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The Critical Health Benefits of Omega-3s and How To Get Enough

The Critical Health Benefits of Omega-3s and How To Get Enough

Introduction

The list of benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is quite lengthy. Omega-3s are this group of essential fats crucial for heart health, brain development, eye health, and immune function, among others (1). The three most common types of omega-3s are: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are primarily found in fish and seafood, though most people are not eating enough to obtain sufficient amounts from diet alone. Deficiency is especially prevalent among vegans and vegetarians since animal-based sources are eliminated from the diet.

This article explores why omega-3s are so critical to our health, where they can be obtained in the diet, and why certain individuals could benefit from supplementation.

 

Omega-3s Play a Role in Many Different Functions

Omega-3 fatty acids offer numerous health benefits ranging across different functions such as:

 

Cardiovascular Health

Omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA, have been shown to: lower triglyceride levels, reduce blood pressure, decrease the risk of heart disease, and improve cholesterol levels (2). A meta-analysis found that supplementation with omega-3s significantly reduced the risk of cardiovascular deaths, sudden cardiac death, and all-cause mortality (3).

 

Brain Health

In terms of brain health, omega-3s support brain development in infants and brain function in adults. They are also critical for cognitive function, where higher levels of omega-3s have been associated with a lower risk of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s (4). In addition, omega-3s have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders (5).

 

Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Moreover, omega-3s play a significant role in reducing inflammation, which is a key factor in many chronic and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. They inhibit the production of inflammatory compounds, which helps manage chronic inflammation (6).

 

Pregnancy and Early Development

It is highly recommended to supplement with omega-3s while pregnant or preparing for pregnancy. In general, they promote fetal brain and eye development, and multiple studies have shown that higher maternal DHA levels are associated with improved cognitive function and attention in children (7). Omega-3s can also help prolong gestation and can lower the risk of preterm birth (8). In addition to benefits for the fetus, some studies suggest that higher omega-3 intake during pregnancy can lower the risk of postpartum depression in the mother (9).

 

Where to Find Omega-3s in the Diet

Animal-Based Sources

The most well-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish and seafood such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. These foods are rich in EPA and DHA, which are bioavailable and directly usable by the body (10). In addition, fish oil supplements, derived from the tissues of oily fish, are also popular due to their high EPA and DHA content.

 

Plant-Based Sources

Plant-based sources of omega-3s include flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. It is important to note that these sources primarily contain ALA, which the body must convert into EPA and DHA to be used by the body. This conversion from ALA to DHA/EPA is known to be very inefficient and can result in omega-3 deficiency if relying solely on plant-based sources for omega-3s (11). For those who prefer supplements, algae oil is a vegan, plant-based source of DHA and EPA without the need for fish-derived products. An algae-based omega-3 supplement can be found in the plant-based essentials here, an all-in-one vegan multivitamin.

 

Omega-3 Deficiency in Plant-Based Eaters

A review published in Nutrients found that vegans and vegetarians had lower levels of DHA and EPA compared to meat-eaters (12). Another study in the British Journal of Nutrition indicated that vegans had 58% lower blood levels of DHA than those who consumed fish (13).

Vegans and vegetarians are at a higher risk of omega-3 deficiency because their diets lack direct sources of EPA and DHA, which are predominantly found in animal products. Instead, they rely on ALA from plant sources, which the body must convert to EPA and DHA. This reliance poses a challenge because the conversion process is inefficient.

Research indicates that less than 10% of ALA is converted to EPA, and less than 5% is converted to DHA (14). This inefficiency is influenced by several factors, including genetics, age, sex, and overall diet. Relying solely on ALA-rich foods may not provide enough DHA and EPA, making supplementation necessary for many individuals on plant-based diets.

Many health professionals recommend that those on plant-based diets consider algae-based omega-3 supplements. These supplements provide a direct source of these essential fats, bypassing the need for conversion to a usable form and ensuring adequate intake.

Shop the plant-based essentials, our vegan multivitamin with algae-based omega-3s.

 

Fish Oil vs. Vegan Omega-3 Supplements: What’s the Difference?

Fish oil supplements can be high in EPA and DHA, making them an effective way to boost omega-3 intake. They are quite convenient as they are widely available and supported by extensive research demonstrating their health benefits. Despite this, many fish oil supplements can be potentially contaminated with environmental toxins such as mercury and PCBs (15). They are also not suitable for those on plant-based diets and can cause a fishy aftertaste.

Vegan omega-3 supplements, on the other hand, are derived from algae, which is the original source of EPA and DHA in the marine food chain. In other words, even fish obtain omega-3s from algae. Algae-based omega-3s are usually free from contaminants commonly found in fish and are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Some challenges with algae-based omega-3s include that they are generally more expensive than fish oil supplements and are less widely available.

Our vegan multivitamin with algae-based, vegan omega-3s can be purchased here.

