Talk to your doctor before using a supplement. Before you start using any supplement, you should always talk it over with your doctor. He or she may have specific recommendations — or warnings — depending on your health and the other medicines you take.
There are many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows strong evidence that the omega-3s EPA and DHA can boost heart health and lower triglycerides. And there are studies showing that omega-3 fatty acids may help with other conditions — rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and many more.
Just what are omega-3 fatty acids exactly? How much do you need? And what do all those abbreviations — EPA, DHA, and ALA — really mean? Here’s a rundown of the essential omega-3 facts you need to know.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Basics
- Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids. We need them for our bodies to work normally. Because essential fatty acids (ALA,DHA,EPA) are not made in the body or are inefficiently converted from ALA to EPA and DHA, we need to get them from our diet .
- Omega-3s have a number of health benefits. Omega-3s are thought to play an important role in reducing inflammation throughout the body — in the blood vessels, the joints, and elsewhere. However, omega-3 supplements (EPA/DHA) may cause the blood to thin and cause excess bleeding, particularly in people taking anticoagulant drugs.
- There are several types of omega-3 fatty acids. Two crucial ones — EPA and DHA — are primarily found in certain fish. Plants like flax contain ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is partially converted into DHA and EPA in the body. Algae oil often provides only DHA.
- Experts say that DHA and EPA — from fish and fish oil — have better established health benefits than ALA. DHA and EPA are found together only in fatty fish and algae. DHA can also be found on its own in algae, while flaxseed and plant sources of omega-3s provide ALA — a precursor to EPA and DHA, and a source of energy.
- Blood fat [triglycerides]. According to a number of studies, fish oil supplements can also cut elevated triglyceride levels. Having high levels of this blood fat is a risk factor for heart disease. DHA alone has also been shown to lower triglycerides.
- Cardiovascular health. Omega-3 fatty acids appear to lower the overall risk of death from heart disease. Fish oil may reduce arrhythmias, and people who take fish oil supplements after a heart attack cut their risk of having another heart attack. Eating fish once or twice a week seems to significantly lower the risk of stroke.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. A number of studies have found that fish oil supplements [EPA+DHA] significantly reduced stiffness and joint pain. Omega-3 supplements also seem to boost the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Depression. Researchers have found that cultures that eat foods with high levels of omega-3s have lower levels of depression. Fish oil also seems to boost the effects of antidepressants. Fish oil may help reduce the depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder.
- Prenatal health. Studies show that EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy boost the health of pregnant women and the development of their children. DHA appears to be important for visual and neurological development in infants.
- Asthma. Evidence suggests that a diet high in omega 3s reduces inflammation, a key component in asthma. However, more studies are needed to show if fish oil supplements improve lung function or reduce the amount of medication a person needs to control their disease.
- ADHD. Some studies show that fish oil can reduce the symptoms of ADHD in some children and improve their cognitive function. However, more research is needed in this area, and omega-3 supplements as a primary treatment for this disorder are not supported by research.
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The evidence is preliminary, but some research suggests that omega-3s may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Recent studies have also evaluated whether the omega-3 supplement DHA can slow the decline seen in those with Alzheimer’s dementia or in age-associated memory impairment. One recent study showed that DHA can be a beneficial supplement and may have a positive effect on gradual memory loss associated with aging. However, more research needs to be done.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s and Omega-6s
- You may have heard about the importance of having a healthy balance of omega-3s with another fatty acid, omega-6s. Omega-6s are found in many oils, meats, and processed foods.
- Many experts believe that most people in the U.S. are eating far too many omega-6s and far too few omega-3 fatty acids. They argue that this imbalance may be causing many chronic diseases.
- However, other experts disagree. They don’t believe the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is actually significant. They also argue that the health benefits of omega-6s are being ignored.
- For now, the full implications aren’t clear. But the bottom line is simple. Whether the ratio turns out to matter or not, increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids is still a good thing.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Food Sources
- When possible, try to get omega-3 fatty acids from foods rather than supplements.
- Fish high in DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids include anchovies, bluefish, herring, mackerel, salmon (wild has more omega-3s than farmed), sardines, sturgeon, lake trout, and tuna. Many experts recommend eating these fish two to three times a week.
- Good food sources of ALA — which is converted into omega-3 fatty acids in the body — include walnuts, flax and flaxseed oil, canola oil, olive oil, and soybean oil.
- While foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have health benefits, some — like oils and nuts — can be high in calories. So eat them in moderation.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Supplements
- If you decide to use a supplement, discuss this treatment with your doctor first to make sure you are getting the benefits you need.
- Experts usually recommend 1 gram (1,000 milligrams) of DHA and EPA combined from fish oil daily for those with heart disease. People with certain health conditions may take doses of up to 4 grams a day — but only under a doctor’s supervision.
- The most common side effect from fish oil is indigestion and gas. Getting a supplement with an enteric coating might help.
- In high doses — 3 grams and above — omega-3 supplements (EPA/DHA) can increase the risk of bleeding. People with bleeding conditions — or who take medicines that could increase bleeding, like Coumadin, Plavix, Effient, Brilinta, and some painkillers — should talk to a doctor before using any omega-3 supplements. Bleeding-related complications are separate effects for EPA and DHA. DHA has not been associated with bleeding problems.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Tips
- Choose the right fish. While eating more fatty fish is a good idea, some are more likely to have higher levels of mercury, PCBs, or other toxins. These include wild swordfish, tilefish, and shark. Farm-raised fish of any type may also have higher levels of contaminants. Children and pregnant women should avoid these fish entirely. Everyone else should eat no more than 7 ounces of these fish a week. Smaller fish like wild trout and wild salmon are safer.
- Consider eating more free-range poultry and beef. Free-range animals have much higher levels of omega-3s than typical, grain-fed animals.
- Consider a supplement like fish oil capsules or algae oil. Fish oil contains both EPA and DHA. Algae oil contains DHA and may be a good option for those not tolerant to fish or for vegetarians.