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Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Benefits and How they work

Omega-3 Fatty Acids are incredibly important. We read about omega-3 fatty acids frequently. This is one of those things that turn up in articles and news stories on health and fitness all the time. The reason omega-3 fatty acids are in the health news so much is that they are an essential nutrient that we must pay attention to. 

The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are many, and the problems that can ensue when we do not get enough of them are equally abundant. For these reasons, it is essential to pay attention to how much omega-3 fatty acids we get in our diet. 

Another reason there is so much talk about omega-3 fatty acids is that our bodies cannot synthesize this on its own. Most of the fats our bodies require can be made on our own from other fats or from basic biological building blocks. Not the case with omega-3 fatty acids

What exactly are omega-3 fatty acids? Why are they important? How do you get omega-3 fatty acids in your diet? This article will explore and answer the most important questions about omega-3 fatty acids. 

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Our bodies can make most of the fats it needs from other fats or from basic components found in other sources. This is not the case for omega-3 fatty acids. These are what are called essential fats. Like essential amino acids, we must get omega-3 fatty acids from some type of dietary source. 

The three main omega-3 fatty acids are ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). You will sometimes see these abbreviations on food labels or on nutrition supplement labels. 

ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in our diet. The body uses this mainly for energy, but it can be converted into the other omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. This conversion is not completely efficient. The body can only convert a small percentage of ALA into the other omega-3 fatty acids. 

EPA is found mostly in animal products such as fatty fish and fish oil. There are some microalgae that contain EPA.  

DHA is the most important of the three omega-3 fatty acids. It plays a key structural role in the brain, the eyes, and in other parts of the body.  

DHA is found mainly in animal products like fatty fish and fish oil. It is also found in meat, eggs, and dairy. Grass-fed livestock provides the best sources of DHA. 

Vegetarians and vegans often lack DHA, but they easily take microalgae supplements to make up what they lose from not eating meat and other animal products

Some prominent foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, fish oils, chia seeds, flaxseed oil, and walnuts. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Benefits

Fight Depression and Anxiety

With the increase in cases of depression and anxiety, it would appear that the need for omega-3 fatty acids in our diets is more important than ever. Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids, due to the effects these chemicals have on the brain, are powerful antidotes to depression and anxiety. 

Researchers found that people with depression and anxiety showed a dramatic decrease in their symptoms after taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements. 

Of the three omega-3 fatty acids, EPA appears to be the one that is most effective in combating depression and anxiety. 

Eye Health

Of the three main omega-3 fatty acids, DHA functions as a structural component of the retina of the eye. As such, is essential for maintaining the health of your eyes. If we do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids in our diet, we can develop vision problems. 

Specifically, getting sufficient levels of omega-3 fatty acids in our diet, mainly DHA, has been linked to reduced incidents of macular degeneration, a condition that causes permanent damage to the eyes and can cause blindness. 

Infant and Prenatal Brain Health

It is well-known that omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to the developing brains of infants. In fact, DHA makes up about 40 percent of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the human brain. 

Researchers have shown that infants who are fed a DHA-fortified formula have better eyesight than infants who have not been fed the supplemental DHA. This is due to the effects DHA has on the brain and the retina. 

Making sure pregnant and nursing mothers get sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to provide a wealth of benefits to the developing brains of children. These benefits include:

  • Higher intelligence
  • Better Communication skills
  • Fewer behavioral problems
  • Decreased risk of developmental decay
  • Decreased risk of ADHD, autism, and cerebral palsy

It is clear that omega-3 fatty acids are essential to the developing brains of infants. 

Reduced Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke

Researchers noted decades ago that communities that ate large amounts of fish had lower rates of heart disease. This was finally linked to the increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the diets of these communities. Since this discovery, numerous studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids have a wealth of benefits for heart health. Among the things that may be impacted by omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Blood pressure: Omega-3s can reduce blood pressure
  • Good HDL: Omega-3 can increase levels of the so-called good cholesterol
  • Blood clots: Omega-3s are known to keep platelets from clumping and causing harmful blood clots
  • Plaque: Omega-3s keep arteries smooth which prevents plaque from forming and hardening the arteries
  • Inflammation: Omega-3s reduce chemicals in the blood which causes inflammation. 

The overall health of your heart is drastically improved with omega-3 fatty acids. 

Age-Related Mental Decline and Alzheimer’s Disease

There have been several studies that showed omega-3 fatty acids supplements helped decrease age-related mental decline and Alzheimer’s Disease. These studies showed that omega-3s were effective in slowing the onset of these conditions. 

