Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fats
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Omega-3 fats are one of the most researched types of fat. They are essential for the health of every cell in the body, brain development, metabolism, and more. Yet, many of us need help getting enough of this vital fat in our diet.
Today’s article will dive into the health benefits of omega-3s and how to ensure you are meeting your daily needs. Keep reading to learn more about:
- The three crucial dietary omega-3 fatty acids
- How much you need
- Health benefits associated with omega-3s
- The importance of good omega-3 status before, during, and after pregnancy
- How to increase omega-3 intake with food and supplements
- What you need to know about the bioavailability of omega-3 supplements
- Best practices for omega-3 supplement use
Let’s get started!
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found in food that are essential for human health. For a complete breakdown of the different dietary fats and food sources, read Healthy Fats: Benefits, Food Sources, and Omega-3 Supplements.
As discussed in the healthy fats article, most of us are getting too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats in our diet, which contributes to inflammation and disease. One way to restore balance is by increasing omega-3 fats in the diet.
The three primary omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – Considered an essential fat because our bodies cannot make it; ALA must be obtained from the diet. Good sources include flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and other plant foods.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – EPA is a longer-chain omega-3 fat known for its anti-inflammatory benefits. Cold water fish and seafood are the primary food sources.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – The largest omega-3 fat is known for its role in brain health and vision. The same foods that contain EPA also contain DHA, primarily fish.
The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is relatively low, around 1 to 3% for omnivores and up to 3 to 8% for vegetarians. Conversion tends to be better in men than women.
Because of this low conversion rate and the importance of EPA and DHA for health, EPA and DHA are often considered essential to obtain from the diet.
How Much Omega-3 Do I Need?
The official guidelines for omega-3s only include recommendations for ALA intake. The adequate intake for adults is 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women, which increases to 1.4 grams per day during pregnancy and 1.3 grams per day during lactation.
Note that the adequate intake is not reflective of optimal intake, and these numbers don’t include requirements for dietary EPA and DHA.
There is a movement away from suggesting the optimal intake and towards achieving optimal EPA and DHA levels in the body.
The average American has EPA and DHA levels at less than 4% of total fatty acids (as measured by the fatty acids in red blood cells). Levels above 8% are considered optimal.
Omega-3 Health Benefits
Having sufficient and balanced omega-3 fats in the body has numerous health benefits. Let’s look at some of the research on omega-3 fats and health.
- Cellular health. Phospholipids containing omega-3 fats make up every cell membrane in the body. Healthy cell membranes allow for cell fluidity and are important for communication and immunity. Sufficient EPA in cell membranes allows for more anti-inflammatory signaling, which is protective against chronic disease.
- Brain health. Omega-3 fats are neuroprotective and reduce inflammation in the brain, lowering the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and neurological disorders. DHA is concentrated in the brain and supports neurotransmitter (including serotonin) function and balance.
- Heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids are cardioprotective. Omega-3 fats, including EPA, lower inflammation, lower triglyceride levels, support platelet function, reduce blood pressure, and decrease heart disease risk.
- Gut health. The health of the microbiome influences overall health. We know the importance of probiotics and prebiotics for gut health, but omega-3 fats are also critical for microbiome balance, gut immunity, and the gut-brain axis.
- Longevity. Omega-3 fats are associated with longer telomeres, the tiny caps on the ends of DNA that correlate with lifespan and healthspan.
Omega-3s During Pregnancy and Postpartum
Pregnant women need more omega-3 fats during pregnancy because they are critical for growth and development. Often, we hear about the importance of DHA during pregnancy, but both EPA and DHA work together and are essential to obtain from the diet or supplements.
Omega-3 fats support infant brain development. Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy is associated with:
- Decreased risk of pre-term birth
- Decreased risk of babies with low body weight at birth
- Improved cognitive development in infants and children
- Reduced behavioral problems in children
It’s important to build omega-3 stores before pregnancy, get enough during pregnancy, and continue intake afterward to support recovery, breastfeeding, and mental health.
