Last updated on October 1, 2021.
“Prevention is better than cure.” This saying holds especially under the influence of the current pandemic. Health protection has become more important than ever. Some people opt for supplements to ensure a balanced intake of all essential nutrients and to reduce the risk of diseases. One of the most common nutrient supplements is omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 is famous for its anti-inflammatory effects, which promotes the functions of the heart, brain, eyes, nervous system and kidney. Before you decide whether to take omega-3 supplements or not, let us explain the health benefits of omega-3 to you!
Introduction to omega-3
Omega-3 does not exist in the body naturally, but has to be obtained from food or supplement. There are 3 types of omega-3, namely alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids are present in food from both animal-based and plant-based sources. Common examples of animal-based sources of omega-3 are salmon and other abyssal fishes (deep sea fishes), whereas plant-based sources of omega-3 are chia seeds, flax seeds, dairy products, tofu, broccoli, soy, walnut, etc.
It is important to note that omega-3 in the form of ALA cannot be directly utilized by the body. ALA has to be converted to EPA and DHA to function, but the conversion is inefficient. So it is recommended to consume food that contains omega-3 in the forms of EPA and DHA for optimal health benefits, and they mostly exist in animal-based sources, such as fatty fish.
Omega-3 can improve mental health
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental disorders. Research found that mental disorder patients usually have lower omega-3 levels in the body. As some other research revealed, omega-3 intake may lower the risk of developing depression and anxiety, and at the same time, improve the symptoms for people with these illnesses. Amongst all three types of omega-3, EPA is found to be the most effective in fighting depression, with a similar effect as antidepressant drugs.
Omega-3 can improve brain health
Omega-3 consumption is associated with brain health in both young and old ages. Early as it may seem, numerous research stated that adequate omega-3 intake during pregnancy may bring plenty of benefits to the cognitive development of the infant in terms of intelligence, communication and social skills, behaviors, in addition to decreasing the risk of developmental delay, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and cerebral palsy. Sufficient omega-3 intake is also important for children with ADHD to reduce symptoms such as hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention.
Moving on to the elderly stage, omega-3 can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related mental declines at an early stage.
Omega-3 can improve cardiovascular health
Omega-3 benefits the heart and blood vessels in several ways. Omega-3 may help lower the “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglyceride in blood and prevent the formation and accumulation of plaque on the inner wall of arteries. This may reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as atherosclerosis, atherothrombosis and heart attacks. On top of that, omega-3 helps maintain the elasticity of the blood vessels, reduce the chance of blood vessel obstruction, as well as lower blood pressure. This lowers the chance of stroke in hypertensive patients.
A historical overview revealed that fish-eating populations tend to have lower risks of heart diseases, possibly linked to the health benefits of omega-3 in fish.
Omega-3 can potentially reduce cancer risk
Omega-3 plays a role in delaying or reducing tumor development. Studies reported that regular omega-3 intake is associated with reduced risk of certain types of cancer, for example, prostate, breast and colon cancer. Although the results of these studies are inconclusive, one thing is for sure: omega-3 can fight inflammation, a condition that leads to tumor initiation, progression and growth. Omega-3 exerts anti-inflammatory effects by eliminating the production of inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines.
A review article stated that omega-3 supplementation is effective in enhancing the clinical outcome of chemotherapy in cancer patients, even though it may have a limited effect on cancer prevention. Furthermore, taking omega-3 supplementation during chemotherapy can help preserve muscle mass and body function in cancer patients.
Omega-3 promotes healthy eyes, bones and skin
Omega-3 is particularly helpful in promoting eye, bone and skin health. Omega-3 in the form of DHA is a structural component of the retina, which is responsible for vision. A randomized controlled study proved that omega-3 intake is associated with the decreased risk of age-related macular degeneration (macula is a small central portion of the retina), a leading cause of severe permanent blindness in the elderly over 60.
Especially for menopausal women, omega-3 intake is crucial for reducing the risk of osteoporosis (brittle and porous bones). It is because estrogen, a hormone for the regulation of bone turnover in adult bone, drops drastically in women after menopause due to hormonal changes. Also, omega-3 intake is associated with the reduction of inflammation at joints, subsequently lowering the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (characterized by warm, swollen and painful joints), especially in older adults.
Omega-3 intake is also important in promoting healthy skin in several ways. In the form of EPA, omega-3 benefits the skin by maintaining oil-moisture balance, reducing the occurrence of acne and delaying premature aging of the skin. Omega-3 also protects the skin from UV damage, which decreases the risk of developing skin cancer.
What is the recommended daily intake of omega-3?
WHO recommends a minimum of 250-500mg daily intake of omega-3 in the forms of EPA and DHA for healthy adults. This is equivalent to eating fatty fish at least twice per week. For pregnant and lactating women, an addition of 200 mg of DHA to the normal recommendation is recommended.
Should you take an omega-3 supplement?
Omega-3 supplement is recommended for people who don’t eat a lot of fatty fish, are allergic to fish or are vegan. But if you eat fatty fish at least twice per week, you should be taking enough omega-3 without the need to take supplementation. It should be noted that overconsumption of omega-3 may induce excessive bleeding because omega-3 has blood thinning properties.
Omega-3 supplements are usually made of fish oil, which is rich in EPA and DHA. For vegetarians and vegans, they can take omega-3 supplements made of algal oil, which is rich in DHA.
Any side effects for taking omega-3?
As ocean pollution worsens, abyssal fishes, often sourced for omega-3, may be contaminated by heavy metals. Check if the brand of omega-3 supplements has passed through a heavy metal inspection test before buying.