Three key benefits of omega-3
Author Miriam Ferrer, PhDLast updated 10th January 2020
- Ingredients & Nutrition
One of the most popular supplements in the UK1, omega-3 fatty acids are important at every stage of life - in fact, they’re an essential part of every cell in your body.
Here we look at three of the key benefits and explain how to make sure you’re getting enough from your diet.
What is omega-3 and why is it important?
omega-3 is the name for a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that play a key role in a whole range of biological processes.
The human body requires three main types of omega-3:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which plays an important role in heart and cardiovascular health and is thought to help reduce inflammation.2
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) helps the body to develop in the womb and during childhood. It is especially important for the brain and eye. Not getting enough DHA in the vital early years can lead to serious health problems.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the precursor to EPA and DHA. It is found in plants and algae, and recent studies suggest that, apart from being necessary to make EPA and DHA in the body, it might have an anti-inflammatory function on its own.
omega-3 fatty acids are present in every cell of the body. They play an essential role in forming the cell membranes that hold them together and control the movement of molecules into and out of the cell. They are found in particularly high concentrations in the brain.3
1. Cardiovascular health
Omega-3s are recognised for their important role in cardiovascular health. For example, we know that DHA and EPA contribute to the normal function of the heart, the maintenance of normal blood pressure and normal blood triglyceride levels.
Studies show that getting enough of these fatty acids can help to maintain good cardiovascular health.4 This is confirmed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which states that replacing other fatty acids in your diet (e.g. the omega 6s commonly found in animal products like red meat) with omega-3s reduces the odds of developing diabetes or suffering from heart disease.5
This substitution also makes it less likely that you will become obese.6 Excess weight is a major risk factor for developing heart problems.
Omega-3s may also reduce the buildup of plaques in the arteries, as seen in atherosclerosis, and are associated with a reduced risk of heart failure, stroke and other cardiovascular events.7,8,9,10
The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s may have a positive effect on illnesses caused by chronic inflammation. Many cardiovascular diseases have an inflammatory component, and it can also be caused by risk factors like cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- Brain and psychological health
Omega-3s are concentrated in the brain, and DHA is known to contribute to the maintenance of normal brain function.
In fact, they are so important that studies have shown a correlation between omega-3 intake in the womb and cognitive ability during childhood.11,12
In later life they are equally important. Though further research is needed on the subject, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 may offer some protection from brain/mental health problems that are linked to inflammation, including Parkinson’s and dementia and might be helpful in treatment.13
There is evidence that omega-3 can help those affected with mild age-related memory issues too. However, there is no strong evidence that it has an effect on the brains of healthy people.
Researchers have also discovered that people living with psychological conditions such as ADHD, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia are more likely to have low levels of omega-3 in their bodies. Omega-3 supplementation has been suggested as a therapeutic option for treating these conditions.14,2
- Foetal and childhood development
Every cell in the body requires omega-3 to form its protective membrane. Naturally, it is especially important to get enough during the early years when growth and development is taking place at a rapid rate. A lack of omega-3 at this time can lead to serious health issues.15
Studies with pregnant mothers have shown a correlation between omega-3 supplementation, proper brain and eye development, and normal immune response in infancy.16,17
Other studies have shown that EPA and DHA supplementation is correlated with carrying a baby to full term. This is important because premature birth is associated with a range of health issues.17,18
Omega-3 intake is also linked to behaviour and psychological health in children and even better sleep.19
How can I get enough omega-3?
Although the human body can create some of its own omega-3 fatty acids, most of the omega-3 you need will have to come from your diet.3
The UK Government does not make any recommendations about omega-3 consumption, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests adults require 0.25 grams of EPA and DHA per day.5 The precise amount you need will vary depending on factors like your general health, age and sex. In the womb and during childhood people require more DHA, with the balance shifting towards EPA later on.
The best way to get enough omega-3 is to follow NHS dietary recommendations. According to the NHS you should eat a portion of oily fish every week, as fish like mackerel, salmon and sardines are especially rich in EPA and DHA. You should also eat an additional portion of non-oily fish like haddock.20
Other foods that contain a lot of EPA and DHA include shellfish. If you don’t like fish or fishy taste, fortified versions of common foods like milk and butter are available.
