You’ve likely already heard about Omega-3s, the oft-touted “fatty acids.” They have a number of supposed positive health effects. Did you know that there were multiple types of Omega-3 fatty acids, though?
It turns out, the difference between the long-chain acids (EPA/DHA) and short chain ones (ALA) could be significant enough that the health benefits are actually reduced when consuming short chain acids meaning long chain are the better way to go.
What is Omega-3s
Omega-3s are fatty acids found in many different kinds of foods. Fish, plants, nuts, and seeds are notable sources.
The prevailing wisdom is that Omega-3s could have beneficial effects for people suffering from a number of conditions, including, as WebMD points out: “cancer, asthma, depression, cardiovascular disease, ADHD, and autoimmune diseases.”
The root cause, they claim, is “inflammation” and the Omega-3s ability to combat this is what gives it the ability to provide such great benefit.
There is a “catch,” so to speak. All of the major benefits researchers have discovered come from eating fish, and even those are modest at best. Whether or not these benefits translate to taking supplements laced with Omega-3s is not as clear.
As the NIH so cogently points out, eating fish as opposed to supplementing may provide a more correct amount of Omega-3s for the diet, and exceeding this natural limit may not be beneficial.
In the case of many diseases, the possibility that people who tend to eat fish also tend to have healthier overall lifestyles must be taken into account.
There is also the fact that some other component of fish may be complementing the benefits of Omega-3s, and taking Omega-3s on their own does not confer the same advantages.
Still, Omega-3s are legal to buy as supplements, and plenty of people swear by them. In particular, the long chain EPA and DHA varieties, which are found in fatty fish like tuna.
You can get Omega-3s from plant sources, but these are considered inferior in their effectiveness. Between EPA and DHA Omega-3 varieties, there is further debate about which are preferable.
EPAs are considered the go-to source for inhibition of cellular inflammation. DHAs, on the other hand, or considered to be better “brain food,” and enhance the neuroprotective effects against Alzheimer’s and similar conditions.
Among those that use fish oil, the consensus is that using a combination of EPAs and DHAs, while eschewing short chain ALAs is the way to go.
Other Names for Omega-3s
Though there aren’t any alternate names for Omega-3s themselves, they do fall under the broad classification of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and can be referred to as such in a general sense.
I should just get this out of the way now: taking Omega-3 supplements won’t result in any immediate benefits or radical mood-altering states of consciousness.
The effectiveness with this is supposed to come through repeated use, where, combined with a healthy diet and exercise, you can boost brain function, prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, mood disorders, arthritis, and the like.
I can’t comment on how it works for ADD, ADHD, or depression because I don’t suffer from those ailments.
Even experts are going back and forth on how beneficial Omega-3s are for health. Studies are always flip-flopping from one position to another, and many believe that supplementation is bunk and that eating fish high in nutrients is the way to do it.
Still, I gave a few supplements a shot. I tried a 600mg daily dose over a few weeks and noticed that I was in a generally good mood and was able to put in some powerful workouts.
I can’t say for certain if this was because of the Omega-3 supplements, though, I can say that they didn’t impede me in any way.
Hopefully, more research on the long-term effects of supplementation will show how effective it truly is (if at all).
Plenty of sources already espouse the great benefits you can gain from Omega-3s.
The aforementioned WebMD has a lengthy piece about the advantages of Omega-3s, though, they emphasize that the benefits come from eating fish and that even then, there are studies that counterbalance many of the positive claims.
Mayo Clinic seems convinced about some of Omega-3s beneficial properties. When it comes to combating heart disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis, they rank the evidence in favor of Omega-3s as “strong.”
Support from news sources is overwhelmingly positive. TIME, Fox News, and Science Daily all have recent stories shining a generous light on the role of Omega-3s in promoting beneficial health outcomes.
Benefits and effects
Most of the benefits that come from Omega-3s are in the form of long-term effects accompanied by lifestyle changes. Still, they are benefits all the same, and some are rather key to a long, healthy life.
Controlling Heart Disease
The NIH points to several pieces of information that “Omega-3 fatty acids should be included in a heart-healthy diet.”
They are careful to point out, though, that it is unknown if supplementation provides the same benefits. Evidence includes studies showing that EPA and DHA-rich diets suggested reduced incidences of heart attack and stroke, and that consuming EPA and DHA might also slightly reduce blood pressure.
There’s also the fact that populations where fish consumption is high also experience lower rates of heart diseases.
One should note, however, that scientific data is inconclusive, and a meta-analysis of studies also shows instances where Omega-3s had no substantial effects.
Claims that Omega-3s have some effect on varicose veins and abnormal heartbeats has not been thoroughly substantiated, though it is possible.
Studies on arthritis have suggested that Omega-3s can help counteract symptoms like joint swelling, pain, and stiffness. The results were moderately consistent and showed a modest but noticeable benefit.
Further study shows it is possible that Omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory property, as shown by lowered levels of inflammation markers in the blood like C-reactive protein.
Promoting Mental Health
In addition to the claim that Omega-3s are “brain food” that can boost cognitive function and protect against degeneration in the form of Alzheimer’s, some evidence supports the claim that Omega-3s have some benefit in treating common mental disorders.
There is preliminary data showing there may be some use in using Omega-3s to treat depression and bipolar disorder. Some very early data shows it may help with psychosis, but this will take much more study to confirm.
