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  • Taylor Richter, RDN, LD

Nourishing Your Body and Mind: The Power of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are often praised for their incredible health benefits, from supporting brain function to promoting heart health. These essential fats play a vital role in our overall well-being, yet many of us may not be getting enough in our diets. In this guide, we'll delve into the world of omega-3s, exploring their many benefits and how you can incorporate them into your life for a healthier you. Whether you're interested in boosting your brainpower or simply want to improve your overall health, understanding the power of omega-3s is a great place to start.


Brain Development in Early Life

Omega-3s are not only important for protecting against age-related cognitive decline but also essential for proper brain development during pregnancy and early childhood. They are especially crucial for the growth of the part of the brain responsible for complex thinking, memory, and language.


Think of omega-3 fats as the building blocks of your brain cells. They help make the walls around your brain cells strong, acting like bodyguards that keep your brain cells safe and help them communicate with each other. Omega-3 fats, especially a specific type called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), make these walls flexible and strong, supporting optimal brain structure and function.


Research suggests that DHA is associated with improved cognitive function, including memory, problem-solving, and attention. This highlights the importance of including DHA-rich foods in your diet, especially as you age, to support brain health and cognitive function (4).


Neurotransmitter Support

Omega-3 fatty acids also play a crucial role in supporting neurotransmitters, the tiny messengers that your brain uses to send messages. Serotonin and dopamine, two important neurotransmitters, are influenced by omega-3 intake. These neurotransmitters are closely linked to mood regulation, emotions, and even conditions like depression and anxiety, emphasizing the broader impact of omega-3s on overall brain health and well-being (4).


Protecting Against Inflammation

Inflammation is a natural response by the body to protect against injury and infection. However, chronic inflammation can contribute to various health problems, including heart disease, arthritis, and even cancer. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation throughout the body, promoting overall health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases.


Supporting Heart Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, making cardiovascular health a top priority for many. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to support heart health in several ways. They can help lower triglyceride levels, reduce blood pressure, and prevent the formation of blood clots, all of which can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke (1,2).


Maintaining Joint Health

Omega-3 fatty acids may also benefit joint health, particularly in individuals with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. By reducing inflammation and supporting cartilage health, omega-3s can help alleviate joint pain and stiffness, improving overall mobility and quality of life.


Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio

For optimal health, it’s best to maintain a proper balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, with a higher level of omega-3s compared to omega-6s. While omega-6 fatty acids are essential, they are more abundant in the typical Western diet, which can lead to an imbalance with omega-3s. This imbalance has been linked to inflammation and an increased risk of chronic diseases (3).


To achieve a healthier omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, focus on increasing your intake of omega-3-rich foods while reducing consumption of omega-6-rich foods. Here are some common sources of omega-6 fatty acids:

  • Vegetable oils: Commonly used in cooking and salad dressings, oils such as corn, soybean, and sunflower oil are high in omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Processed foods: Many processed and fried foods, such as chips and fast food, are made with oils high in omega-6 fatty acids.


Food Sources of Omega-3s

Incorporating omega-3-rich foods into your diet is an excellent way to reap their many benefits (2). Here are some examples:

  • Salmon: 3 ounces of salmon provide around 200-400% of EPA and DHA needs.

  • Mackerel: 3 ounces of mackerel offers around 140-280% of EPA and DHA needs.

  • Sardines: 3 ounces of sardines contributes about 90-180% of EPA and DHA needs.

  • Ground Flaxseeds: 2 tbsp of ground flaxseeds offer about 125% of ALA needs.

  • Chia Seeds: 2 tbsp of chia seeds provide around 250% of ALA needs.

  • Walnuts: 1 ounce of walnuts contribute about 140% of ALA needs.

  • Cold Pressed Canola Oil: 1 tbsp of canola oil offers about 75% of ALA needs per tablespoon. For a breakdown of the best and worst oils to use check out this other blog post!


Recommended Daily Intake of Omega-3s

Now that we've explored the various benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, you might be wondering how much you should aim to consume each day. The recommended daily intake of omega-3s depends on your age, gender, and overall health status.


For most adults, the recommended daily intake is about 250-500 milligrams (mg) of combined EPA and DHA, two specific types of omega-3s. However, some individuals may require higher doses, especially those with specific health concerns or dietary restrictions (2).


If you find it challenging to obtain enough omega-3s from food sources alone, supplements can be a convenient option to help support your body's needs. Supplementing up to 2000 mg is generally safe, but it's important to speak to a healthcare professional about proper dosing and brands that are suitable for you. They can provide personalized recommendations based on your individual health needs and goals.


Conclusion

Omega-3 fatty acids are more than just brain food—they're essential for overall health and well-being. From reducing inflammation and supporting heart health to maintaining joint function and balancing omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, these essential fats play a critical role in numerous bodily functions. By incorporating omega-3-rich foods into your diet and ensuring a proper balance of fatty acids, you can support optimal health for years to come.


Resources:

  1. American Heart Association News. (2019, August 19). Prescription omega-3 medications work for high triglycerides, advisory says. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/08/19/prescription-omega3-medications-work-for-high-triglycerides-advisory-says

  2. Omega-3 & Brain Health. (2023). Living Plate. Retrieved 2024.

  3. Omega-3 fatty acids: An essential contribution. The Nutrition Source. (2023, September 14). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Office of dietary supplements - omega-3 fatty acids. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/



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