What to know about omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids exist in the dietary supplements and foods. They help to hold well the membranes that cover all the cells in the body.

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acid:

  • alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

ALA is mainly found in plant oils, such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts. DHA and EPA are found mainly in fatty cold-water fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, and sardines.

The body of an individual can transform tiny quantities of ALA into DHA and EPA. The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) estimates that most people in the United States are having enough ALA in their diet. Experts have yet to determine how much a person needs for DHA and EPA.

Possible benefits

Chia seeds are a good source of omega-3 fatty acid.
Chia seeds are a good source of omega-3 fatty acid.

Initial research has associated omega-3 fatty acids with numerous other health benefits, beyond the basic maintenance of cells in a person’s body.

However, much of the research demonstrating these connections is in the early stages, or relies on animal experiments.

In general, it is unclear to what extent omega-3 fatty acids benefit a person beyond the basic maintenance of cells in their body until scientists conduct further research.

The ODS notes that studies have found that people eating fish, which is a key source of omega-3 fatty acids, typically have a lower risk of various long-term diseases compared to those not eating fish.

However, it is not clear whether this is due to the omega-3s contained in the fish, or something else. Moreover, it is not clear whether a person taking omega-3 supplements would have the same benefits if it is because of the omega-3s that fish contains.

May reduce inflammation

Research has shown DHA and EPA to reduce the inflammation phase, which has ties with various cardiovascular diseases, according to an article in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

Though these effects were evident in animal studies, however, clinical trials were less conclusive on humans.

People with rheumatoid arthritis appeared to benefit from taking fish-oil supplements but for people with inflammatory bowel disease or asthma there was no clear benefit.

May reduce the chance of heart attack

There is some evidence that taking omega-3 supplements can reduce a person’s risk of having a heart attack, according to the ODS. However, the ODS notes that other studies did not find a link between omega-3 supplements and a person with cardiovascular problems in general was less likely to have.

A review article in the Journal of Physiology and Biochemistry states that this is a controversial research area which is still under discussion.

Researchers have shown omega-3s to help lower the triglyceride levels in a person, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Triglycerides are fats and are more at risk of cardiovascular disease if a person has an excess of these.

The NCCIH points out, however, that medicines containing omega-3s among other ingredients have US approval. Food and Drug Administration ( FDA) to treat high triglyceride levels although omega-3 supplements do not have the same treatment.

A 2018 study indicated African Americans may benefit from taking omega-3 supplements. Black patients getting the replacement saw a heart disease reduction of 77 per cent compared to those taking the placebo.

May help combat obesity

An article in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry states that human research has yet to demonstrate omega-3 supplements to assist a person in weight loss. However, they may be able to help a person stop putting weight back on, although it’s not clear exactly how they can do that.

May help to improve infant health

The NCCIH highlights a study that shows that mother children who were taking a high-dose fish oil supplement were less likely to develop asthma than mother children who were taking placebo. But the NCCIH also notes that this finding is contradicted by other studies.

Risks

nausea and headaches patient
Side effects of taking omega-3 supplements include nausea and headaches.

According to the NCCIH, the side effects from omega-3 supplements are usually mild and might include:

The ODS states that if a person takes anticoagulants, which are drugs that avoid clotting their blood, then taking high doses of omega-3 supplements can lead to problems with bleeding.

Summary

Omega-3 fatty acids are an important part of a person ‘s nutrition and contribute to the fundamental health of all body cells. The majority of people in their diet get enough omega-3 fatty acids to achieve this.

Fish is an essential source of omega-3 fatty acids. There is clear evidence that eating more fish can help lessen a person’s chances of developing cardiovascular diseases. However, the evidence that taking omega-3 supplements has similar health benefits has yet to be definitive.

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