Understanding Omega-3 Fats and Their Many Benefits
Written by Edward Park, Ph.D., NeuroReserve Founder
(This article was originally featured in SOULFUL Insights at Soul Food Salon. To learn more about Soul Food Salon and Jeanne Rosner, MD, see the end of this article.)
You’ve probably heard about omega-3 fats—the healthy fats we should include in our diets—when reading about health or browsing the aisles at the grocery store. However, did you know that there are different types of omega-3 fats? And did you know that omega-3 fats benefit a broad array of body systems, not just the heart and brain? Read on to learn more about this essential fat.
What are omega-3 fats?
Omega-3 fats are an important kind of fat that people obtain almost solely through their diet. That is, our bodies can't make them on their own. So instead, our diet needs to supply omega-3 fats whole or in certain building blocks like ALA, which we'll introduce soon.
There are three types of omega-3 fats well-known for their health benefits:
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
DHA and EPA are abundant in cold water fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies, as well as in marine algae sources. ALA is found in certain seeds and nuts, like flax seed, chia seed, walnuts and pecans.
A few details on ALA
While DHA and EPA are widely studied for their heart, brain, eye and other health benefits, less is known about ALA and its unique biology and benefits. This doesn't mean ALA is less important. ALA could be especially important for people on vegetarian or vegan diets since ALA is plant-based and can convert into EPA and DHA in the body. Unfortunately, the conversion rate is limited. The conversion from ALA to EPA typically ranges from less than 1% to around 10%, and the conversion from ALA to DHA is smaller, typically ranging from less than 1% to about 5%. Women may have an advantage, though. A landmark study in young women reported an ALA-to-EPA conversion of 21% and an ALA-to-DHA conversion of 9%. The higher conversions for younger women are attributed to the greater need for DHA during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Estrogen may be fueling this "boosted" conversion in women.
Below is a simple diagram of ALA's journey to EPA or DHA conversion. As you can see, the ALA-to-DHA conversion is likely smaller than that of ALA-to-EPA due to the longer pathway to DHA.
It will require more scientific research to understand if ALA alone supports the body's need for DHA and EPA, depending on a person's health status. Regardless, ALA features in heart and metabolic (diabetes) health, so no matter what our diet, let's ensure we're eating our walnuts.
Omega-3 fats benefit the whole body
The benefits of omega-3 fats extend from head to toe, and some may surprise you.
Reducing cardiovascular risk: Omega-3 fats are associated with reduced resting blood pressure, lower triglyceride fats in the blood and less inflammation. Higher intakes of omega-3 fats may reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.
Protecting the brain: Omega-3 fats improve blood flow in the brain, support memory and cognitive abilities and may reduce one's risk for Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Improving mood: Omega-3 fats can help support mental health by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Protecting eye health: DHA is important for supporting eye health and is connected to reduced risk of macular degeneration, a common eye disorder and the leading cause of permanent vision loss.
Supporting sleep: Studies indicate that higher consumption of omega-3 fats is associated with a reduced risk of sleep disorders (e.g., insomnia) and may improve sleep length and quality (the efficiency and degree of feeling well-rested).
Strengthening bones: Omega-3 fats support bone and joint health by increasing bone density and may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Nourishing the skin: Omega-3 fats help support the skin by reducing acne, improving skin hydration, aiding in wound healing and reducing the harmful effects of the sun on our skin.
How much omega-3 fats are enough?
Most Americans need to increase their intake of omega-3 fats. The average US adult consumes about 100–130 mg/day of omega-3s (as a total of ALA+EPA+DHA). Compare this to the following recommendations:
The Institute of Medicine (IOM), which defines US Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs), recommends 1100 mg (for women) and 1600 mg (for men) of omega-3 per day (as ALA intake, not specific to DHA or EPA amounts).
The American Heart Association recommends about 500 mg DHA+EPA twice weekly as fatty fish (totaling about 1000 mg/week).
International recommendations for healthy adults vary; they range from about 200 mg/day to 1000 mg/day, typically as DHA+EPA.
So, if you feel like you're taking in an average or below-average amount of omega-3s, then it's time to ramp up the omega-3s in your diet and nutritional regimen.
How do you know you've reached a good level with omega-3 fats?
It may be easy enough for you to know by feeling the benefit, of course, but if you're the kind of person who likes to track a hard number, there is a biomarker test called the Omega-3 Index. It measures the amount of DHA and EPA incorporated into your tissue, specifically your red blood cells. You can obtain one at OmegaQuant (no affiliation with this author). Due to their low intake of omega-3s, most Americans have an omega-3 index of 4% or less. However, recent studies show that optimal cardiovascular and brain health is probably at a level of 8%–12%.
What you can do to boost your omega-3 fat status:
Get enough fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovies) into your diet (also add marine algae sources)—ideally 3-4 servings per week.
Go nuts! Have at least a handful of omega-3-rich nuts daily, like walnuts or pecans.
Consider a DHA/EPA supplement, though bear in mind that they come in different forms, depending on your need. Fish oil-derived supplements come in the triglyceride or ethyl ester forms of DHA/EPA, which may better target cardiovascular health. On the other hand, phospholipid forms of DHA/EPA may better target brain health (for example, our product RELEVATE uses a type of phospholipid called phosphatidylcholine-DHA/EPA, which is designed for more efficient uptake into the brain, especially as people age). Ultimately, all forms are broadly beneficial; it's a matter of choosing which protective benefit you want to emphasize.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, consider an algae-based DHA/EPA supplement.
Finally, although taking "mega" doses of DHA and EPA to compensate for a deficiency is tempting, be aware that high dosages, over 5000 mg/day of DHA+EPA, are not recommended. High doses over the long term may interfere with the immune system, increase the risk of bleeding (lowering the ability of platelets to clot) and interact with anti-thrombotic medications like warfarin.
Hopefully, this helps you understand omega-3 fats better. Science is still uncovering new information and learning about how to maximize their benefit. It's safe to say, though, that omega-3 fats are indeed healthy, and you should strive to get enough of them. Your body and mind will thank you for it—today and in the future!
This article was originally featured at Soul Food Salon, here.
About Jeanne Rosner M.D, and Soul Food Salon: