We don’t usually associate increasing the amount of fat in our diets as a way to improve health, but when it comes to a particular type of fat, that’s exactly what the doctor ordered!
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), a type of essential fat involved in several metabolic processes, and they are a crucial component of good health.
Research shows omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis – conditions that often have a high inflammatory process at their root. But most impressive is the research that confirms Omega-3’s benefits on the brain.
There are 11 different types of omega-3s, but the most well-known for their beneficial properties are Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Dietary sources of ALA, DHA, and EPA
The modern American diet is typically low in Omega-3 and high in Omega-6 fatty acids, another form of polyunsaturated fatty acid found in some vegetable oils (like corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils), nuts and seeds. Too much Omega-6 causes inflammation; therefore, avoiding processed foods that contain them is important. Interestingly, too much Omega-3 can also be bad; it’s all about keeping the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 in check.
A well-balanced diet with natural sources of ALA, DHA, and EPA is fundamental to maintaining a healthy ratio that prevents inflammation and promotes long-term health.
DHA and EPA are found in fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, trout, cod liver, herring, mackerel, and sardines, as well as shellfish such as shrimp, oysters, clams, and scallops. Fish is the best source of Omega-3s as DHA and EPA are more bioavailable, meaning it is easier for the body to absorb it over ALA. Whenever possible, purchase wild-caught fish and check out SeafoodWatch.org to see which fish are lowest in mercury and other environmental toxins.
ALA comes from plants and is the most largely consumed form of Omega-3 in the typical American diet. It serves as an energy source for our cells and a small percent is converted into DHA and EPA. Dietary sources of ALA include flax seeds and flax oil, walnuts and walnut oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, and hemp oil, mustard oil, most leafy green vegetables, and tofu.
Some research is being done on algal oil, as it contains both DHA and EPA making it more bioavailable than other plant sources of Omega-3s. For vegans and vegetarians, this may be a promising alternative to fish oils. Some supplement brands have already started creating vegetarian EPA/DHA supplements from algal oil for those who prefer not to take fish oils.
When diets don’t meet the mark, supplementation may be recommended, but should always be done under the supervision of a doctor and dietitian for these reasons:
1) A doctor and/or a dietitian-nutritionist can monitor the ratio of Omega 3:6. Certain health conditions may benefit from additional Omega-3; in this case, proper dosage should be determined by a doctor.
2) When a diet is already rich in Omega-3, supplementation may throw a proper Omega 3:6 ratio off-balance and unintentionally cause inflammation.
3) There are some supplements of omega-3 that are actually inflammatory. Many retail brands of Omega-3 or fish oils come from sources of fish that are fed an atypical diet of corn and soy, which alters the composition of fatty acids in the fish oil. This can cause inflammation. As supplements do not require FDA approval, a dietitian or doctor can recommend a trusted brand.
Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on the Brain
– Post-stroke & post-concussion: A study published in the Journal of American College of Nutrition found that giving DHA post-concussion helps in the repair and recovery from injury.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found evidence that supported the clinical use of Omega-3 in treating “stroke and other acute neurological diseases” due, in part, to its anti-inflammatory and anti-apoptotic (prevention of cell death) properties.
– Neuropathic pain: Neuropathic pain, or pain due to damage of the peripheral or central nervous system, can cause debilitating pain for those affected.
A 2018 study found that patients with neuralgic pain who were treated with omega-3 fatty acids in conjunction with conventional medicine, reported more improvement in pain intensity and quality of life than those who received conventional medicine alone.
In 2010, a review of case studies found that patients with neuropathic pain who were treated with high doses of Omega-3 fish oil had “clinically significant pain reduction” and improved function.
– Migraines: Diets high in Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to lessen the frequency and occurrence of migraine headaches.
Omega-3 fatty acids help scavenge free radicals (atoms, molecules, or ions with unpaired electrons) that attach inappropriately to tissue and damage it.
A study published in The FASEB Journal found that “omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are found in fish oil, could improve the function of the glymphatic system, which facilitate the clearance of waste from the brain, and promote the clearance of metabolites including amyloid-β peptides, a primary culprit in Alzheimer’s disease.”
Studies also show that DHA supplementation can improve cognitive performance.
How much is enough?
Eating a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, lean meat, and cold-water fish will help a person consume more Omega-3’s on a regular basis. Current literature advises that at least 2, 3.5 oz. portions of oily fish should be eaten weekly, but does this amount support long-term health?
Determining the correct intake of Omega-3 fatty acids depends on an individual’s age, the overall state of physical and mental health, and whether there is a history of trauma that suggests heightened inflammation. To find out the amount that is best for your unique condition, make sure to consult with your health care provider or schedule an appointment at the Kaplan Center.
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This article was originally published on December 2016. It was reviewed and updated in June 2023.
Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids.
Targeted alteration of dietary n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for the treatment of chronic headaches: a randomized trial.
Association between serum long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cognitive performance in elderly men and women: The Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study
Omega-3 fatty acids and brain resistance to aging and stress: body of evidence and possible mechanisms.
Therapeutic use of omega-3 fatty acids in severe head trauma.