Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and learn about a magical elixir! This amazing nutrient can truly do it all! It can lower your cholesterol, reduce high blood pressure, protect you from heart attacks, ease joint pains, fight wrinkles and skin ailments, and improve your memory. Why, it will even boost your mood!
Years ago, a snake-oil salesman might've hawked omega-3 fatty acids in just this way. Though there isn't really any magic to omega-3, research is finding that they do have some pretty potent health properties.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a collection of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), found in fish, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in plants. Unlike the saturated fats in foods like butter and meat, which can raise levels of unhealthy (LDL) cholesterol, polyunsaturated fats are healthier because they help lower cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation throughout the body.
EPA and DHA are called essential fatty acids because the body doesn't produce them. That's why it's important to get omega-3 fatty acids from food or from supplements. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in many different sources, including flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts and soybeans, but fatty coldwater fish like salmon, herring and tuna seem to be the best ones [source: Mayo Clinic]. Just make sure that you don't overdo it on large fish like shark, tilefish and tuna, which tend to be high in mercury. Pregnant women should definitely avoid fish with high mercury levels.
In this article, you'll see what the research has to say about omega-3 fatty acids, and you'll find out which health benefits from this essential nutrient actually live up to the claims.
Omega-3 and Heart Health
The evidence supporting the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for heart health is mounting. Omega-3s play a crucial role in the formation of cell membranes throughout the body, and they're integral for the production of hormones that regulate inflammation, blood clotting and the relaxation of artery walls.
Research has found that omega-3 fatty acids protect your cardiovascular system in a number of ways, including the following: [source: Cleveland Clinic]
- They help to lower levels of cholesterol -- the fatty, waxy substance that can build up in your arteries and form plaques that increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
- They reduce levels of unhealthy fats called triglycerides in the blood by as much as 30 percent. High levels of triglycerides have been linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease
- They decrease the risk of abnormal heartbeats, or arrhythmias, which can lead to sudden death.
- They might help prevent blood clots from forming. Clots that break off and block a coronary artery to the heart can cause a heart attack. Clots that block the flow of blood to the brain can lead to a stroke.
- They can slightly lower blood pressure, which is another risk factor for heart disease
- They reduce inflammation in the body, which helps prevent the blockage arteries from becoming blocked.
- They prevent the re-narrowing (restenosis) of coronary arteries after angioplasty surgery [sources: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and American Heart Association]
Omega-3s are so good for your heart that eating fish just once or twice a week might reduce your risk of dying from a heart attack by a third [source: Mayo Clinic]. That's why the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting at least two servings of fish in your diet each week [source: American Heart Association].
Omega-3s and Cancer
Despite decades of study, cancer remains one of the scariest diseases that humans can face. Understandably, researchers have looked with great excitement at any natural substance that might help treat or even prevent cancer.
In the 1950s, German scientist Johanna Budwig became a big proponent of essential fatty acids. She claimed that when cancer patients ate a diet high in flaxseed oil, many of their tumors shrank within three months. Some patients who were on the diet were supposedly cured of their cancer [source: American Cancer Society].
A few studies found that fish oils, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, suppressed the growth of certain types of cancer in animals. But the studies produced mixed results in humans.
Some research did provide evidence that omega-3 consumption might reduce the risk of hormone-fueled cancers like breast cancer, or inhibit the growth of cancers that affect the lungs, prostate and colorectal regions. However, other studies actually found that omega-3s increased the risk of these cancers [source: JAMA].
There has also been some evidence that taking omega-3 might improve appetite and help prolong the survival of cancer patients who lose weight and become malnourished as a result of their disease. Again, however, the results have not been conclusive [source: American Cancer Society]. Also questionable is the idea that omega-3 fatty acids might help patients undergoing surgery to treat their cancer. Although one study showed that omega-3 supplements preserved muscle mass in patients who were having surgery for esophageal cancer (a surgery that typically causes patients to lose muscle mass), other studies haven't found similar benefits [source: Annals of Surgery].