It’s best to include all three of the most important omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. You can get enough ALA, which is found in plants, by eating nuts, seeds and a selection of vegetables like spinach.
For people who don’t like the taste of fish or who eat a restricted diet it is essential to get your omega-3 using fortified foods, and possibly supported with a nutritional supplement.
Fish liver oil is still the most common supplement, but you can also try krill oil which contains choline for liver health and the natural antioxidant astaxanthin. Vegans might like to try a supplement with omega-3 synthesised directly from algae.
From creating the structure of your cells to ensuring that the brain and heart can function properly, omega-3 fatty acids are essential to good health. In the early years they help babies and children to develop properly.
It’s important to get enough from your diet, as your body cannot produce enough. You can do this by following NHS dietary recommendations, but if you’re on a restricted diet or want to make sure that you have enough then you can try using fortified foods or a nutritional supplement.
- Calder PC. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes. Nutrients. 2010;2(3):355–374. doi:10.3390/nu2030355
- Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(1):1–7 https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/3/1/1/4557081
- Elagizia A. et al. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Health: A Comprehensive Review. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases Volume 61, Issue 1, May–June 2018, Pages 76-85. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0033062018300616?via%3Dihub
- Simopoulos AP. An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients. 2016;8(3):128. Published 2016 Mar 2. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/8/3/128
- Kris-Etherton PM, Harris WS, Appel LJ. Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 2002;106:2747–57.
- Tavazzi L, Maggioni AP, Marchioli R, Barlera S, Franzosi MG, Latini R, Lucci D, Nicolosi GL, Porcu M, Tognoni G. Effect of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with chronic heart failure (the GISSI-HF trial): a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 2008;372:1223–30.
- Marchioli R, Barzi F, Bomba E, Chieffo C, Di Gregorio D, Di Mascio R, Franzosi MG, Geraci E, Levantesi G, Maggioni AP, et al. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction: time-course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto Miocardico (GISSI)-Prevenzione. Circulation. 2002;105:1897–903.
- Dawczynski C, Martin L, Wagner A, Jahreis G. n-3 LC-PUFA-enriched dairy products are able to reduce cardiovascular risk factors: a double-blind, cross-over study. Clin Nutr. 2010;29:592–9.
- Oken E, Wright RO, Kleinman KP, et al. Maternal fish consumption, hair mercury, and infant cognition in a U.S. Cohort. Environ Health Perspect. 2005;113(10):1376–1380. doi:10.1289/ehp.8041
- Helland IB et al. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children's IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics. 2003 Jan;111(1):e39-44.
- Canhada S. Castro K. Perry I.S. Luft V.C. Omega-3 fatty acids' supplementation in Alzheimer's disease: A systematic review. Nutr Neurosci. 2018 Oct;21(8):529-538. doi: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1028415X.2017.1321813. Epub 2017 May 3.
- Carisha S. Thesinga, Mariska Bota , Yuri Milaneschia, Erik J. Giltayb, Brenda W.J.H. Penninx. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid levels in depressive and anxiety disorders. Psychoneuroendocrinology Volume 87, January 2018, Pages 53-62. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S030645301730481X?via%3Dihub
- Gow RV, Hibbeln JR. Omega-3 fatty acid and nutrient deficits in adverse neurodevelopment and childhood behaviors. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2014;23(3):555–590. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.02.002]
- Dunstan JA. Simmer K. Dixon G. Prescott SL. Cognitive assessment of children at age 2(1/2) years after maternal fish oil supplementation in pregnancy: a randomised controlled trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2008 Jan;93(1):F45-50. Epub 2006 Dec 21.
- Judge MP. Harel O. Lammi-Keefe CJ. Maternal consumption of a docosahexaenoic acid-containing functional food during pregnancy: benefit for infant performance on problem-solving but not on recognition memory tasks at age 9 mo. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1572–7.
- Olsen SF, Osterdal ML, Salvig JD, Weber T, Tabor A, Secher NJ. Duration of pregnancy in relation to fish oil supplementation and habitual fish intake: a randomised clinical trial with fish oil. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007;61:976–85.
- Montgomery P, Burton JR, Sewell RP, Spreckelsen TF, Richardson AJ (2013) Low Blood Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids in UK Children Are Associated with Poor Cognitive Performance and Behavior: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the DOLAB Study. PLOS ONE