What Is Omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that needs to be consumed in foods. The three important types of omega-3s are:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
DHA and EPA are primarily found in algae and fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and tuna, while ALA is mostly found in plant foods.
How Much Omega-3 Should You Get Daily?
According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended adequate intake of omega-3s by age is:1
- Birth to 1 year: 500 milligrams (mg) daily
- 1–3 years: 700 mg daily
- 4–8 years: 900 mg daily
- 9–13 years: 1,200 mg for males and 1,000 mg for females daily
- 14–18 years: 1,600 mg for males and 1,100 mg for females daily
- 18 and older: 1,600 mg for males and 1,100 mg for females daily
- During pregnancy: 1,400 mg daily
- During lactation (breastfeeding): 1,300 mg daily
The potential benefits of omega-3s include the following:
Protect Eye Health
The DHA type of omega-3 is the primary fatty acid that makes up the eye’s retina (layer of tissue in the back of the eye that senses light and signals the brain so you can see). DHA is essential during pregnancy and while breastfeeding to support healthy eye development in the fetus and infant.2
It continues to be important throughout your life for eye health. Research suggests adequate omega-3s help reduce the risk of eye problems like age-related macular degeneration (loss of central vision).3
Research suggests omega-3s play an important role in preventing inflammation. When the body breaks down omega-3s, it uses them to create anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants. So, it helps reduce inflammation and protects cells from damage.4
It’s believed that inflammation plays a role in the development of many chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. So reducing inflammation may help lower your risk for these chronic diseases and their symptoms.
Improve Heart Health
Cardiovascular diseases are one of the leading causes of death. Omega 3s may help improve important indicators of heart health and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the effect may be minor and the evidence is weak.5
- Raise “good” HDL cholesterol
- Lower triglycerides5
- Reduce blood pressure
- May prevent plaques (deposits of fat, cholesterol, and calcium) from forming in arteries
- May lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels4
Boost Infant Brain Health
Omega-3s are essential for healthy brain development in the womb and early life. DHA is the main fatty acid used to create the cell membranes in the brain. And most of the brain growth happens during the first six years of life.
Research suggests both EPA and DHA are equally effective at raising DHA levels in the brain. So, consuming adequate amounts of these nutrients is essential during pregnancy and lactation, and in childhood.2
Help Autoimmune Diseases
Many autoimmune diseases may be triggered or worsened by chronic inflammation. Reducing inflammation may help to control symptoms and slow disease progression. Inflammation is part of the immune response to infection, disease, and injury.
Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which the immune system mistakes healthy cells for problems and attacks them. Research suggests omega-3s may help reverse the progression of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases like:4
Protect Against Alzheimer’s Disease
Changes in brain health and cognitive decline are common side effects of aging. Still, several studies show that omega-3s may protect brain health while aging and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.4
One systematic review found that omega-3 supplements may help improve cognitive performance in people with mild Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.6
Ease Cancer Treatment Side Effects
Inflammation plays a role in tumor development and the side effects from cancer treatment. Research studies are mixed on whether omega-3s can actually help prevent cancers, such as prostate cancer.
However, a 2013 study showed omega-3 supplementation along with chemotherapy may help improve patient outcomes by reducing inflammation and chemotherapy side effects.7
May Reduce Depression
Omega-3s may also protect your brain health by lowering the risk for some mental health conditions, like schizophrenia and depression. A 2019 study found that omega-3 supplements with EPAs helped improve depression symptoms.8
14 Foods High in Omega-3s
Usually, it’s best to try and consume essential nutrients through food when possible. In general, animal omega-3 sources provide EPA and DHA, while plant sources tend to have ALA.
Food high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Fish liver oils, such as cod liver oil and krill oil
- Algal oil
- Kidney beans
- Soybean oil
- Chia seeds
- Flaxseed oil
How to Take Omega-3
Most of the time, people are able to meet their nutritional needs through a balanced diet. However, sometimes due to food preferences, access to food, or how the body absorbs nutrients, it’s difficult to meet the daily recommendation for nutrients.
If you’re concerned about getting enough omega-3s, talk with your healthcare provider. They may recommend taking a dietary supplement to increase your omega-3s. Your healthcare provider can let you know how much to take and review any potential risks of taking the supplement.
For example, omega-3 supplements may interact with blood thinners, like Coumadin (warfarin), and high doses have been shown to potentially increase the risk of bleeding or stroke (loss of blood supply to the brain or bleeding in the brain).
Potential side effects to taking dietary supplements include digestion discomfort like:
- Burping or gas
- Diarrhea or constipation
Be sure to research the company before purchasing a dietary supplement. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements as a medication, so the quality, ingredients, and effectiveness aren’t tested.
When to See a Doctor
It’s best to talk with your healthcare provider before starting any dietary supplements. Especially if you are taking it to help manage medical conditions like autoimmune diseases, depression, or heart disease.
Supplements may help manage symptoms, but they aren’t designed to be a sole treatment. And if you’re experiencing new symptoms, talking with a doctor can verify the cause and adjust treatment plans to prevent medication interactions.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients consumed through foods or supplements. There are three types of omega-3s; DHA, EPA, and ALA. Potential health benefits of omega-3s include protecting heart health, brain function, eye health, and lowering the risk of some chronic diseases.
Food sources of omega-3s include fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseed, and algae. Dietary supplements are available to help meet omega-3 needs. Talk with your healthcare provider about the potential benefits and risks of omega-3s before starting a new supplement.