Optimal Health Guide

Optimal Health Guide

OMEGA-3

OMEGA-3

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that the body relies on us to get enough of through either food or supplementation. They are known for supporting a healthy inflammatory response in the body, supporting cardiovascular health, as well as supporting both eye and brain health. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Ahead, you’ll find the Ultimate Guide to Omega-3, outlining everything you need to know, including more about what omega-3s are, their benefits, how much you need, and where to find them. 

Plus, we’re sharing the best food sources for omega-3s and what you need to keep an eye out for when it comes to selecting a high-quality omega-3 supplement. 

Table of Contents

The History of Omega-3s & Their Benefits

While most of us have heard the term “Omega-3” and often associate these fats with heart health or perhaps when talking about inflammation, let’s take a closer look at the history of omega-3s and when we really started to better understand all the benefits they bring to the table. 

Omega-3s have been studied for ages. In fact, more and more researchers started to become interested in the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids after a group of Danish researchers back in the 1970s started to examine the diet of the Greenlandic Inuit. The researchers also took note of their blood fatty acid levels as well as their plasma lipids. Through these studies, omega-3 fatty acids were discovered in both the blood as well as through diet. 

These researchers then went on to publish their research in the medical journal The Lancet, where they talked about their findings on Eicosapentaenoic acid as well as the findings on the Greenlandic Inuit’s low risk of heart attack as well as high levels of EPA. (5

This was the initial research that really sparked the interest in further diving into even more detailed research and more closely examining just how important omega-3 fatty acids are. 

What is an Omega 3?

Now that we know more about where the initial interest in omega-3s came from let’s start with the basics — what is an omega-3? Omega-3s are essential fatty acids — essential meaning that the body cannot produce these fatty acids on its own. We have to get them through diet or supplementation. (6

As the name suggests, there are three forms of omega-3 molecules, including: 

  • Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA) with 18 chains — ALA comes from vegetarian sources.
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) 20 chains — EPA comes from fish or other non-vegetarian sources. 
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). 22 chains — DHA also comes from fish or other non-vegetarian sources.

Omega-3s are often talked about in combination with omega-6 fatty acids, but they are quite different. One big difference has to do with the structure of the molecules, but another key difference is that while omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory. 

We want to keep our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio balanced to support optimal wellness, and one study found that reducing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio showed promising results for lowering inflammation. (7) Further down the page we will talk a bit more about the omega-3 rich foods you want to include in your diet and the omega-6-rich foods we want less of.7

What is EPA and DHA?

As mentioned above, EPA stands for Eicosapentaenoic Acid and DHA stands for Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). You find both of these fatty acids in either fish or other non-vegetarian omega-3 rich food sources.

What Are The Benefits of Omega-3?

We’ve already talked about some of the primary benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but here’s a more detailed look at why we want to make sure that we are getting enough of them in our diet.

Cardiovascular Health

One of the most talked-about benefits of omega-3s has to do with heart health. In fact, the American Heart Association states that eating fish twice a week helps to reduce heart stroke risk. (8)

Brain & Eye Health

Studies have shown just how important it is for us to get enough omega-3 fatty acids as a way to help support both brain and eye health. In fact, Harvard Health states that DHA makes up about 30% of brain matter and has been shown to help prevent age-related vision loss in animal studies. (9, 10)

Omega-3s For Metabolism

Omega-3s may also help support metabolism, affecting the rate at which you burn energy. A 12-week study found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation increased both resting and exercise metabolic rate. (11

Omega-3s For Inflammation & Balancing Our Omega-3: Omega-6 Ratio

The truth is that the Standard American Diet is packed full of far too many omega-6 rich foods and we are often consuming too many of these fats (vegetable oil, pastries, fried foods). And, while the body does require both omega-3 and omega-6 fats, we need to establish a healthy balance. 

Today, the ratio we are seeing is anywhere between 10:1 to 20:1 (12). This is much higher than the ideal ratio of 1:1 or the acceptable ratio of 4:1 for general wellness.

Where Do You Find Omega 3?

As you can see, there are tons of benefits of omega-3 fatty acids — these are fats that the body requires for optimal health, so we have to make sure that we are getting enough. When it comes to sources of omega-3, in addition to supplementation, there are omega-3 rich foods to consider adding to your diet.

Fish Sources of Omega-3s

If you like fish, you’re in luck because fish gives us the best bang for our buck when it comes to food sources of omega-3s. But, keep in mind that the best way to get omega-3s is going to be through consuming smaller fish such as anchovies and sardines. These smaller fish feast on plankton (the algae) and they convert it into EPA and DHA, so this conversion is already done for us when we consume these smaller fish species. 

