nervous system, making it crucial for normal fetal brain development. Therefore, it is especially important for pregnant women to consume enough DHA since 15% of brain development occurs in the womb.
How much omega-3 should I get?
According to the National Institutes of Health, the daily recommended intake of omega-3 for each age group is:
However, this recommendation is only for one type of omega-3 fatty acid: ALA, because it is the only omega-3 considered an essential nutrient, meaning the body cannot produce it on its own. There is no national recommendation for the other two types.
It's important to consume all three types of omega-3 fatty acids. Although your body can synthesize DHA and EPA from ALA consumption alone, it cannot synthesize enough to provide the full health benefits of these types, says Cassetty.
For pregnant women
Because omega-3s are so vital to proper fetal and newborn development, women who are currently pregnant, breastfeeding, or may become pregnant should watch their omega-3 intake. Pregnant women should consume 8 to 12 ounces of fish per week. However, if you are pregnant, you should opt for low mercury seafood options since the mineral can harm fetuses.
Some low mercury, high omega-3 options include:
Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, meaning your body can't produce them so you must consume them through your diet. They are found in both plant and animal products.
ALA is mainly found in plants, like nuts and seeds.
EPA and DHA are mainly found in animals, specifically fatty fish.
Most people can get sufficient levels of omega 3 fatty acids by eating a varied diet. However, some groups of people that may want to consider omega-3 supplements include:
- Those with cardiovascular problems
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women
- People experiencing chronic inflammation
- Vegetarians or vegans
If you are supplementing with omega-3 be sure to tell your doctor because it may interact with blood pressure medications, hormonal contraceptives, and some weight loss pills.
Omega-3 fatty acids are great for your health and they can reduce your risk of heart disease, combat inflammation, and decrease liver fat. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in sources like nuts and fish. Talk with your doctor before supplementing with omega-3s to make sure it's the right decision for you and your health.
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