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Published on June 15, 2021

13 Health Benefits Of Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Backed By Science)

13 Health Benefits Of Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Backed By Science)
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Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that the body requires for survival but is unable to produce on its own. It is, therefore, extremely important to get enough of these vital nutrients in your diet. There are three different types of Omega-3s. The first two types, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found mainly in fish. The third type, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in plant sources.[1]

Foods that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids include fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and herring. Plant sources of Omega-3s include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil.[2] Fish oil supplements, commonly found in the grocery store, are also great sources of Omega-3 fatty acids for those who don’t like to eat any of these foods.

While most of us have heard of Omega-3 fatty acids before, their specific health benefits are not commonly known. There are so many incredible reasons to include Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. In this article, I’ll review many of the major Omega-3 health benefits you can expect from adding them into your diet.

1. Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

Eating Omega-3 fatty acids in foods such as fish or nuts can lead to a reduced risk of cardiovascular or heart disease. They do this by lowering triglyceride levels in the bloodstream. Triglycerides are a type of fat that occurs in the body and is the main contributor to body fat.[3]

2. Reduced Risk of Blood Clots

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 900,000 people could be affected by blood clots each year in the United States.[4] Having a diet rich in Omega-3s helps to prevent platelets in the blood from clumping together, which reduces the risk of blood clots.[5]

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3. Reduced Blood Pressure

Another Omega-3 health benefit is blood pressure reduction. High blood pressure is common among individuals in the United States, in large part due to dietary patterns. In a study conducted in Europe, consuming fish rich in Omega-3 such as salmon three times per week was shown to decrease diastolic blood pressure.[6]

4. Reduced Cholesterol

Along with high blood pressure, many individuals across the globe struggle with high cholesterol. It’s important to keep your cholesterol levels down as cholesterol is the building block for plaque formation in your arteries. Studies show that increased intakes of Omega-3s can lead to overall reduced cholesterol.[7]

5. Reduced Plaque in Your Arteries

As mentioned above, plaque formation in the arteries is caused by cholesterol in the blood. This plaque can cause a clot, which may lead to a heart attack.[8] Therefore, it’s extremely important to prevent plaque buildup as much as possible. Studies show that consumption of Omega-3s can help reduce plaque formation in your arteries, reducing the risk of a heart attack.[9]

6. Reduced Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death

Two main causes of sudden cardiac death are severe ventricular fibrillation or terminal cardiac arrhythmia. Ventricular fibrillation occurs when, instead of pumping blood to the rest of your body, some of the chambers in your heart just quiver. This causes blood pressure to become too low and prevents blood from being delivered to your other organs.[10]

Moreover, a cardiac arrhythmia occurs when the heart pumps irregularly. This could mean that the heart is pumping either too fast or too slow.[11] Studies show that the risk of sudden cardiac death due to either of these causes decrease with increased levels of Omega-3s.[12]

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7. Improved Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

Another important Omega-3 health benefit is improved rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. According to the CDC, between 2013-2015, about 23% of the US population was diagnosed with some form of arthritis.[13] This disease is chronic and painful. However, there may be some relief found in changing your diet.

A study published in the American Family Physician Journal showed that increased intakes of Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation in the body, leading to less stiffness and reduced tenderness in joints.[14]

8. Reduced Risk of Glaucoma

Glaucoma, which the Mayo Clinic defines as a “group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve,” is one of the leading causes of blindness for older adults.[15] This damage is often caused by increased intraocular pressure (IOP).

Studies showed that increased intakes of Omega-3s reduced intraocular pressure.[16] This indicates that increased intakes of Omega-3 fatty acids may help to prevent glaucoma later in life.