The bigger fish eat the smaller fish, so while these larger fish do provide us with omega-3s, larger species like tuna, halibut, and Chilean sea bass, often get tainted with heavy metals since our oceans have become heavily polluted.

If you don’t eat fish, but you’re willing to take a fish oil supplement, that’s always an option too. You’ll want to stick to a product that is high-quality and third-party tested for purity. 

Other Animal Based Sources of Omega-3s

Grass-fed beef is another option when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids. While it won’t give us as big of an omega-3 punch as fatty fish, grass-fed cows over regular beef provide about 80 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per 3.5-ounce serving — this is nearly double how much omega-3 we find in regular beef.

Note that most of the omega-3 found in grass-fed beef does come in the form of ALA, and there are plant-based foods that happen to be even better sources of ALA. (13) The takeaway? If you plan to enjoy beef from time to time, stick to grass-fed beef, and try pairing it with some other plant-based omega-3 rich foods for an added boost.

Chickens that are fed flaxseed do also convert some ALA and DHA, which then gets absorbed in the yolk of the egg. (14) Eggs happen to make a great healthy addition to a balanced diet, so consider enjoying a vegetable egg omelet for breakfast or enjoying some hard-boiled eggs with some nuts and seeds for a healthy snack.

Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are also plenty of vegetarian sources of omega-3s that come in the form of ALA. 

Superfood Seeds: Chia Seeds

A one-ounce serving of chia seeds will provide about 5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. (15) Try adding chia seeds to smoothies, sprinkle over oatmeal, or make into chia pudding. 

Superfood Seeds: Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are considered to be one of the best plant-based sources of ALA and can be enjoyed in a number of ways. Try sprinkling some over oatmeal, salads, or blended into a smoothie. (16)

Superfood Seeds: Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds are another great source of plant-based omega-3s. (17) You can enjoy hemp seeds just as you would chia or flaxseed.

Walnuts

These are one of the most well-known plant-based sources of omega-3s. A one-ounce serving provides about 2.5 grams of ALA. (18) Try adding some to smoothies or on top of your salad.  

Edamame

Again, not the richest source of plant-based omega-3, but a one-cup serving of cooked kidney beans will provide approximately 0.3 grams of ALA. (20) With that being said, kidney beans also come with other nutritional benefits thanks to the rich fiber and plant-based protein content, so they make a great addition to a healthy diet and can be a delicious addition to salads for added protein. 

Who Needs Omega-3?

There are benefits of omega-3s across an entire lifespan. From pregnant mothers to older adults, the body requires omega-3 fatty acids to help support wellness.

Here’s a closer look at how we benefit from omega-3s across all ages.

Birth through to Childhood

Starting during pregnancy before a baby is even born, it’s important for pregnant mothers to get enough omega-3s to help support fetal brain development. Not only are omega-3 fatty acids important for baby brain development, but some studies have suggested that omega-3s may also help prevent perinatal depression. (21

Throughout childhood, you may remember hearing stories about how mothers and grandmothers swore by cod liver oil supplementation for helping support their children’s immune systems. While cod liver oil taken directly off the spoon is not as common as it once was, omega-3 supplementation is still important when it comes to supporting a healthy immune response. (22)

Early Adulthood, Middle-Aged and Older Adult

Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for supporting metabolic function, which is why many bodybuilders who are in their early adult years take omega-3s after a workout. 

Also, just as omega-3s are important for brain and eye health during infancy and childhood, they continue to be important during early and middle adult years as well. (23

Getting enough omega-3s as we approach our middle-age adult years, around age 40, really starts to become important for supporting healthy cholesterol levels as well. Research also suggests that a combination of fish oil and consuming fish twice a week has a positive effect on heart health. (24)

As you can see, no matter what age you are, there are benefits of omega-3s, and since the body cannot produce these fatty acids, we have to be sure that we are getting enough through diet or supplementation.

What Are The Symptoms of Omega 3 Deficiency?

So we know why getting omega-3 fatty acids is important, but what happens if we don’t get enough? What does an omega-3 deficiency look like?

According to The National Institutes of Health, a deficiency in essential fatty acids can lead to dermatitis as well as rough and scaly skin. (25) Plasma as well as tissue concentrations of DHA have also been shown to decrease when dealing with an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. (26

Some research has also suggested that there may be a correlation between having reduced levels of omega-3 fatty acids as well as age-related cognitive decline. (27) This makes sense, knowing that omega-3s play such an important role in supporting brain health since DHA makes up about 30% of brain matter.

And, even if symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency are subtle, think about it this way: the body does an amazing job of making do with what you give it, but it’s like a builder who uses really good materials vs. a cheap contractor who mixes in too much sand with the cement while making concrete. One wall will hold whilst the others may not when the storms blow through.