The additional health benefits, including increased workout performance and the treatment of allergies, cancer, asthma, diabetes, and kidney disease, among other ailments, all sound great but haven’t been confirmed through research.
Only anecdotal evidence backs these claims at the moment.
How It Works
After ingestions, Omega-3s are processed by the body and used for different functions including muscle activity, blood clotting, digestion, and cell division.
The human body does not manufacture essential fatty acids like ALA. Hence the body must absorb it through outside means. ALA converts to EPA and DHA with a reduced efficiency.
It is well-known that EPA and DHA are linked to fetal development and that it can boost the well-being of soon to be born child.
The presence of EPA and DHA, though, is also thought to provide the health benefits that are sometimes observed from people who take Omega-3s as supplements.
Mainly, the anti-inflammatory properties are thought to do a bulk of the heavy lifting. By reducing the amount of chronic inflammation in the body, problems like arthritis become much less severe.
As for the effect on the brain, the energy provided by the Omega-3s are thought to be the main source of the cognitive boosting and protective effects.
The mechanism by which Omega-3s promote heart health is not fully understood, but the belief is that the reduction of inflammation and triglycerides that comes with increased EPA and DHA levels is the key to the benefits.
Omega-3s don’t go to work right away, but as evidence has pointed out, long term use by adding fish to the diet has long-term effects for increasing wellness and disease protection. Supplementation may or may not work in the same manner.
The current recommendation is 8-ounces of seafood per week. The prime candidates are tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout.
ALA Omega-3s can be obtained from certain plants and seeds, but it is preferable to get the EPAs and DHAs from fish sources.
How does this translate to supplementation According to Mayo Clinic:
“The World Health Organization recommends a daily EPA and DHA intake of 0.3-0.5 grams and a daily ALA intake of 0.8-1.1 grams.”
Omega-3 supplements normally come in capsule form with variable levels of EPA and DHA. Most are in milligram dosages, so you’ll need to to take several pills daily with your meals to achieve the desired results.
It is important not to stray above the recommended limits, as too much Omega-3 can result in increased risk of bleeding.
Even at regular levels, Omega-3s, particularly the fish oil derivatives, can result in a “fishy taste” in the mouth, bad breath, and various gastrointestinal distress.
In regards to the latter, upsets stomach, diarrhea, and nausea are most common. Other normal side-effects run the gamut of what is typical with other forms of supplementation.
Groups that should avoid Omega-3 supplements include children and pregnant women. Some Omega-3 supplementation might be suitable for pregnant women, but consumption of fish in large amounts could introduce the mother to be to toxins like mercury.
Individuals with diseases such as bipolar, liver disease, depression, and HIV should consult their doctor before using Omea-3s, as an overabundance could disrupt their condition and make it more difficult to control.
It’s possible to stack Omega-3s with a wide range of other products. It mostly depends on your end goals.
Other Fatty Acids
Bodybuilders and athletes like to combine EPA and DHA with other fatty acids to increase the gains that they see from working out.
The combination supposedly boosts the immune system while providing greater cardiovascular strength. The usual dosage is 300mg Omega-3s, with a smaller 30mg dose of additional fatty acids.
Vitamins help promote a number of healthy responses in the body. With Omega-3s, one of the most popular options is Vitamin E, which protects against cognitive decline and helps the immune system (much like the other fatty acids).
A typical Vitamin E stack will contain a 300mg-2000mg dose of Omega-3s, with a complementary 5 IU dose of Vitamin E.
Krill oil works much like fish oil but has different connections and a number of additional vitamins. Supplementing with krill oil may provide a better brain boost for those looking to focus on their work.
A krill oil stack will contain anywhere from 300mg-2000mg of Omega-3s with a 1000-2000mg dose of Krill oil.
You can try these other options and receive a complementary or increased level of effectiveness:
1. Eating Fish
It is not yet known if Omega-3 supplements have all the same benefits as getting Omega-3s from your diet. Fish are the premiere source of dietary Omega-3s, so they are the most highly recommended.
Two servings of fish per week are what is most often prescribed. You could also try other dietary sources like nuts, milk or plants.
- (Much) greater proven benefit
- Don’t need to eat as often as you’ll have to supplement
- Tastes better
2. Eating Seeds
Seeds like the flaxseed and rapeseed contain Omega-3s but in lower doses. This is good if you’re on a vegan diet and don’t want to use animal based products.
The drawback is that these are mostly ALAs and the body cannot convert them fully to the more beneficial EPA and DHA.
- Similar effects
- Vegan appropriate
- Reduced benefit
3. Krill Oil
Much like fish oil and normal Omega-3 supplements, but supposedly twice as effective and with more cognitive gains as well.
If you want more of the brain stack effects than the cardiovascular benefits, krill oil might be the preferred option for you. You can get more effect for less expense, along with support for general well-being and cholesterol levels.
- More potent
- Greater cognitive benefit
- Better value
There’s a lot of encouraging news about Omega-3s. At the very least, the potential for combating cardiovascular disease should be explored more fully.
Hopefully, the same benefits researchers are learning about Omega-3s from fish will be equally applicable to Omega-3 supplementation as well.
Further benefits, like cognitive improvement and mood stabilization, while they are not as founded in research, enjoy strong anecdotal support.
Perhaps Omega-3s will emerge as the perfect one-two punch to fine tune both the body and mind.