9. Reduced Risk of Cancer

Researchers have recently been studying the benefits of Omega-3 intakes on cancer prevention. Promising data from some studies has shown a reduced risk of colon cancer with increased Omega-3 intakes. Other studies on breast and prostate cancer have more mixed results.[17]

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10. Reduced Risk of Mental Health Disorders

Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important in brain development. Given this information, researchers have been looking into the association between Omega-3 intakes and mental health disorders. In one study, Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation reduced the risk of progression to a psychiatric disorder in individuals who were already at risk of developing one.[18]

Additional studies found that, in those individuals who already had Bipolar Disorder or Tardive Dyskinesia, supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids reduced symptoms. This was also the case for individuals with Schizophrenia when supplemented with EPA specifically.[19]

In 2017, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 7.1% of all adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode.[20] One study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that individuals with depression had lower levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, multiple studies found that intakes of Omega-3 fatty acids may improve symptoms of depression in the short term.[21][22]

11. Improvement in Infant Brain Health

Another significant Omega-3 benefit is that it improves infant brain health. One of the three types of Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA, is known to be important in the development of the nervous system. During pregnancy, the fetus relies on the mother’s supply of DHA for brain development.

Studies show that DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been shown to promote higher intelligence in the early years of a baby’s life. A mother eating enough DHA is, therefore, extremely important for the brain development of the child.[23]

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12. Reduced Risk of Diabetes

According to a study published in 2020, 15 people out of every 1,000 across the world have type I diabetes.[24] As a disease that is both difficult to manage and costly, it’s important for those who are pregnant to evaluate their diet to prevent their newborn from developing this disease. One change expecting mothers may want to make is adding more canola oil or salmon. Studies showed that increased intakes of Omega-3s in the first year of life led to decreased risk of type 1 diabetes.[25]

13. Weight Reduction

According to the CDC, from 2017 to 2018, 42.4% of Americans were categorized as obese. Additionally, 9.2% of the population of the US were categorized as severely obese.[26] Having a body mass index or BMI that falls within the obese or severely obese categories can also lead to other chronic illnesses, such as heart disease or diabetes. Therefore, it’s extremely important to maintain a healthy weight.

Some studies have found that consuming Omega-3 supplements, along with consuming a healthy diet, improved body composition and reduced cardiovascular risk factors of participants.[27] Another study conducted found that, in overweight men, including fish oils as part of a healthy, calorie-restricted diet led to more weight loss over a 4 week period than did the diet alone.[28]

The Bottom Line

Including Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet clearly has many incredible benefits. From weight loss to improved cardiovascular and brain health to reduced risk of type I diabetes and glaucoma, the Omega-3 health benefits are endless.

If you’re thinking about adding some Omega-3 containing foods into your diet, we’re right there with you! But how much of these healthy fats should you be eating? For an individual without any history of heart disease, The American Heart Association recommends having two servings (6-8 oz) of Omega-3 containing fish each week. If you do have heart disease or high triglyceride levels, check with your doctor regarding serving sizes.[29]

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More About Omega-3 Benefits

Featured photo credit: Didssph via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard School of Public Health: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution
[2] Cleveland Clinic: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
[3] WebMD: The Facts on Omega-3 Fatty Acids
[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Data and Statistics on Venous Thromboembolism
[5] Cleveland Clinic: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
[6] PubMed.gov: Moderate consumption of fatty fish reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight and obese European young adults during energy restriction
[7] ResearchGate: Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and growth and development
[8] Harvard Health Publishing: Can we reduce vascular plaque buildup?
[9] PubMed.gov: Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on endothelial function: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
[10] Mayo Clinic: Ventricular fibrillation
[11] Mayo Clinic: Heart arrhythmia
[12] ResearchGate: Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and growth and development
[13] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Arthritis-Related Statistics
[14] American Family Physician: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
[15] Mayo Clinic: Glaucoma
[16] TVST: Oral Omega-3 Supplementation Lowers Intraocular Pressure in Normotensive Adults
[17] PubMed.gov: Dietary fatty acids and colorectal cancer: a case-control study
[18] PubMed.gov: Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial
[19] PubMed.gov: Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial
[20] National Institute of Mental Health: Major Depression
[21] ScienceDirect: Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder: A preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial
[22] ScienceDirect: Short-term supplementation of acute long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may alter depression status and decrease symptomology among young adults with depression: A preliminary randomized and placebo-controlled trial
[23] PubMed.gov: Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age
[24] NCBI: Prevalence and incidence of type 1 diabetes in the world: a systematic review and meta-analysis
[25] PubMed.gov: Use of cod liver oil during the first year of life is associated with lower risk of childhood-onset type 1 diabetes: a large, population-based, case-control study
[26] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Adult Obesity Facts
[27] PubMed.gov: Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors
[28] PubMed.gov: Randomized trial of weight-loss-diets for young adults varying in fish and fish oil content
[29] Cleveland Clinic: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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Samantha Klig, RD

Registered Dietitian

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Published on June 17, 2021

Flaxseed Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better?