Researchers say there is still not enough evidence to prove that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of cancer, although studies are still ongoing.
Omega-3 and Mental Health
Fish really is brain food.
Studies are finding that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are essential for brain health [source: ScienceDaily]. The importance of these fatty acids becomes most obvious when they're lacking. People who don't get enough omega-3s in their diet face an increased risk of developing conditions such as dementia, depression, attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia and schizophrenia [source: ScienceDaily].
The key to omega-3's effect on the brain is thought to lie in the synapses -- the tiny gaps across which nerve impulses pass from one neuron to another. In order for those impulses to reach the receiving neuron, they need to get through the wall, or membrane, that surrounds the neuron. Cell membranes are made almost completely of fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers believe that omega-3s help keep the membrane more elastic, enhancing the flow of electrical impulses. Omega-3s also help improve blood flow in the brain [source: BBC].
Research is finding that omega-3 fatty acids have several brain-boosting benefits.
- They improve learning and memory. In studies, children who received omega-3 fatty acid supplements did better in school, scored higher on tests of learning and memory, and had fewer behavioral problems than their peers who didn't get the supplement
- They protect against depression, other mood disorders, and schizophrenia, and improve mood in people who already have depression
- They fight age-related cognitive decline due to dementia [sources: ScienceDaily and Life Extension]
The benefits of omega-3s can begin before birth. DHA is passed to the fetus from the mother across the placenta, and it's found naturally in breast milk (today, DHA is also added to some infant formulas). Babies need DHA -- especially during the first two years of life -- for their brains to develop properly. One study found that babies who were born to mothers with higher blood levels of DHA scored higher on tests of attention and learning than those whose mothers had lower DHA levels [source: WebMD]. Another study found that children of mothers who took fish oil supplements during pregnancy had higher IQs than those whose mothers took a placebo [source: American Pregnancy Association].
Omega-3 and Arthritis
One of the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is their ability to reduce inflammation throughout the body. That effect might provide some relief for people who have the inflammatory disease arthritis.
Arthritis results from the immune system's abnormal response to the body's own tissues. The immune system usually launches an inflammatory response against infectious agents, such as bacteria and viruses. In people with arthritis, that immune response misfires and mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues (in this case, the joints) as though they were foreign invaders. This leads to the swollen, stiff and achy joints that plague arthritis sufferers.
Researchers have discovered that not only do omega-3s help fight inflammation, but that once inside the body, they're converted into even more potent anti-inflammatory compounds like resolvins [source: Arthritis Today].
A few studies have found that taking fish oil supplements every day can reduce morning stiffness, and the number of swollen joints in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Some patients who took omega-3 fatty acids were even able to reduce -- or even stop - use of arthritis medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids. In the studies, participants needed to take omega-3 fatty acids for three months to see an improvement; the benefits increased the longer people took them [source: American Family Physician].
Omega-3 fatty acids show great promise for relieving arthritis discomfort, but older adults should use caution when taking them. In high doses, fish oil supplements can interact with blood pressure drugs, blood thinners and other medications. These supplements can also contain high levels of vitamins A and D, which can be dangerous in large quantities [source: NCCAM]. Of course, you should talk to a doctor before starting any supplement regimen.
Omega-3 and Skin Health
If you're experiencing dry, scaly skin, you might just need to add a few more servings of fish into your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids -- and particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) -- are essential for healthy skin and hair. EPA helps regulate oil production in your skin. Having plenty of this essential fatty acid in your body keeps your skin hydrated and prevents it from drying and flaking.
Omega-3 fatty acids can also help protect your skin from damage. When your body is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, harmful substances called free radicals are generated, which can damage cells and lead to cancer and premature aging. Omega-3 fatty acids act as an antioxidant that protects your body against these substances.
