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What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Why We Need Them

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What does omega 3 do and why do I need it?

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for health just like vitamins and minerals. They’re the building blocks of every cell membrane throughout the body. These fatty acids work to keep cells healthy by making them more agile and flexible. Cell membranes support how things flow in and out of our cells, and they work best when they are more flexible, allowing nutrients to flow into the cells, and waste to readily flow out. Omega-3 fatty acids also help to support cell membrane communication, allowing our cells to talk to one another, which helps our bodies perform at their best.

Because omega-3s play a variety of vital roles in the body, they are considered essential because they can’t be made in the body alone. As a result, we need to rely on our dietary intake, through consumption of seafood or dietary supplements, to ensure we get enough of these critically important healthy fats. There are many types of omega-3s, but we (and the scientific community) are focused on three of them: EPA, DHA, and ALA.

A quick history in omega-3s

Oceans are considered one of the last frontiers on Earth, full of unexplored plant life, seemingly ageless creatures, and microalgae containing life-sustaining nutrients known as omega-3 fatty acids. First discovered in 1929 by two Danish biologists, omega-3 fatty acids are now widely recognized by the scientific community as an essential part of a healthy diet. Foods rich in omega 3s vary depending on the food and the type of omega 3. Grab your scuba gear, because to get the most out of omega 3 fish oil benefits, we’ve got to go deep-sea diving into the world of understanding essential fatty acids.

Does my body make omega 3 Naturally?

Not really…. Our bodies rely on the food we eat to provide them with the right amounts of all of the omega-3 fatty acids. The body can turn one type of omega-3 (ALA) into other more effective types of omega-3s (EPA and DHA), but it’s not very efficient at it.1 That’s why the omega-3 fatty acid ALA is considered an “essential” fatty acid. We need to get these nutrients from our diet or by supplements. Thankfully, there are plenty of delicious ways to do so.

Foods rich in omega-3s

Foods rich in omega 3s vary depending on the type of food and which omega-3 you’re talking about. For example, EPA and DHA are abundant in sea life like fish, shrimp, crab, oysters, and algae. While ALA is a plant-based Omega-3 that gets converted into EPA and is found most abundantly in flaxseed, walnuts, chia, and their oils.2

Good sources of DHA / EPA include 3.5 ounces twice per week of:

  • Wild salmon
  • Albacore tuna
  • Lake trout
  • Sardines

FLAXSEED OIL VS FISH OIL

Flaxseed oil contains ALA, a plant-based omega-3. It’s a popular option for those looking for a fish-free way to get in their omega-3s, but it’s EPA and DHA that the body is relying on for its health effects.1 The body converts ALA into EPA, but only in very small amounts, about 5% of it converts to EPA and even less to DHA.1 Other foods also provide ALA, such as walnuts, and chia seeds—but flaxseed still provides the most ALA per serving.1

Omega 3 fish oil benefits

There are more than 36,000 published studies on EPA and DHA, the majority of which support omega-3 consumption for overall wellness, including heart, brain, and eye health.3 Of those 36,000 published studies, over 4,000 of them are clinical studies specifically on the health benefits of EPA and DHA.3

Omega-3s and the heart

Omega-3 supplements from fish oil appear to be heart-healthy.4 Multiple clinical studies show they have a range of helpful effects, including but not limited to:

  • 500mg EPA / DHA may help support a healthy heart5
  • 1000mg EPA / DHA may help support a healthy cardiovascular system4
  • 800mg EPA / DHA may help maintain healthy blood pressure6

Omega-3s and the brain

Omega-3s are responsible for the healthy structure and function of the brain and nervous systems. The daily recommendation for healthy adults is:

  • 250mg DHA per day may support a healthy brain7

Omega-3s and mood

Here the research is looking up as well. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to support a healthy mood.8 An analysis of clinical studies showed the biggest mood benefits were in people who used omega-3s for more than 12 weeks.8 The recommendation for healthy adults is:

  • 1000mg EPA / daily may support a healthy mood8

FISH OIL VS KRILL OIL

Krill oil comes from a shrimp-like shellfish and provides EPA / DHA as well, although in smaller amounts. Similar to other fish oils, the EPA / DHA found in krill oil is originally synthesized by the microalgae that the fish eat.7 When the fish consume the phytoplankton that consumed that microalgae in the oceans, they naturally accumulate the omega-3s in their tissues.6 Krill oil also naturally contains astaxanthin, an antioxidant that gives it its reddish color!

How much should I take daily?