Omega-3s benefit the baby’s brain and support the mom’s brain too. Supplementation of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and postpartum can reduce depressive symptoms and the risk of postpartum mood disorders.
How To Get Enough Omega-3 Fats in Your Diet
Like everything in nutrition, there are personal considerations for omega-3s. Those deficient in omega-3 fats may need additional support and guidance from their dietitian or healthcare provider.
Here are some suggestions for improving and maintaining omega-3 levels:
- Focus on real food nutrition. Long-term habits are critical for health and longevity. Consuming primarily whole, unprocessed food is part of that foundation.
- Include nuts and seeds in the diet for ALA. The best sources are:
o Flax seeds
o Chia seeds
o Hemp seeds
- Include fish in the diet for EPA and DHA. Choose fish high in omega-3 fats (typically cold-water ocean fish) and low in mercury (typically smaller fish). Shoot for three servings per week. The benefits of eating fish often outweigh the risks, especially when choosing quality products. Good choices are:
o Wild salmon
Take a quality fish oil supplement containing EPA + DHA. A standard dose omega-3 supplement will provide 1 to 2 grams of omega-3 fats, including EPA and DHA, which helps to bridge dietary gaps and balance the omega-6 fats in the diet.
The quality and bioavailability of the supplement will determine its effectiveness and associated health benefits.
Fish Oil Supplement Bioavailability
In the body, omega-3 fats exist as free fatty acids or bound to a glycerol molecule, primarily as triglycerides (a glycerol molecule + three fatty acids). Interestingly, the fats in fish exist in the same forms as free fatty acids and triglycerides.
Pressed fish oil contains around 18% EPA and 12% DHA, but most fish oil supplements are concentrated to contain higher levels of EPA and DHA.
A process called transesterification concentrates the omega-3s. The glycerol is removed from the triglycerides and replaced with ethanol to form ethyl esters. Ethyl esters are a compound that doesn’t exist in nature.
Ethyl esters are the least bioavailable form of omega-3s, meaning they are poorly absorbed and utilized by the body. In fact, less than 1% of EPA and DHA ethyl esters are detectable in the body after supplementation.
Glyceride forms of fish oils, including triglycerides, are significantly more absorbable and accessible for the body to incorporate into cells compared the ethyl esters. The higher bioavailability of triglycerides makes sense because this is how fat exists in nature.
In addition, the pancreas makes an enzyme called lipase that assists in the digestion and absorption of triglycerides. We don’t have built-in support for absorbing ethyl esters.
Fish oil ethyl esters can be turned back into triglycerides through a re-esterification process, although this process is costly and often skipped by manufacturers. You’ll find most commercially available fish oils, and omega-3 prescriptions, are in the ethyl ester form.
Fish Oil Supplement Best Practices
Here’s a checklist for choosing the best fish oil supplement and getting the most benefit from incorporating it into your routine:
- Your fish oil supplement is in the triglyceride form for the highest bioavailability. Bonus if it contains lipase for improved digestion.
- You take a maintenance dose of 1000-2200 mg daily of quality omega-3 fatty acids, primarily EPA and DHA. (Discuss higher doses with your healthcare provider).
- Your fish oil has been distilled and purified to remove mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and other contaminants and tested to ensure purity.
- You take your fish oil with a meal containing fat for better absorption and tolerance.
- You store your fish oil away from heat and light (or in the fridge) to protect the fragile omega-3s from oxidation. Bonus if your fish oil contains antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to help preserve the oil.
Twenty2 Nutrition Omega 3 Fish Oil checks all the boxes. It’s in the triglyceride form, of the highest purity, and contains added lipase and vitamin E.
Most of us need more omega-3 fats to achieve optimal health and longevity. In addition to a healthy diet that includes ALA, EPA, and DHA, a quality supplement helps you meet your omega-3 needs conveniently and effectively.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.