Now think about this analogy as it relates to your body — if you aren’t getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, then you run the risk of developing higher than normal amounts of inflammation in your body.

What’s The Best Type of Omega 3 to Take?

Best omega 3 supplements

When it comes to what the best types of omega-3s are, we’ve mentioned above that fish will give us the best bang for our buck, but that doesn’t help if you don’t eat fish! Let’s take a look at the best types of omega-3 when it comes to fish sources and then non-fish sources.

The best fish for Omega 3s

While fish provides us with a large source of omega-3 fatty acids, the problem with the larger species of fish, like tuna, halibut, and Chilean sea bass is that since our oceans have become so polluted, these fish tend to be tainted with heavy metals. This is why I’m a big fan of the smaller species of fish, such as anchovies and sardines. 

When it comes to fish oil supplementation, ideally, you want to stick to a product that is third-party tested for purity. 

There’s also krill oil, which has boomed in popularity over the last couple of years. These are little crustaceans, similar to shrimp, and krill oil is something that more people are turning to when it comes to looking for an omega-3 supplement.

However, while krill oil may be more rapidly absorbed, the amount of omega-3 is much less than what you would get with fish oil. But, the good thing about krill is that it’s also a  source of astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant that can also provide tremendous health benefits.

Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are one of the most popular plant-based ALA omega-3 sources and I happen to be a big fan of them. In fact, I add them to my daily smoothie. They are rich in plant-based omega-3 as well as fiber and protein. However, plant-based sources of omega-3 need to go through a conversion process, converting ALA into EPA, and then further into DHA. So, while yes, flaxseeds are a great addition to a healthy diet, we would need to consume more plant-based omega-3 rich foods than we would fish.

It’s Not One Over The Other

The bottom line is that when it comes to the question of what the best types of omega-3s are, there’s no one straight answer. It’s not flaxseeds over fish oil or krill oil over fish oil. It comes down to balanced, healthy eating with plenty of nutrient-dense omega-3 rich foods, and when taking a supplement, making sure that it meets quality and purity standards.

What Are The Side Effects of Taking Omega 3?

When talking about the side effects of taking omega-3s, I don’t view this as side-effects, but rather effects. Omega-3s are sourced from real food and are well-known for helping support cardiovascular, brain, and skin health.
(28, 29, 30, 31)

The good news is that any adverse effects of omega-3 supplements are generally mild. (32) Some of these effects may include unpleasant taste as well as gastrointestinal symptoms, like loose bowels.

Note that if you have never taken supplements before, you will want to work up to your digestive system tolerance level. Upon starting supplementation, you may initially notice loose stool, which would indicate that you may need to lower your dose a bit. After a week, your body should start adjusting, so long as the fish oil you are taking is fresh and pure.

Bonus Tip: Omega-3s For Dogs!

If you have come this far in the Ultimate Guide to Omega-3s, congratulations! You now have a wealth of information about the importance of these fats. 

As a bonus omega-3 fact, did you know about the importance of omega-3s for dogs? As it turns out, your four-legged pal may benefit from a fish oil supplement too. 

Here’s what science shows about omega-3s and dogs:

  • The American Kennel Club talks about the importance of adding a fish oil supplement to your dog’s diet to help support heart health as well as support a healthy, shiny coat, and to even help with allergy support, and joint health. They also talk about the importance of fish oil in dogs as it relates to immune system support. (33)
  • Fish oil for dogs is important for similar reasons as to why it’s so beneficial for us humans, and it also happens to have benefits across their lifespan too. The AKC talks about the importance of DHA for supporting both brain and eye health in puppies, and to help support cognitive health in elderly dogs. (34) This is very similar to what we see when looking at the benefits of DHA for humans.

If you’re interested in adding a fish oil supplement to your current routine, you may also want to consider it for your dog. Just be sure to speak with your veterinarian first before adding in a new supplement to your dog’s diet and check to see which pet-friendly brand will work best. We wouldn’t recommend sharing your supplements directly!

Final Thoughts on Omega 3 fatty acids

The research is clear — omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that are incredibly important for our overall health. From supporting brain and eye health to supporting the health of our heart, skin, and even our immune systems, getting enough omega-3 fatty acids while also being sure that we are balancing our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is crucial. 

In addition to supporting health with omega-3 essential fatty acids, it’s also important to find a balance by eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and finding time for mindfulness. With a handful of healthy lifestyle practices that support overall wellness, you can help support your health from the inside out.