 

Current Research and Future Trends

Recent research continues to underscore the importance of omega-3s for overall health. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that higher blood levels of omega-3s were associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality (16). Another study in Nutrients highlighted the potential of omega-3s to support mental health, suggesting benefits in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety (17).

Emerging trends include the development of more sustainable and ethically sourced omega-3 supplements. Advances in algae farming and processing technologies are making algae-based supplements more accessible and affordable. Additionally, new research is exploring the potential of genetically modified plants to produce EPA and DHA, which could provide another plant-based source of these essential fats in the future.

 

Recommendations for Omega-3 Intake

Omnivores can maintain adequate omega-3 levels by including fatty fish in their diet at least twice a week. If dietary intake is insufficient, fish oil supplements can be a convenient and effective way to boost omega-3 levels.

Vegetarians and vegans should include ALA-rich foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts in their diets. However, due to the conversion inefficiency, it is advisable to consider algae-based DHA and EPA supplements to ensure adequate intake of these essential fatty acids.

 

Conclusion

Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for maintaining overall health, with benefits ranging from cardiovascular and brain health to inflammation reduction. While animal-based sources provide direct access to EPA and DHA, plant-based diets rely on ALA, which converts inefficiently. This makes supplementation, particularly with algae-based products, crucial for those on vegetarian and vegan diets.

 

References:

  1. Ruxton C. Health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Nurs Stand. 2004 Aug 11-17;18(48):38-42. doi: 10.7748/ns2004.08.18.48.38.c3668. PMID: 15366399.
  2. Schwalfenberg G. Omega-3 fatty acids: their beneficial role in cardiovascular health. Can Fam Physician. 2006 Jun;52(6):734-40. Erratum in: Can Fam Physician. 2006 Aug;52:952. PMID: 16812965; PMCID: PMC1780156.
  3. Marik PE, Varon J. Omega-3 dietary supplements and the risk of cardiovascular events: a systematic review. Clin Cardiol. 2009 Jul;32(7):365-72. doi: 10.1002/clc.20604. PMID: 19609891; PMCID: PMC6653319.
  4. Wei BZ, Li L, Dong CW, Tan CC; Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative; Xu W. The Relationship of Omega-3 Fatty Acids with Dementia and Cognitive Decline: Evidence from Prospective Cohort Studies of Supplementation, Dietary Intake, and Blood Markers. Am J Clin Nutr. 2023 Jun;117(6):1096-1109. doi: 10.1016/j.ajcnut.2023.04.001. Epub 2023 Apr 5. PMID: 37028557; PMCID: PMC10447496.
  5. Wani AL, Bhat SA, Ara A. Omega-3 fatty acids and the treatment of depression: a review of scientific evidence. Integr Med Res. 2015 Sep;4(3):132-141. doi: 10.1016/j.imr.2015.07.003. Epub 2015 Jul 15. PMID: 28664119; PMCID: PMC5481805.
  6. Wierenga KA, Pestka JJ. Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Inflammation - You Are What You Eat! Front Young Minds. 2021;9:601068. doi: 10.3389/frym.2021.601068. Epub 2021 Aug 24. PMID: 35174177; PMCID: PMC8846546.
  7. Makrides, M., Gibson, R. A., McPhee, A. J., Yelland, L., Quinlivan, J., & Ryan, P. (2009). Effect of DHA supplementation during pregnancy on maternal depression and neurodevelopment of young children: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 301(5), 374-384.
  8. Makrides, M., Duley, L., & Olsen, S. F. (2006). Marine oil, and other prostaglandin precursor, supplementation for pregnancy uncomplicated by pre-eclampsia or intrauterine growth restriction. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3).
  9. Hibbeln, J. R., Davis, J. M., Steer, C., Emmett, P., Rogers, I., Williams, C., & Golding, J. (2002). Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. The Lancet, 369(9561), 578-585.
  10. Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012 Jan;3(1):1-7. doi: 10.3945/an.111.000893. Epub 2012 Jan 5. PMID: 22332096; PMCID: PMC3262608.
  11. Saunders AV, Davis BC, Garg ML. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets. Med J Aust. 2013 Aug 19;199(S4):S22-6. doi: 10.5694/mja11.11507. 
  12. Neufingerl N, Eilander A. Nutrient Intake and Status in Adults Consuming Plant-Based Diets Compared to Meat-Eaters: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2021 Dec 23;14(1):29. doi: 10.3390/nu14010029. PMID: 35010904; PMCID: PMC8746448.
  13. Rosell, M. S., Lloyd-Wright, Z., Appleby, P. N., Sanders, T. A. B., Allen, N. E., & Key, T. J. (2005). Long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in plasma in British meat-eating, vegetarian, and vegan men. British Journal of Nutrition, 94(5), 859-865. doi:10.1079/BJN20051544
  14. Linus Pauling Institute. Essential Fatty Acids. Reviewed June 2019, accessed February 2023 from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids#:~:text=Studies%20of%20ALA%20metabolism%20in,converted%20to%20DHA%20(7).
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