Health Benefits of Omega-3s
Q: Are omega-3s from fish oil all they’re cracked up to be?
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
A: The short answer is a resounding “Yes!” In fact, if I had to pick only one dietary supplement that makes the most profound difference to your physical health, it would be omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fats protect the heart and the brain, support circulation, boost mood, and lower blood pressure. They’ve been studied for their effects on depression, cardiovascular health, skin, joints, and diabetes.
How Omega-3s Help the Heart
An important risk factor for heart disease—far more important than cholesterol—is high triglycerides. Fish oil supplements reduce triglyceride levels by up to 40 percent in some research, an astonishingly high amount.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (the research arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) analyzed 123 studies on omega-3 fatty acids and concluded that “Omega-3 fatty acids demonstrated a consistently large, significant effect on triglycerides—a net decrease of 10 to 33 percent.” The effect is most pronounced in those with high triglycerides to begin with.
Even the conservative American Heart Association recommends 2 to 4 grams of the two omega-3 fats found in fish oil (EPA and DHA) for patients who need to lower triglycerides.
Study after study has shown that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish reduce the risk of death, heart attack, stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). It’s been estimated that proper omega-3 fatty acid intake could reduce the rate of fatal arrhythmias by 30 percent. Andrew Stoll, MD, of Harvard Medical School, estimates that more than 70,000 lives could be saved each year if Americans had sufficient omega-3s in their bodies.
Fish Oil and Brain Function
Fish oil actually contains two specific types of omega-3 fats, DHA, and EPA. Of the two, DHA is the one that plays a key role in brain health. DHA forms part of cell membranes in the brain and in the retina of the eyes. The last trimester of pregnancy is especially important for the accumulation of DHA in the brain. I believe every woman should take a fish oil supplement during pregnancy and breast-feeding.
“Clearly, omega-3 fatty acids are essential to good brain health,” says Daniel Amen, MD, author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Low levels of omega-3s are linked to lower IQ, as well as attention and focus problems. Higher levels of omega-3s in the bloodstream correlate with lower levels of depression, and better brain and heart function.
Our brains stay active, and alert and sharp to the extent that neurons (brain cells) are able to “talk” to each other. You can think of the 100 billion or so neurons wired up in your brain like a very fast computer; but when it gets “clogged up” with spywear and viruses or open programs, it runs more slowly. Similarly, each of your cells has a membrane that allows information from other cells (like neurotransmitters) to enter and exit freely. If there isn’t enough omega-3 in the cell membrane, the membrane may become stiff and resistant to the free flow of information—sort of like a slow computer. Omega-3s are essential for having fluid membranes, and this, in turn, is essential to keeping the brain sharp.
Finally, one of the things scientists see in autopsies of the brains of those with dementia and Alzheimer’s is a great deal of inflammation. Omega-3s are one of the most anti-inflammatory substances on the planet, and if for no other reason, should be taken daily to lower inflammation in both the body and the brain.
Omega-3s reduce inflammation
The anti-inflammatory action of omega-3 fats has been proven in dozens of research studies, including the ongoing ATTICA study in Athens, Greece. The ATTICA study has demonstrated that omega-3s reduce blood markers of inflammation including C-reactive protein, which are increasingly accepted as key risk factors for heart disease.
The anti-inflammatory action of omega-3s makes them a natural for arthritis, for aging and aching joints,
and for the inflamed airways of those suffering with asthma.
Just as fish varies in quality (depending on its source), so do omega-3 supplements. Fish oil sitting for months on the bottom shelf of a large drugstore chain is hardly the equal of fish oil from pristine sources made in small batches by a reputable, quality control–conscious company.
Get the good stuff—and take it on a daily basis. A commonly recommended dosage is 1,000 mg combined EPA and DHA daily. It’s important to clarify that this does not mean 1,000 mg of just “fish oil”—look for a brand of fish oil with amounts of EPA and DHA clearly specified on the label.