Flaxseed Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better?
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Both flaxseed oil and fish oil supplements are sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have so many known benefits, such as having a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, glaucoma, and stroke. This nutrient is essential for the body’s function, but our bodies are unable to produce them on their own. That’s why you should get enough Omega-3 fatty acids from outside sources as well.

In this article, I’ll discuss flaxseed oil vs fish oil and their various benefits and drawbacks to help you quickly make a more informed decision about which one of these is right for you.

Are These Supplements Safe?

According to the National Institutes of Health, side effects experienced by users of fish oil supplements, if any, are usually mild. These side effects may include unpleasant taste, bad breath, headache, and gastrointestinal symptoms. This could include symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, or heartburn.[1]

In terms of possible medication interactions, it’s noted that fish oil supplements may interfere with medicines that many Americans take to prevent blood clotting. If you’re on one of these medications or if you have a seafood allergy, it’s important to speak with your doctor before deciding to start taking Omega-3 supplements.

Regarding the safety of flaxseed oil supplements, according to Mayo Clinic, these supplements are also generally considered to be safe. However, they report that if taken in excess and without sufficient intakes of water, users may experience various gastrointestinal symptoms. These symptoms include bloating, gas, and diarrhea.[2]

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also advise that these supplements should not be taken during pregnancy. This is because some studies suggest that taking flaxseed oil later in pregnancy may increase the risk of premature birth.[3]

Mayo Clinic notes that, like fish oil supplements, flaxseed oil may also have negative interactions with some medications. Specifically, it’s important to consult your doctor before starting these medications if you’re on medications to reduce blood clotting, lower blood pressure, or manage your diabetes as these may interact negatively with a flaxseed oil supplement.[4]

How Much Should You Take?

The tricky thing about these supplements is that there is no standard recommended dosage for any of them. To be safe, it is recommended that you read the label on the supplement you choose to buy and make sure to only take the recommended dosage.

Regardless of whether you’re taking a fish oil or flaxseed oil supplement, you may benefit from speaking with your primary care doctor to determine what dosage is right for you. They may be able to work with you to come up with an appropriate dosage, which may help prevent unwanted side effects.

If you are interested in researching a particular brand of Omega-3 supplement, you can use the Dietary Supplement Label Database from the National Institutes of Health.[5]

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Flaxseed Oil vs. Fish Oil

Before we get into the various benefits of Fish Oil and Flaxseed Oil supplements, it’s important to have some basic knowledge about Omega-3 fatty acids.

There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA come mainly from fish while ALA comes mainly from plant sources such as flaxseed and walnuts.[6] This means that if you choose to take a fish oil supplement, you’ll be getting DHA and EPA, and if you choose a flaxseed oil supplement, you’ll be taking ALA.

Fish Oil Benefits

Fish Oil supplements typically contain oil that has been extracted from fatty fish, such as herring, tuna, or anchovies.[7] The Omega-3 found in fish oil is very important for our heart health. It can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and blood clots.[8] It can also help to reduce high blood pressure, which is common among adults in the United States.[9]

They can also help to reduce high cholesterol and plaque formation in your arteries.[10][11] They can also help reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death, which occurs when the heart is either pumping irregularly or ineffectively, making it unable to pump blood as intended to the rest of your vital organs.[12]

These supplements may have non-cardiac benefits as well. Studies show that they can reduce your risk of glaucoma, certain cancers, and certain mental health disorders.[13][14][15]

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Some studies have also shown that including Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil in your lifestyle may lead to improved weight loss when combined with a healthful diet.[16]

Flaxseed Oil Benefits

As we’ve noted, flaxseed oil contains the third type of Omega-3 fatty acid, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). What the body does with ALA is incredibly interesting. It actually converts it into DHA and EPA, which are the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil.

