Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of healthy unsaturated fats. Although the body needs unsaturated fats, it cannot synthesize significant levels of them on its own. That's why we must consume them from our diet; from food and supplements. The three most important omega-3's are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
ALA: The vegan omega-3 fatty acid
Alpha-linolenic acid, known as ALA, is a plant-based essential omega-3 fatty acid that must be obtained through the diet. ALA is the most common one in most Western diets. Various oils, nuts, seeds and beans, e.g., flax seeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans, are naturally rich in these fats. The human body generally uses ALA for energy, but ALA also serves as a precursor for the crucial omega-3 duo, EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, the conversion factor is tiny. It also depends on adequate levels of other micronutrients, e.g., magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, iron, biotin, and vitamins B6. So, if your diet is fish-free or low in fish, dietary supplements may be necessary to increase EPA and DHA levels in your body. There are very few plant sources that contain DHA and EPA. Most vegan omega-3 supplements are made from enriched seaweed or micro-algae in the form of seaweed or algae oil capsules.
DHA & EPA: As vital as vitamins
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are essential fatty acids needed by every living cell in the body. While both are vital structural components of the membranes that surround each cell in the body, they each have specific functions in our health. DHA primarily supports healthy growth and development, especially in unborns and infants. It's also the most abundant omega-3 found in the retina (eye), brain, and sperm cells. EPA, on the other hand, plays an essential physiological role by maintaining healthy cytokine activity and immune pathways.
As mentioned, significant levels of both these omega-3 fatty acids cannot be generated naturally in the body. That's why they are indispensable components of our diet. Dietary sources of DHA and EPA are oily, cold-water fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon, seabass, oysters, and herring. These fish enrich their fatty tissue and cell membranes with DHA, EPA, and ALA through their consumption of special micro-crustaceans and micro-algae. To ingest enough omegas, the American Heart Association recommends consuming a variety of oily marine fish at least twice a week. For people that fall short of the recommended fish intake, fish- or algae oil supplements may be a convenient alternative to get the health benefits of omega-3's.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most well-studied nutrients ever. More than 30,000 scientific studies and published papers shed light on the benefits of adequate omega-3 consumption. Current evidence confirms that omega-3 fatty acids support every system in the human body and help maintain well-being throughout the lifespan, from the fetal phase to the senior years.
Omega-3's for baby's health: only the best will do
Mothers and moms-to-be, naturally, want the very best for their child. A child's future development is already determined during pregnancy. DNA isn't the only thing that determines what abilities and characteristics the child will have. Internal and external factors also play a role in the development of the fetus and infant.
It's here where nutrients, particularly DHA, come into play. From the beginning of pregnancy (especially from the 13th week), the unborn child dependents on the mother's intake of DHA. As the sole source of DHA, a mother needs to consume adequate amounts of this vital substance. DHA travels through the placenta to the baby, supporting the development of the brain, nervous system, and vision. Even after childbirth, the supply of omega-3 fatty acids through breast milk is indispensable for the infant brain and eye development.** In a Norwegian study, maternal DHA status in pregnancy, as well as infants' DHA status at three months, was positively associated with infants' problem-solving skills at 12 months. Several studies have also revealed a relationship between infant omega-3 supply, better attention span, and sleep patterns. As a bonus, the mother benefits from a balanced omega-3 intake during pregnancy and lactating: EPA and DHA support well-being and health during these particular stages of life. Global health and regulatory organizations have established specific daily recommendations for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The average recommendation is a daily dosage of 350 mg EPA/DHA, of which at least 200- 300 mg should be DHA. But, no matter the reason, fish is not everyone's cup of tea during pregnancy. Women who rarely (or don't at all) eat fish can, therefore, achieve their daily intake with special high-quality DHA preparations.
Omega-3's for brain health: always a good idea
The human brain consists of nearly 60 percent fat. The structural fatty acid DHA is quantitatively the most critical omega-3 in the brain. DHA supports brain function by aiding cell signaling and communication, as well as cell connectivity.
As mentioned, DHA is indispensable to fetal and infant brain development. Studies confirm that the essential fat even promotes learning in the early school years. A four-month study by the University of Oxford has shown that a daily supplement of omega-3 DHA improved the behavior and reading level of underperforming healthy children.
But it's not only students who benefit from omega-3's. They are vital for the maintenance of normal brain function throughout life. In older people, lower levels of DHA in the blood have been associated with small brain size, a sign of brain aging. In one intervention study, 485 subjects with age-related cognitive decline took either 900 mg of DHA or a placebo every day. After 24 weeks, the subjects who received DHA performed better on memory and learning tests. So, although omega-3's are typically praised for their cardiovascular health benefits, they also have incredible effects on the brain and mental health.
Omega-3's for cardiovascular health: a hearty, healthy boost
When it comes to cardiovascular health, one vital substance stands out from all other nutrients: omega-3 fatty acids. With more than 2,000 studies conducted on the topic of "omega-3's and heart health," evidence indicates that there is a positive correlation between increased omega-3 supply and cardiovascular health benefits. EPA and DHA have shown various vascular effects by supporting normal triglyceride and lipid levels and maintaining healthy blood flow, blood pressure, and cytokine activity. To benefit from these heart-protecting effects, the American Heart Association recommends two 3.5-ounce servings of oily fish per week. If you cannot or don't want to eat fish, omega-3 supplements are a useful strategy to fill in dietary gaps.**
Omega-3's for joint health: for comfortable movement
Lesser-known is that DHA and EPA can also be healthy to people's joints. Omega-3's support joint comfort, thanks to regulating healthy prostaglandin and leukotriene production and supporting healthy connective tissue. In a study, 27 healthy women were randomized to receive nine days of algae-derived DHA (3000 mg/d) or placebo in a double-blind fashion. On day seven of the supplementation period, the women performed four sets of maximal-effort eccentric biceps curl exercise. The results show that DHA reduces delayed onset muscle soreness and stiffness, and protects against the loss of joint range of motion that is caused by strenuous eccentric exercise.**
Omega-3's and eye health: I can see!
Omega-3's are essential nutrients for proper visual development and function, in childhood and beyond. The structural fatty acid DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the retina. Omega-3 supports healthy vision by enriching neural tissues and photoreceptor cells in the eye. A Harvard study that analyzed serval studies found that healthy pre-term infants who received DHA-supplemented formula showed significantly better visual acuity at two and four months of age, compared with similar pre-term infants whose formula did not contain omega-3's.**
Omega 3 supplementations – are they safe?
With all these health benefits, it's good to know that omega-3's are generally safe and well-tolerated. Side effects of omega-3 supplementation are uncommon and mild. In some cases, omega 3 supplements can lead to unpleasant taste, bad breath, and gastrointestinal discomfort. Stomach upset and "fishy taste" are less frequent in high-quality products in which impurities are reduced due to unique manufacturing methods.
Taking high doses of fish oil supplements might increase the risk of bleeding, so caution is advised in people taking blood thinners such as warfarin or who are about to undergo surgery. Caution is also needed in individuals with bipolar disorder. If you have a bipolar disorder or are taking blood thinners, ask your doctor.
Different organizations and authorities around the world recommend different amounts of EPA and DHA. To benefit from the valuable health potential of omega-3, most experts recommend at least 250 mg of DHA and EPA per day (two oily fish meals per week).