Fat is back – and we’re not getting enough of it! A typical Western diet tends to provide too little omega-3, and if the balance is off, there’s a price to pay.
What is omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of polyunsaturated fats. Unlike other fats, the body can’t produce these on its own, so we need to get them from dietary sources or supplements.
There are at least eight different kinds of these fatty acids, but the most common are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, algae and fish oil. ALA is found in high-fat plant foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, and can be partially converted to EPA and DHA by the body.
Why do I need omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in every cell of the human body. They’re crucial to physical and mental health: scientists have blamed everything from poor sleep to mood disorders, macular degeneration and developmental abnormalities on omega-3 deficiencies.
DHA makes up 60% of the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in the retina and 40% of those in the brain. EPA plays a key role in the body’s inflammatory response system.
Higher intakes of omega-3 are associated with better heart, gut, joint and immune health, reduced depression and anxiety, and a decreased risk of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and osteoporosis.
Am I getting enough?
The average adult gets about 90mg of DHA and EPA from food every day – less than half the minimum amount recommended by the British Dietetic Association and World Health Organisation.
Signs that you’re not getting enough include fatigue, memory problems, mood swings, poor circulation and dry skin.
The NHS recommends eating one portion of oily fish per week. Not a fan of fish or a vegetarian? Try a fish oil or algae-based omega-3 supplement. The British Dietetic Association recommends 200-450mg combined DHA and EPA per day, but pregnant women may benefit from additional DHA; talk to your doctor before you start taking them.
Get a head start
Research suggests that pre-natal omega-3 supplements may help protect against developmental delay, ADHD, autism and cerebral palsy. It has also been associated with better performance in intelligence tests, and improved social and communication skills in early childhood.
Handpicked content: How does omega-3 benefit the brain?
Primary school a distant memory? Take heart: upping your omega-3 consumption could well boost your powers of recall. Supplements can lower triglyceride levels by up to a third while decreasing blood pressure and increasing levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.
They also help protect against atherosclerosis – the buildup of fatty material inside your arteries – by preventing the development of blood clots and plaques which can clog arteries.
Omega-3 supplements may be beneficial for people with pre-existing heart conditions. Research shows that, in people who have already had a heart attack, the supplements may help reduce the risk of another heart attack, stroke or abnormal heart rhythm.
Evidence suggests that essential fatty acids play a key role in the functioning of the immune system. Omega-3 has been found to improve symptoms of auto-immune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease.
Research suggests that essential fatty acids work by activating the immune system and the production of antibodies. In a 12-week study of adult women, fish oil supplements enhanced the immune cells that destroy pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, and increased the area of a cell involved in repair.
Inflammation is a natural response to injury or infection. However, chronic inflammation – often the result of stress, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle – is associated with ailments ranging from depression and anxiety to heart disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids fight inflammation by inhibiting the body’s production of cyclooxygenase, cytokines and inflammatory eicosanoids. Eicosanoids made from EPA tend to be anti-inflammatory. However, those produced by omega-6 fatty acids tend to be inflammatory, so it’s crucial your omega-3 intake is high enough to offset this effect.
Researchers have likened the omega-3 effect to that of taking an aspirin – by inhibiting the enzyme that produces the hormones which spark inflammation, it helps to reduce pain and inflammation. In fact, in one study, 59% of research participants opted to ditch their NSAID painkillers after 75 days on omega-3.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please consult a doctor or healthcare professional before trying any remedies.
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