Reduce Symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic Syndrome is a set of conditions that includes obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance. It is now known that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce these symptoms. Omega-3s help fight obesity and diminish the severity of other conditions associated with metabolic syndrome. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Foods

As we noted above, communities that rely on a diet that consists largely of fish consume high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. As a result, these communities enjoy the benefits of omega-3s. Health professionals recommend that we get 250-500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids in our diet every day.  The main sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fatty fish. But as we ill see, there are plant-based sources. Some of the main omega-3 fatty acid foods include:

  • Mackerel: 4100 mg per serving
  • Salmon: Over 4100 mg per serving
  • Cod liver oil: 2700 mg per serving
  • Herring: 950 mg per serving
  • Oysters: 370 mg per serving
  • Sardines: 2200 mg per serving
  • Anchovies: 950 mg per serving
  • Flax seeds: 2250 mg per serving
  • Chia seeds: 5000 mg per serving
  • Walnuts: 2570 mg per serving
  • Soybeans: 1250 mg per serving

Obviously, most of the food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish. Fatty fish contain large amounts of omega-3s. But you can also see that some of the plant-based sources are rich in omega-3s. Flax seeds, for example, have as much omega-3 fatty acids as some of the fatty fish. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Risks and Side Effects

We can clearly see that omega-3 fatty acids have numerous benefits. They are known to reduce the risk of heart disease, help with brain and eye health, and even fight depression. 

However, like most anything else, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. There are some risks and potential side effects of omega-3 fatty acids. Here are some of the prominent risks of too much omega-3 fatty acids:  

  1. High blood-sugar: Some researchers have found that too much omega-3 fatty acid in your diet can increase blood sugar levels, especially for people with diabetes. It appears that omega-3s can stimulate glucose production, and this contributes to long-term high blood sugar levels. 
  2. Bleeding: Two signature signs of too much omega-3 fatty acids are nose bleeds and bleeding gums. Because omega-3s reduce platelets which cause blood to clot, one unfortunate result is bleeding. Doctors advise anyone who is prescribed blood-thinning medication to restrict the amount of omega-3 fatty acids they consume.   
  3. Low blood pressure: It is known that fish oil can reduce blood pressure. This is one of the main benefits of consuming omega-3 fatty acids. However, for people with normal blood pressure, eating too much omega-3s can cause low blood pressure, and this can cause serious health problems. 
  4. Diarrhea: This is one of the most common side effects of taking omega-3 supplements. Other problems can include flatulence. Flaxseed oil is a popular omega-3 fatty acid supplement, especially for people who do not eat meat or animal products. Flaxseed oil can cause increased bowel movements or diarrhea as unfortunate side effects. 
  5. Acid reflux: Even though omega-3s have such powerful benefits for the health of your heart, heartburn appears to be one side effect of too much omega-3s. The fact content of omega-3 fatty acids supplements and even of some of the dietary sources can be enough to cause acid reflux for some people. If you experience this problem, try splitting the amount you take into smaller doses and take it throughout the day. 
  6. Stroke: Hemorrhagic stroke is a condition in which bleeding in the brain develops as a result of ruptured weak blood vessels. Although rare, studies have found that increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the blood’s ability to clot leading to this type of stroke. Other studies have been less conclusive in finding omega-3s as a potential cause of hemorrhagic stroke. 
  7. Insomnia: While some studies have found that moderate doses of fish oil containing omega-3 fatty acids have been beneficial for enhancing sleep quality, other research has found that too much fish oil can cause insomnia. In one study, high doses of omega-3s caused insomnia and anxiety in some people. Keep in mind that some of the reports that link omega-3 fatty acids with insomnia are anecdotal and may not be reliable. 
  8. Vitamin A toxicity: Some types of omega-3 fatty acids are particularly high in vitamin A. If consumed in large quantities this can become toxic. You should exercise care when taking certain types of omega-3 fatty acid supplements. For example, one tablespoon of cod liver oil contains 270 percent of your daily vitamin A requirements. Vitamin A toxicity can cause dizziness, nausea, joint pain, and skin irritation. Long term vitamin A toxicity can lead to liver damage and even liver failure. Carefully monitor your does of omega-3 fatty acid supplements. 

Most of the side effects and risks of too much omega-3 fatty acids are fairly rare. Generally, paying attention to your own body and being aware of how the foods you eat affect your health will serve as a good guide for taking omega-3 fatty acids either in your diet or as a supplement. 

Wrapping things up

We hear about omega-3 fatty acids frequently. They are one of those nutritional items that make the news for being amazingly healthy and something of a cure-all. While the cure-all claims may be overstated, there are in fact numerous health benefits to omega-3 fatty acids. 

Omega-3s can help you resist some of the more common but dangerous ailments of our times. Heart disease and many of the problems associated with obesity can all be treated with omega-3 fatty acids. There is scientific proof that omega-3s are tremendously healthy. They provide benefits to the heart and the brain. 

Getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is remarkably easy. These nutrients are found in a wide variety of food. Fatty fish, fish oils, and several plant-based sources will provide you with all the omega-3 fatty acids you need. There are also numerous natural omega-3 supplements. 

While there are a few side effects and risks associated with getting too much omega-3 fatty acids, these are either rare or easy to control. Pay close attention to how much you consume when you are working toward increasing your omega-3 fatty acids. Do not overdo the supplements, and you should enjoy all the benefits and reduce the risks. 

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