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17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to many health benefits. In particular, they may help promote brain and heart health, reduce inflammation, and protect against several chronic conditions.

Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important.

They have many powerful health benefits for your body and brain.

In fact, few nutrients have been studied as thoroughly as omega-3 fatty acids.

Here are 17 health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids that are supported by science.

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the world (1).

Symptoms often include sadness, lethargy, and a general loss of interest in life (2).

Anxiety, another common disorder, is characterized by feelings of fear, panic, and restlessness (3).

Interestingly, studies indicate that people who consume omega-3s regularly are less likely to have depression (4, 5).

What’s more, studies in people with depression and anxiety suggest that omega-3 supplements may improve symptoms (6, 7).

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Of the three, EPA appears to be the most beneficial for depression (8).

summary

Omega-3 supplements may help treat and prevent depression and anxiety. EPA seems to be the most effective at reducing symptoms of depression.

DHA, a type of omega-3, is a major structural component of the retina of your eye (9).

When you don’t get enough DHA, vision problems may arise (10).

Interestingly, getting enough omega-3 is also linked to a reduced risk of macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness around the world (11).

summary

An omega-3 fatty acid called DHA is a major structural component of your eyes’ retinas. It may help prevent macular degeneration, which can cause vision impairment and blindness.

Omega-3s are crucial for brain growth and development in infants.

Getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy is associated with numerous benefits for your child, including (12, 13):

  • improved cognitive development
  • better communication and social skills
  • fewer behavioral problems
  • decreased risk of developmental delay

However, keep in mind that more research is needed, as some studies have turned up mixed results (14, 15).

summary

Getting enough omega-3s during pregnancy and early life is crucial for your child’s development. Omega-3 supplementation is linked to improved cognitive development and a lower risk of developmental delay.

Heart attacks and strokes are the world’s leading causes of death (16).

Decades ago, researchers observed that fish-eating communities had very low rates of these diseases. This was later linked to omega-3 consumption (17, 18).

Since then, omega-3 fatty acids have been tied to numerous benefits for heart health (19).

These benefits include:

  • Triglycerides: Omega-3s can significantly reduce levels of triglycerides (20).
  • HDL cholesterol: Some older studies suggest that omega-3s could raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels (21, 22, 23).
  • Blood clots: Omega-3s can keep blood platelets from clumping together. This helps prevent the formation of harmful blood clots, according to some older research (24, 25).
  • Inflammation: Omega-3s reduce the production of some substances released during your body’s inflammatory response (26, 27, 28).

For some people, omega-3s can also lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. However, evidence is mixed, as some studies find increases in LDL cholesterol levels (29, 30).

Despite these beneficial effects on heart disease risk factors, there is no convincing evidence that omega-3 supplements can prevent heart attacks or strokes and many studies find no benefit (31).

summary

Omega-3s may help improve numerous heart disease risk factors. However, omega-3 supplements do not seem to reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioral disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity (32).

Some research has found that children with ADHD have lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids than those without ADHD (33, 34).

What’s more, numerous older studies suggest that omega-3 supplements could help reduce the symptoms of ADHD.

In particular, omega-3s may help improve inattention and task completion. They might also decrease hyperactivity, impulsiveness, restlessness, and aggression (35, 36, 37, 38).

However, more research is needed, as other studies have found no benefit of omega-3 supplementation on ADHD symptoms (39).

Summary

Omega-3 supplements may help reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children. However, more research is needed, as studies have turned up mixed results.

Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions.

It includes central obesity — also known as belly fat — as well as high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high blood sugar, and low HDL (good) cholesterol levels (40).

It is a major public health concern because it increases your risk of many other illnesses, including heart disease and diabetes (40).

Some research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids could help improve blood sugar levels, inflammation, and heart disease risk factors in people with metabolic syndrome (41, 42, 43).

summary

Omega-3s may have numerous benefits for people with metabolic syndrome. They could improve blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and improve several heart disease risk factors.

Inflammation is a natural response to infections and damage in your body. Therefore, it is vital for your health (44).

However, inflammation sometimes persists for a long time, even without an infection or injury. This is called chronic — or long-term — inflammation (44).

Long-term inflammation can contribute to almost every chronic illness, including heart disease and cancer (45).

Notably, omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the production of molecules and substances linked to inflammation, such as inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines (46, 47).

In fact, studies have consistently observed a connection between omega-3 supplementation and reduced inflammation (27, 28, 48).

summary

Omega-3s may reduce chronic inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease, cancer, and various other diseases.

In autoimmune diseases, your immune system mistakes healthy cells for foreign cells and starts attacking them (49).

Type 1 diabetes is one prime example, in which your immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas (50).

According to one study, increased intake of several types of fatty acids during infancy, including DHA, was linked to a lower risk of type 1 diabetes-associated autoimmunity later in life (51).

