When it comes to essential nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids are true workhorses that benefit the human body in a multitude of ways—most notably by supporting heart and brain health. However, they’re also responsible for keeping our vision sharp, our mood stable, and can even help us get better sleep! As they’re essential fats that the body can’t produce on its own, it’s crucial that we get this vital nutrient—and the right kinds of it—from our food.
There are three kinds of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are almost entirely derived from fish and are credited with most of the health benefits associated with omega-3s. ALA is found in things like vegetable oils, nuts, flax seeds and flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables, and must be converted into EPA or DHA to provide the same health benefits. Unfortunately, the human body’s ability to convert ALA is extremely limited; only 5 percent of ALA is converted to EPA and less than .5 percent is converted into DHA.
What do EPA and DHA do for our bodies?
• A Healthier Heart. Omega-3s support heart health in a number of ways, and studies show that those who eat a lot of fish have much lower rates of heart disease. Omega-3s not only help regulate heartbeat, but can increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides by as much as 15 to 30 percent, lower blood pressure and improve vessel function, and prevent stroke.
• A Healthier Brain.Your brain is approximately 60 percent fat, and omega-3s are considered a crucial building block of your brain. They help reduce brain inflammation which can disrupt signals and may help reverse mild memory loss. Although omega-3s can’t treat dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, individuals with higher levels of EPA and DHE are less likely to develop dementia than those who are deficient.
• Mood Stabilizer. In addition to preventing cognitive decline, omega-3s are also responsible for keeping us calm. EPA helps manage the stress hormone cortisol, and can help dampen adrenal activation brought about by mental stress.
• Sharper Vision. DHA is a major structural component of your retinas which explains why getting enough has been linked to lower rates of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Patients with AMD show lower levels of both DHA and EPA in their bodies.
• Always Anti-Inflammatory. Chronic inflammation is at the root of many diseases and conditions, and many of omega-3’s benefits are associated with its anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3s reduce your levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids.
• Healthier Muscles and Joints. Those same anti-inflammatory benefits help keep you mobile and pain-free as you age, protecting your joints from inflammation as cartilage diminishes. Omega-3s may also boost calcium absorption, making you less likely to develop osteoporosis.
• Better Sleep. A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition revealed that diets low in omega-3s weakened melatonin secretion and thereby disrupted normal sleep patterns. Omega-3s also help regulate norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter involved in stress response and necessary for REM sleep.
• Protection for Skin. Omega-3s play a major role in supporting your skin membranes by repairing damaged cells and tissues, thereby strengthening it against environmental stressors, toxins, allergens, and pathogens. Their anti-inflammatory properties are also tied to a reduction in acne, eczema, and psoriasis flares; low levels of EPA and DHA can sometimes be linked to these skin conditions.
• Healthy Pregnancy and Infant Development. Not only are omega-3s necessary for proper fetal brain and retina development, there is evidence that a higher intake of fish and/or fish oil during pregnancy may also reduce the likelihood of asthma and allergies in children.
• Immune System Support. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3s are also linked to immune cell function, boosting the power of white blood cells known as b cells that are responsible for fighting viruses and bacteria.
Are You Getting Enough Omega-3s?
The general consensus among health professionals is that healthy adults should get at least 250 to 500 mg of combined EPA and DHA every day, with pregnant and nursing women, or those with certain health conditions, requiring more. Top sources include: Atlantic salmon (1,900 mg/3 oz.), canned sardines (1,500 mg/3 oz.), canned anchovies (1,200 mg/2 oz.), Atlantic mackerel (1,150 mg/3 oz.), canned salmon (1,000 mg/3 oz.), and canned tuna (500 mg/3 oz.)
Unsure as to whether you’re getting enough omega-3s? Not crazy about eating fish? Concerned that a vegetarian or vegan diet may be inhibiting your EPA and DHA intake? Curious about fish oil supplements? Contact me. I’m here to help!