Omega-3 Fish Oil

The Incredible Health Benefits of Omega-3.

(10 minute read)

Omega 3 is such an absolutely amazing macro nutrient, they are present in foods and dietary supplements. They help keep the membranes that surround all cells in the body working well. When it comes to supporting your overall health and wellbeing, helping to maintain a number of crucial bodily functions, ranging from your heart, to your eyes, to your skin, to your muscles and joints you can’t go wrong. In this article we will be giving Omega-3 the attention it deserves. We will be going into detail about some of its most important benefits and how you can make the most out of this vital nutrient.

Types of Omega-3 fatty acids:

  • alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

ALA is mostly present in plant oils, such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts. DHA and EPA are mostly present in cold-water fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, herring, and sardines.

Beyond the basic maintenance of cells in a person’s body, initial research has linked Omega-3 fatty acids with various other health benefits.

The ODS note that studies have found that people who eat fish, which is a key source of Omega-3 fatty acids, typically have a lower risk of various long-term illnesses compared with those who do not eat fish.

Omega 3 for eye health

When you think of Omega-3 fatty acids, the chances are your mind will immediately turn to brain function, heart health or possibly your muscles and joints. While it’s certainly true that Omega-3 can be very beneficial for all of these, it’s also worth highlighting the vital role that Omega-3 plays in supporting our eye health.

Did you know, for example, that DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a type of Omega-3 fatty acid, is a key structural component of your retina, the part of your eye that is needed for visual recognition. Therefore, if you’re not getting the right intake of Omega-3 in your diet, it may have a knock on effect on your vision!

Interestingly, one study specifically took a look at the role Omega-3 could potentially play in age-related macular degeneration (AMD). They found that sufferers of AMD also displayed lower levels of DHA, as well as another type of Omega-3 fatty acid, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), providing further evidence of the relationship between Omega-3 and your vision. Increasing your intake of Omega-3 could be very beneficial in these instances, but sometimes this can present a problem if you have certain dietary restrictions.

Omega 3 for inflammation

Inflammation forms an important part of your immune response, however, it also lays at the root of many health problems, from certain types of cardiovascular disease to fibromyalgia and arthritis. Primarily, short-term inflammation can support your immune system, protecting it against the nasty bugs and viral infections trying to penetrate your body, even helping damaged tissues to heal.

Problems occur when inflammation becomes chronic or long-term, either as the result of stress, an autoimmune condition, or other diet and lifestyle factors. When this happens, your immune cells can sometimes start to attack your tissues, leading to degeneration and swelling.

Many of Omega-3’s benefits stem from its anti-inflammatory action. It’s thought that Omega-3 can help to reduce inflammation by dampening your inflammatory reactions, reducing your levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids.2   

However, it’s possible that your ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids could also play a role too. 

Unfortunately, problems can occur when we consume too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3. Since Omega-6 is readily available in sources such as vegetable oils and processed foods like margarine, quite often this imbalance can trigger inflammation. Ideally you should be aiming for a 4:1 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. 

Omega 3 for muscle and joint health

The anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3 can do wonders when it comes to your muscles and joints, helping to maintain your mobility, particularly as you get older. This is because as we age our production of cartilage, the connective tissues that help to cushion your joints, diminishes leaving you more vulnerable to joint pain and inflammation. 

Omega-3 can help by reducing inflammation but now research is indicating that Omega-3 can also play a role when it comes to Calcium. Calcium is essential for strong healthy bones but it does rely on several other nutrients to be properly absorbed and utilised by your body. Fortunately, Omega-3 fatty acids can help to enhance calcium absorption which can increase the amount of calcium in your bones, optimising their strength and reducing your risk of developing a condition like osteoporosis.

Omega 3 for sleep

The relationship between Omega-3 and sleep has only recently gained some attention in the public eye with data showing that Omega-3 can regulate the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Good sleep is one of the foundations of optimal health. Studies tie sleep deprivation to many diseases, including obesity, diabetes and depression.

Low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with sleep problems in children and obstructive sleep apnea in adults.

Studies in both children and adults reveal that supplementing with Omega-3 increases the length and quality of sleep.

Omega 3 for skin

Your skin is your body’s largest organ and it relies on a delicate balance of nutrients to function optimally. Unfortunately, your skin can become damaged when it becomes exposed to environmental stressors, allergens and toxins. These can weaken your epidermis (your outer layer of skin) resulting in flare-ups, dryness and irritation.

Omega-3 supports your skin membranes, helping to repair any damaged cells or tissues, enhancing the strength of your epidermis so pathogens and allergens find it less easy to penetrate. Its anti-inflammatory properties also work to reduce swelling and, since inflammation can be a major trigger for skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, it’s believed that Omega-3 can play a role in helping these conditions.

In fact, studies have found that skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis can sometimes be linked to low levels of DHA and EPA. One study even found that fish oil supplements were able to significantly reduce the symptoms of eczema after 12 weeks. This was mainly due to its ability to reduce leukotriene B4, which can help to stimulate an eczema outbreak.

