Healthy Living

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Landing the Big Fish of Body Health

Have you noticed all of the brands of fish oil supplements available in the store? There’s a reason they’re so common: The main ingredients, omega-3 fatty acids, play a big part in keeping your body running well. 

There’s nothing fishy about the benefits. Years of research suggest that vision, lung function, immune system performance and even sperm count can all be improved by omega-3s. Omega-3 supplements may even help with asthma. Now, a new study review shows significant cardiovascular benefits – the kind that might help protect against heart disease, which is still the #1 cause of death in the U.S.

What’s the story with heart health?

According to the combined results of 40 studies, taking in more omega-3 fatty acids can reduce your chance of conditions including stroke, arterial disease, heart failure and heart attack, as well as lower your risk of dying from any of them. The benefits even increase with higher dosage, in several instances.

Carl Lavie, MD, of Ochsner Health in New Orleans, one of the study’s co-authors, touted the benefits of supplements and suggested taking 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg per day.

"Given the safety and diminished potential for interaction with other medications, the positive results of this study strongly suggest omega-3 supplements are a relatively low-cost, high-impact way to improve heart health with few associated risks,” Dr. Lavie said, “and should be considered as part of a standard preventive treatment for most patients with cardiovascular diseases and those recovering from myocardial infarction."

How do omega-3 fatty acids work?

The science is pretty complicated, so we’ll boil it down. Omega-3 fatty acids are processed in your intestines and then pass into your bloodstream for use in other areas of the body. Like other fats, they are an energy source -- but that’s not all. They also make up part of the cell membranes throughout your body and are especially important to the eyes, brain and sperm. Omega-3s are also used to build signaling molecules called eicosanoids that are vital to your heart, lungs, immune system and more.

I’m not a fisherman. How do I get them in foods?

Quite a few foods contain omega-3s, and the list isn’t all fish. There are several good plant and plant oil sources. The ones in plants aren’t exactly the same as the ones in fish, but they can still offer benefits. The National Institutes of Health includes salmon, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout and oysters among seafood with high omega-3 content. High-value plant products include flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, canola oil, soybean oil, edamame and refried beans.

One of the most popular ways to ingest omega-3 fatty acids is through supplements, particularly fish oil. While this is an easy and helpful way to increase your omega-3s, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the NIH, suggests that supplements do not have all of the same benefits as omega-3s obtained from food.

There are 3 different kinds of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA ), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA ) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA ) . EPA and DHA come largely from seafood, while ALA is more common in plant products. Your body can convert a little bit of ALA into EPA and DHA, but the amount is small, so it is important to get all three from food or supplements. Eating both seafood and plant sources ensures you are ingesting all three types.  For more details, check out the NIH fact sheet.

The Take Home

Omega-3 fatty acids are everywhere in your body, and they are very important for your health. Studies show that adding more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet, preferably through food but also from supplements, has a variety of positive effects and leads to better overall health. See your doctor or nutritionist for recommendations tailored to your needs.

Sean Marsala is a health writer based in Philadelphia, Pa. Passionate about technology, he is found most often reading, browsing the internet and exploring virtual worlds.

 

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