Scientific organizations recommend 250–500mg of EPA and DHA per day for adults for general health and to prevent deficiency, which amounts to roughly two servings of delicious fish per week.9 Sometimes higher amounts of EPA and DHA are needed to address specific aspects of health.9, 4 If you aren’t really into fish, it’s recommended to consider supplementing with a fish oil supplement several times a week.2 The recommendation for healthy adults is:

  • 250–500mg EPA / DHA per day may support overall health9, 5

Can I take omega-3s while pregnant?

Developing babies rely on their moms for everything, including their DHA intake. DHA is critical for an infant’s healthy brain, eye, and nervous system development. Because DHA is an essential nutrient that has to come from our diets, DHA supplementation is often recommended for women during pregnancy and breastfeeding. That’s why the ideal intake is:

  • At least 200mg DHA per day while pregnant and breastfeeding9

How long do I need to use it?

Like most good nutritional habits, long-term, daily intake yields the best omega-3 fish oil benefits. Although everyone is different, give it at least two months to start noticing results. In omega-3 and mood studies, the best results were seen after 12 weeks.8

When should I take this? Is it okay to take at night?

It’s okay to consume your omega-3s at any time of the day, although they are best absorbed with food, especially a meal with other fats.

Is this available over the counter or do I need a prescription?

Omega-3 fatty acids are available as over-the-counter dietary supplements, as well as in prescriptions for high triglyceride levels. Talk to your health care practitioner if you are interested in prescription fish oil.   

Is it possible to take too much?

It’s best to follow the recommended guidelines to ensure accurate dosages and talk to your healthcare practitioner if you have any questions.

What side effects can fish oils have and is there any toxicity?

In general, fish oil supplements are safe and well-tolerated when following recommended guidelines. Some people experience mild digestive side effects, that can often be helped by taking fish oil with food, to help with digestion. If you’re on blood-thinning medications or facing surgery, or taking larger doses of fish oil, consult your physician before using fish oil supplements, or plan to stop your fish oil a week before surgery.

What are the symptoms of a fish oil deficiency?

A deficiency of essential fatty acids can cause rough, scaly skin and dermatitis.7 Omega-3s are a huge nutrient shortfall for most Americans, and symptoms can range from low mood to common aches and pain, but low intake can also increase the risk for several chronic diseases.

It’s recommended that healthy adults consume 8–12 ounces of fatty fish per week to get 250–500mg EPA / DHA, however, the data shows most Americans consume less than ½ ounce per week (roughly 85mg EPA/DHA).10 It’s a big deal to be missing out on that much of an essential nutrient every day—that’s why taking a fish oil supplement can be a helpful way to ensure you get enough Omega-3s in your daily regimen.

Omega-3s truly are essential fatty acids

Understanding that our cells are constantly using and in need of omega-3s should help us remember that these essential fatty acids are far more than just a fad. New studies come out all the time providing us with exciting insights into the health benefits of these critical fatty acids. With such promising results, it looks as though the possibilities of omega-3s may be as vast as the oceans in which we find them.

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This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.

References

  1. Harvard Medical School. “Why not flaxseed oil?” 2019. Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed on: April 13, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/why-not-flaxseed-oil
  2. Oregon State University. “Essential Fatty Acids.” 2019. Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Accessed on: April 13, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids#food-sources
  3. Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3. “About EPA and DHA.” 2020. Accessed on: April 13, 2020. https://www.goedomega3.com/about-epa-and-dha
  4. Hu Y, et al. Marine Omega-3 Supplementation and Cardiovascular Disease: An Updated Meta-Analysis of 13 Randomized Controlled Trials Involving 127 477 Participants. J Am Heart Assoc. 2019; 8(19): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31567003
  5. American Heart Association Scientific Advisory. “Keep saying yes to fish twice a week for heart health.” 2018. American Heart Association. Accessed on: April 13, 2020. https://newsroom.heart.org/news/keep-saying-yes-to-fish-twice-a-week-for-heart-health
  6. Miller PE, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Hypertens. 2014; 27(7): 885–896. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24610882
  7. Office of Dietary Supplements. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”2019. National Institutes of Health. Accessed on: April 13, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/#en5
  8. Firth, J et al. The efficacy and safety of nutrient supplements in the treatment of mental disorders: a meta-review of meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. World Psychiatry. 2019; 18(3): 245–372. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31496103
  9. Department of Health and Human Services. “2015­–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” 2015. 8th U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed on: April 13, 2020. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/
  10. Papanikolaou, Y et al. U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003–2008. Nutr J. 2014; 13(31). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24694001