Omega 3 for healthy brain function

Arguably one of Omega-3’s main claims to fame is its ability to help support healthy brain function. For a start did you know that your brain is mostly fat? In fact it’s around 60% fat making it the fattest organ in your body! Of course this isn’t the type of fat you get from eating too many packets of crisps – instead your brain and cell membranes are made of healthy fats, sometimes known as essential fats.

Omega-3 fatty acids are in fact considered to be an important building block of your brain, so it’s hardly surprising that this nutrient is so often linked with brain function. As a natural anti-inflammatory, it can help to reduce inflammation in the brain, which can disrupt crucial brain signals, but research has also indicated that Omega-3 could be useful for mild memory loss.

Omega 3 for your mood

Just as Omega-3 is thought to be beneficial for healthy brain function so too is it often associated with your mood, particularly when it comes to negative emotions such as stress and anxiety. This is mainly down to the action of EPA, an Omega-3 fatty acid that can influence cortisol, the stress hormone. 

In a study conducted by researchers from the University of Medical Sciences in Tehran, it was found that EPA, on its own and in combination with fluoxetine, was capable of reducing cortisol levels.  Another study, this time involving medical students facing pre-exam stress, found that Omega-3 supplements were able to reduce anxiety by up to 20%. 

So perhaps increasing your Omega-3 could be a good idea if you’re looking to enhance your mood. It’s also worth noting that some studies have been done in relation to more serious mental health conditions, such as depression, and Omega-3. Although research has yielded positive results, further study is still needed so, if you are suffering from a health condition such as depression, it’s still important to speak to your doctor or GP.

Omega 3 for a stronger immune system

Your immune system is one of the most important and complex systems in your body, consisting of lymph nodes and white blood cells that work tirelessly to discourage viruses, pathogens and bacteria from entering your body, protecting you from a range of infections and diseases such as the flu and common cold.

As mentioned earlier, Omega-3 almost appears to suppress the immune system as it can dampen your inflammatory responses, which are sometimes triggered by your immune system as a reaction to an allergen or pathogen. However, research published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology also appears to support this belief, finding that EPA and DHA fish oil may actually help to enhance the function of immune B cells too!

B-cells are a type of white blood cell that helps to secrete antibodies, helping to fight off infections and viruses! The stronger these cells are, the better prepared your body is when pathogens strike!

Omega 3 for your heart

This is one health benefit that can go uncontested – there’s no doubt that Omega-3 can really do wonders for your heart. The American Heart Association even states that “Omega 3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people, and those at high risk of – or who have – cardiovascular disease.”  

But why? Well once again, unsurprisingly, the anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3 have to take some of the credit. Not only can inflammation upset your muscles, joints and skin, it can also damage your blood vessels which can then potentially lead to further cardiovascular problems.

Omega-3 had also been shown to have to help lower triglycerides, or unhealthy fats, that could potentially lead to fatty deposits in the artery walls, increasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke! That’s why many, including the British Heart Foundation, recommend increasing your intake of Omega-3 to help support the health of your heart.

Omega-3 for menstrual pain

Menstrual pain occurs in your lower abdomen and pelvis and often radiates to your lower back and thighs. It can significantly affect your quality of life.

However, studies repeatedly prove that women who consume the most omega-3s have milder menstrual pain.

One study even determined that an Omega-3 supplement was more effective than ibuprofen in treating severe pain during menstruation

Omega-3 for autoimmune diseases

In autoimmune diseases, your immune system mistakes healthy cells for foreign cells and starts attacking them. Type 1 diabetes is one prime example, in which your immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas. Omega-3’s can combat some of these diseases and may be especially important during early life.

Studies show that getting enough Omega-3’s during your first year of life is linked to a reduced risk of many autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, autoimmune, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

Omega-3 for infant health

The NCCIH highlight a study that shows that the children of mothers who took a high-dose fish oil supplement were less likely to develop asthma than the children of mothers who took a placebo.

Several studies note that children with ADHD have lower blood levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than their healthy peers. What’s more, numerous studies observe that Omega-3 supplements can reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Omega-3’s help improve inattention and task completion. They also decrease hyperactivity, impulsiveness, restlessness and aggression.

Recently, researchers observed that fish oil supplements were one of the most promising treatments for ADHD.

How much Omega-3 should I be getting?

It’s all very well saying that you should increase your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, but how much Omega-3 specifically should you be getting? Some sources estimate that between 250 – 500 mg of EPA and DHA is a healthy intake for an adult, although this dose can increase depending on your specific health problem so it’s always worth speaking to your doctor first, before considering a supplement.

The NHS recommends trying to get at least two portions of oily fish into your diet each week but this isn’t particularly useful if you happen to be vegan or vegetarian.

Interestingly, since Omega-3 has entered the public consciousness another problem has arisen – over supplementing. Just as not getting enough Omega-3 can have repercussions for your health, getting too much can also have a negative impact, particularly for your immune system. That’s why, if you are considering an Omega-3 supplement such as fish oil, make sure you pick one that does not exceed 3g per day without first speaking to your doctor!

Credit: Emma Thronton (BSc, MSc, RNutr)