Resources

  1. National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

  2. Calder PC. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes. Nutrients. 2010;2(3):355-374. doi:10.3390/nu2030355
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257651/

  3. Derbyshire E. Brain Health across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review on the Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements. Nutrients. 2018;10(8):1094. Published 2018 Aug 15. doi:10.3390/nu10081094
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116096/ 

  4. Harvard Health. Omega-3 For Your Eyes.
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/omega-3-for-your-eyes

  5. Dyerberg J, Bang HO, Stoffersen E, Moncada S, Vane JR. Eicosapentaenoic acid and prevention of thrombosis and atherosclerosis? Lancet. 1978 Jul 15;2(8081):117-9. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(78)91505-2. PMID: 78322.
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/78322/

  6. National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

  7. DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH. Importance of maintaining a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio for reducing inflammation. Open Heart. 2018;5(2):e000946. Published 2018 Nov 26. doi:10.1136/openhrt-2018-000946
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6269634/

  8. American Heart Association. Eating Fish Twice a Week Reduces Heart Stroke Risk. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/05/25/eating-fish-twice-a-week-reduces-heart-stroke-risk

  9. Derbyshire E. Brain Health across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review on the Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements. Nutrients. 2018;10(8):1094. Published 2018 Aug 15. doi:10.3390/nu10081094
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116096/

  10. Harvard Health. Omega-3 For Your Eyes.
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/omega-3-for-your-eyes

  11. Logan SL, Spriet LL. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation for 12 Weeks Increases Resting and Exercise Metabolic Rate in Healthy Community-Dwelling Older Females. PLoS One. 2015;10(12):e0144828. Published 2015 Dec 17. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0144828
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4682991/

  12. Today’s Dietitian. Balancing Act. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040113p38.shtml

  13. Berkley Wellness. Grass-Fed Beef For Omega-3s? https://www.berkeleywellness.com/healthy-eating/food/nutrition/article/grass-fed-beef-omega-3s

  14. Manitoba. Increasing Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Eggs From Small Chicken Flock. https://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/livestock/production/poultry/increasing-omega-3-fatty-acids-in-eggs-from-small-chicken-flocks.html

  15. WebMD. Chia Seeds: Why Are Chia Seeds Good For Me? https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/why-are-chia-seeds-good-for-me

  16. Rodriguez-Leyva D, Dupasquier CM, McCullough R, Pierce GN. The cardiovascular effects of flaxseed and its omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid. Can J Cardiol. 2010;26(9):489-496. doi:10.1016/s0828-282x(10)70455-4
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989356/

  17. WebMD. Why Are Hemp Seeds Good For Me?
    https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/why-are-hemp-seeds-good-for-me

  18. Walnuts. Omega-3 ALA.
    https://walnuts.org/nutrition/nutrition-info/alpha-linolenic-acid/

  19. WebMD. The Secret Of Edamame.
    https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-secret-of-edamame

  20. The World’s Healthiest Foods. Kidney Beans. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrientprofile&dbid=49

  21. Coletta JM, Bell SJ, Roman AS. Omega-3 Fatty acids and pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2010;3(4):163-171.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3046737/#:~:text=Adequate%20consumption%20of%20omega%2D3,and%20in%20preventing%20perinatal%20depression

  22. Gutiérrez S, Svahn SL, Johansson ME. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(20):5028. Published 2019 Oct 11. doi:10.3390/ijms20205028
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3046737/#:~:text=Adequate%20consumption%20of%20omega%2D3,and%20in%20preventing%20perinatal%20depression

  23. Harvard Health. Omega-3 For Your Eyes.
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/omega-3-for-your-eyes

  24. Mayo Clinic. Fish Oil.
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  25. National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

  26. National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

  27. Cole GM, Ma QL, Frautschy SA. Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009;81(2-3):213-221. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2009.05.015
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4019002/

  28. Derbyshire E. Brain Health across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review on the Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements. Nutrients. 2018;10(8):1094. Published 2018 Aug 15. doi:10.3390/nu10081094
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116096/

  29. Harvard Health. Omega-3 For Your Eyes.
    https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/omega-3-for-your-eyes

  30. Huang TH, Wang PW, Yang SC, Chou WL, Fang JY. Cosmetic and Therapeutic Applications of Fish Oil’s Fatty Acids on the Skin. Mar Drugs. 2018;16(8):256. Published 2018 Jul 30. doi:10.3390/md16080256
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6117694/

  31. Kang JI, Yoon HS, Kim SM, et al. Mackerel-Derived Fermented Fish Oil Promotes Hair Growth by Anagen-Stimulating Pathways. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(9):2770. Published 2018 Sep 14. doi:10.3390/ijms19092770
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  32. National Center For Complementary and Integrative Health. Omega-3 Supplement: In Depth.
    https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/omega3-supplements-in-depth

  33. American Kennel Club. Fish Oil For Dogs.
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  34. American Kennel Club. Fish Oil For Dogs.
    https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/fish-oil-for-dogs/