Something important to note, however, is that the body is not all that efficient at converting ALA to DHA and EPA. This means that the benefits of ALA may not necessarily be the same as those that you would get from just taking DHA and EPA. Studies seem to be overall mixed on whether taking flaxseed oil provides the same cardiac benefits as fish oil does. Specifically, it’s unclear whether or not flaxseed oil supplementation can lower cholesterol or reduce your risk of heart disease.[17]

According to the National Institutes of Health, studies have shown that taking flaxseed may help individuals with type 2 diabetes to manage their blood sugar levels. However, it’s important to note that these findings are for flaxseed, no flaxseed oil. NIH does note that it is unclear whether flaxseed oil would provide such a benefit.[18]

One big health benefit of flaxseed oil is its possible cancer-fighting ability. Studies have shown that taking flaxseed oil can stop the growth of cancer cells as well as cause apoptosis or death of cancer cells in certain types of cancer. One study found that the types of cancer which saw benefits from flaxseed oil intakes included breast cancer, cervical cancer, leukemia, and melanoma.[19]

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Flaxseed Oil Vs Fish Oil: Which Should You Take?

When deciding whether to take flaxseed oil vs fish oil supplements, there are some important things to consider. As I’ve discussed, fish oil supplements are a great source of DHA and EPA. In contrast, flaxseed oil supplements provide ALA, which the body ends up converting back to DHA and EPA, although inefficiently.

Additionally, the benefits of fish oil seem to be more deeply studied and more overall conclusive than the benefits of flaxseed oil. Fish oil supplements have been shown to provide so many benefits, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, glaucoma, certain cancers, and various mental health disorders.

In contrast, the research regarding the benefits of flaxseed oil supplementation is lacking. While these supplements may have anti-cancer properties, the findings on further benefits are overall mixed.

In terms of safety, these two supplements come out relatively even. They’re both regarded as generally safe. However, both have interactions with various medications that need to be taken into consideration before starting supplementation.

If you’re trying to settle on an Omega-3 supplement, I recommend trying a fish oil supplement over a flaxseed oil supplement. Fish oil has so many proven benefits while the research on flaxseed oil is significantly less convincing. Fish oil also has the benefit of providing EPA and DHA directly, so your body does not need to do any extra work to convert it.

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If you choose to take a fish oil supplement, know that you’ll be quickly reducing your risk of various chronic diseases with overall very minimal effort on your part. As always, make sure to check with your doctor before starting any supplementation to prevent negative side effects or drug interactions.

Featured photo credit: New Food Magazine via newfoodmagazine.com

Reference

[1] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Omega-3 Supplements: In-Depth
[2] Mayo Clinic: Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
[3] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil
[4] Mayo Clinic: Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
[5] National Institutes of Health: Dietary Supplement Label Database (DSLD)
[6] Harvard School of Public Health: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution
[7] Healthline: What’s the Difference Between Cod Liver Oil and Fish Oil?
[8] Cleveland Clinic: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
[9] PubMed.gov: Moderate consumption of fatty fish reduces diastolic blood pressure in overweight and obese European young adults during energy restriction
[10] ResearchGate: Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and growth and development
[11] PubMed.gov: Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on endothelial function: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
[12] Mayo Clinic: Ventricular fibrillation
[13] TVST: Oral Omega-3 Supplementation Lowers Intraocular Pressure in Normotensive Adults
[14] PubMed.gov: Dietary fatty acids and colorectal cancer: a case-control study
[15] PubMed.gov: Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for indicated prevention of psychotic disorders: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial
[16] PubMed.gov: Randomized trial of weight-loss-diets for young adults varying in fish and fish oil content
[17] Mount Sinai: Flaxseed oil
[18] NIH: Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil
[19] NCBI: Treatment with flaxseed oil induces apoptosis in cultured malignant cells

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