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Think you know everything there is to know about omega-3 fatty acids? Well think again. A string of recent studies has added even more evidence supporting the benefits of EPA and DHA. Found in fish and fish oil supplements, these two omega-3s are also available in vegan supplements made from algal oil.
A five-year research project led by the University of Texas Science Center at San Antonio identified a new way in which the balance of fats can either promote or reduce pain. In studies with animals and humans, researchers found that low levels of healthy omega-3 fats, along with high levels of unhealthy omega-6 fats, promote nerve pain as well as inflammation.
Omega-6 fats in our diets are mostly found in refined vegetable oils used in deep frying and making processed and fast foods, including chips and all types of commercial baked goods. Their inflammatory qualities are well established, but the connection with nerve pain is new.
Diabetic neuropathy—pain in the extremities from damaged nerves—is a well-known complication of the disease. However, people without diabetes who eat a lot of omega-6 fats can also develop nerve pain. The same fat imbalance also contributes to pain from arthritis, trauma, and surgery, according to the researchers, but it can be reversed by eating more omega-3 fat and less omega-6 fat.
Migraine sufferers can have more pain-free days and less severe attacks by reducing inflammatory omega-6 fats and increasing anti-inflammatory omega-3s, according to a recent study by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. With this type of dietary change, some people were able to reduce their migraine medication.
Better Mental Performance and Mood
A British study tested different types of omega-3 supplements on more than 300 adults between the ages of 25 and 49. It found that supplements rich in the EPA form of omega-3 were most effective in improving mental performance and memory. In other research that looked at diets and mood of nearly 1 ,200 American adults, higher levels of EPA, DHA, and plant-based omega-3s all correlated with lower odds of depression.
A Healthier Heart
An analysis of earlier studies with more than 149,000 people found that taking supplements of EPA reduced heart attacks, the need for heart surgeries, and deaths from heart disease. Although supplements of EPA and DHA could be helpful, EPA was the most beneficial.
A Longer Life
Higher levels of omega-3 fats predict a healthier life, according to recent results from the famous, decades-long Framingham Heart Study, on which many of today’s heart-healthy guidelines are based. Researchers concluded that omega-3 blood levels are as important as blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking status, and presence or absence of diabetes in assessing health.
How to Benefit
For less pain, better mental function, a healthier heart, and a longer life:
- Eat fewer foods with corn, cottonseed, soybean, and vegetable oils—sources of inflammatory omega-6 fats.
- Eat more fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel, or take omega-3 supplements with EPA and DHA from fish oil or vegan algal oil. Flaxseeds and walnuts are some top sources of plant omega-3s.