The fatty acids not only protect against sun damage, they actually help repair it. When you're exposed to the sun's harmful UV rays, EPA can help prevent the release of enzymes that destroy collagen, warding off sagging skin and wrinkles [source: Health Magazine]. Some research has suggested that omega-3 fatty acids might also help prevent certain types of skin cancer, but this hasn't been proven [source: Baumann --please link to LMI]
Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3s can also help relieve skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema.
Omega-3s are even good for the skin on top of your head. Without enough of these nutrients, your scalp can start to get dry and flaky, and your hair can lose its luster. [source: WebMD]
While you're using omega-3 fatty acids to keep your own hair and skin looking lustrous, you can also use it on your dog or cat. Omega-3s are often given to pets to improve the health of their skin and coat.
For more health information, take a look at the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Intermediate Markers of Cardiovascular Disease." (Accessed 5/30/10)http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/epcsums/o3cardrisksum.htm
- American Cancer Society. "Omega-3 Fatty Acids." (Accessed 5/30/10)http://www.cancer.org/docroot/ETO/content/ETO_5_3X_Omega-3_Fatty_Acids.asp
- American Heart Association. "Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids." (Accessed 5/30/10)http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4632
- American Heart Association. "Fish, Levels of Mercury and Omega-3 Fatty Acids." (Accessed 5/30/10)http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3013797
- "Are Fish Oil Supplements Good for the Skin?" Health Magazine. (Accessed 5/31/10)http://living.health.com/2009/03/26/fish-oil-supplements-skin/
- Barclay, Laurie. "Fighting Depression and Improving Cognition with Omega-3 Fatty Acids." Life Extension Magazine, October 2007. (Accessed 5/30/10)http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2007/oct2007_report_depression_01.htm
- Baumann, Leslie. "Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice." New York, NY: McGraw Hill Professional, 2009.
- BBC. "The Omega Wave." (Accessed 5/31/10).http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/intelligenceandmemory/omega_three.shtml
- Boyles, Salynn. "Pregnant? Omega-3 Essential for Baby's Brain. July 16, 2004. (Accessed 5/30/10).http://www.webmd.com/baby/news/20040716/pregnant-omega-3-essential-for-babys-brain
- Cleveland Clinic. "The Power of Fish." (Accessed 5/30/10).http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/nutrition/omega3.aspx
- Covington MB. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. "American Family Physician." 2004;70:133-140.
- Harvard School of Public Health. "Omega-3 Fats: An Essential Contribution - What Should You Eat?" (Accessed 5/30/10).http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/omega-3-fats/
- MacLean CH, Newberry SJ, Mojica WA, Khanna P, Issa AM, Suttorp MJ, et al. "Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cancer risk." JAMA. 2006;295:403-415.
- Marshall, Keri. "Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Mom and Baby." American Pregnancy Association. (Accessed 5/30/10).http://www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/PEfattyacids.html
- Mayo Clinic. "Omega-3 in Fish. How Eating Fish Helps Your Heart." (Accessed 5/30/10).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/omega-3/hb00087
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Rheumatoid Arthritis and CAM." (Accessed 5/30/10).http://nccam.nih.gov/health/RA/
- Parker, Hilary. WebMD. "Top 10 Foods for Healthy Hair." (Accessed 5/31/10).http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/top-10-foods-for-healthy-hair
- Richards, Linda. "Fatty Acid Benefits: How Omega-3s Reduce Inflammation." (Accessed 5/31/10).http://www.arthritistoday.org/nutrition-and-weight-loss/healthy-eating/food-and-inflammation/fatty-acids-benefits.php
- Ryan AM, Reynolds JV, Healy L, Byrne M, Moore J, Brannelly N, et al. Enteral nutrition enriched with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) preserves lean body mass following esophageal cancer surgery: results of a double-blinded randomized controlled trial. Annals of Surgery. 2009;249:355-363.
- "Scientists Learn How Food Affects The Brain: Omega 3 Especially Important." ScienceDaily, July 11, 2008.http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080709161922.htm (Accessed 5/30/10).