Omega-3s may also help treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis, but more research is needed (52, 53, 54, 55).

summary

Omega-3 fatty acids may help treat and prevent several autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis.

Low omega-3 levels have been reported in people with psychiatric disorders (56).

Interestingly, supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to decrease violent behavior (57, 58).

Some studies also suggest that omega-3 supplements can improve symptoms in people with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (59, 60, 61).

However, more research is needed, as other studies have turned up conflicting results (62, 63).

summary

People with mental disorders often have low blood levels of omega-3 fats. Improving omega-3 status seems to improve symptoms, but more studies are needed.

Many people experience a decline in brain function as they get older.

Several studies link higher omega-3 intake to decreased age-related mental decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease (64, 65).

One review of controlled studies suggests that omega-3 supplements may be beneficial at disease onset, when the symptoms of AD are very mild (66).

Keep in mind that more research is needed on omega-3s and brain health.

summary

Omega-3 fats may help prevent age-related mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is needed.

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and omega-3 fatty acids have long been claimed to reduce the risk of certain cancers (67).

In fact, some older studies show that people who consume the most omega-3s have up to a 55% lower risk of colon cancer (68, 69).

Additionally, omega-3 consumption is linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer and breast cancer in some older studies. However, not all studies have reported the same results (70, 71, 72).

summary

Omega-3 intake may decrease the risk of some types of cancer, including colon, prostate, and breast cancer. However, more research is needed.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease with symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing (73).

Severe asthma attacks can be very dangerous. They are caused by inflammation and swelling in the airways of your lungs (73).

What’s more, asthma rates in the United States and around the world have been rising over the past few decades (74).

Interestingly, several studies associate omega-3 consumption with a lower risk of asthma in children (75, 76, 77).

summary

Omega-3 intake has been associated with a lower risk of asthma in children.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a common condition characterized by the accumulation of fat in the liver (78).

It is believed to affect 25% of the global population and is considered the leading cause of several other liver conditions, including cirrhosis, or liver scarring (79).

However, research suggests that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce liver fat and inflammation in people with NAFLD (80).

summary

Omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce liver fat in people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Osteoporosis and arthritis are two common disorders that affect your skeletal system.

Research suggests that omega-3s may help improve bone strength by boosting the amount of calcium in your bones (81).

Theoretically, this should lead to a reduced risk of osteoporosis. However, more research is needed, as studies have turned up mixed results on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on bone health (82, 83).

Omega-3s may also help treat arthritis. According to one review of six studies, omega-3 supplements were able to significantly reduce pain in people with osteoarthritis of the synovial joints (84).

Still, more large, high quality studies should be conducted to understand how omega-3 fatty acids may impact bone and joint health.

summary

Omega-3s may improve bone strength and joint health, but more research is needed.

Menstrual pain occurs in your lower abdomen and pelvis and often radiates to your lower back and thighs (85).

It can significantly affect your quality of life.

However, studies repeatedly suggest that people who consume the most omega-3s may have milder menstrual pain (86, 87).

One 2011 study even determined that an omega-3 supplement was more effective than ibuprofen in treating severe pain during menstruation (88).

summary

Omega-3 fatty acids might help reduce menstrual pain. Plus, one study found that an omega-3 supplement was even be more effective than ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug.

Good sleep is one of the foundations of optimal health.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to many diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and depression (89, 90, 91).

In some older studies, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids were also associated with sleep problems in children and obstructive sleep apnea in adults (92, 93).

Additionally, low levels of DHA are linked to lower levels of the hormone melatonin in some animal studies, which helps you fall asleep. However, further research in humans is needed (94, 95, 96).

Studies in both children and adults also suggest that supplementing with omega-3 may improve certain aspects of sleep and could protect against sleep disturbances (92, 97, 98).

summary

Omega-3 fatty acids — especially DHA — may improve the length and quality of your sleep.

DHA is a structural component of your skin. It is responsible for the health of cell membranes, which make up a large part of your skin.

EPA also benefits your skin in several ways, including (99, 100, 101):

  • promoting skin hydration
  • preventing hyperkeratinization of hair follicles, which appears as the little red bumps often seen on upper arms
  • protecting against premature aging of your skin
  • reducing the risk of acne

Animal studies suggest that omega-3s may also help protect your skin against sun damage (102).

However, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you should use omega-3 supplements in place of sunscreen.

summary

Omega-3s can help keep your skin healthy, preventing premature aging and safeguarding against sun damage.

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for optimal health.

Getting them from whole foods — such as fatty fish two times per week — is the best way to ensure robust omega-3 intake.

However, if you don’t eat a lot of fatty fish, then you may want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement. For people deficient in omega-3, this is an affordable and effective way to improve health.


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