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Benefits of Omega-3 Supplements

June 27, 2017 (Updated: December 13, 2017)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

What are Omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are one of several types of essential fatty acids (EFAs). They’re called EFAs because they’re essential to human health, but the body can’t make them, so they must come from dietary sources. The Standard American Diet is too low in these fats which are essential for good health. Let me explain why you need more and how you can get them naturally.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of omega-3 became apparent back in the 1970s, when a Danish researcher named Jorn Dyerberg discovered that Greenland natives had very low levels of heart disease, even though they ate a diet that consisted mainly of fat. Dyerberg’s explanation was that the omega-3 content of the fish and marine animals the Greenlanders consumed protected their hearts. Since Dyerberg’s discovery occurred in the midst of the “all fat is bad” madness, the message did not receive the attention it deserved until more recently.

Since that discovery, omega-3 has been widely studied, especially two key elements—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are abundant in fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, halibut, trout, tuna, and sea bass.

Omega-3 can provide protection against a wide range of conditions involving our cardiovascular, emotional, immune and neurological systems, including:

  1. A powerful anti-inflammatory natural remedy: Research shows that a diet high in the omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can help reduce inflammation and, in turn, reduce the risk and symptoms of inflammatory diseases like arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few.
  2. Reduced risk of heart disease: Omega-3 can also help lower risk of heart disease. Because, beyond their anti-inflammatory properties, studies show that EPA and DHA can help boost healthy HDL cholesterol while lowering dangerous triglycerides. They can also help lower blood pressure.
  3. A boost in brain power and function: There’s a reason many baby formulas are now fortified with DHA. It plays a tremendous role in brain and cognitive development. But once we’re adults, EPA and DHA continue to add value. Some studies show that omega-3 can help treat mild depression and bipolar mood swings. DHA has been show to help slow the onset of cognitive decline, dementia, even Alzheimer’s.
  4. Natural support for diabetics: People with diabetes often have trouble keeping triglycerides under control. They also tend to have low HDL levels. But omega-3 can help with both. They can also help lower apoproteins, which are important biomarkers of diabetes.
  5. A natural medicine with no side-effects: Unlike the medications people take to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, combat arthritis pain and inflammation, treat depression, and diabetes, omega-3 natural remedies have no negative side-effects. Only side benefits. In fact the only word of caution is for those taking 3,000 milligrams or more per day—above this threshold can increase risk of bleeding. So, if you’re exceeding this threshold, it’s best to work with a physician.

But let’s not stop there. Omega-3 has also been shown to be highly effective when fighting depression, stopping brain shrinkage, protecting telomeres, lowering inflammation levels, and protecting specifically men’s health.

Here are some of the many omega-3 health benefits for men:

  • For men who have prostate cancer, omega-3 has been shown to reduce the likelihood of death by 63%.
  • Studies suggest that an increase in omega-3 intake would probably reduce the incidence of sudden death, not just among men but in the population at large.
  • Small amounts of omega-3 has resulted in a 45% reduction in sudden deaths and a 35% reduction in cardiac deaths.

The list of omega-3 benefits goes on and on. Emerging research indicates that omega-3 may be effective in repairing, reducing, or eliminating autism, asthma, bipolar disorder, ADHD, diabetes, hepatitis, hypertension, stroke, macular degeneration, pneumonia…and more. Truly a “wonder oil.”

Omega-3 is Essential for Healthy Aging

Telomeres are the tiny “protective caps” on the tips of your chromosomes. Their job is to prevent your cells from making faulty copies of themselves. Each time a cell duplicates itself, the telomere attached to it oversees the process to prevent mistakes. Just one tiny error in cell duplication can accelerate aging and lead to diseases down the road. That’s why it’s so important to keep telomeres strong and healthy.

Omega-3s are essential for healthy aging because these fats are used to manufacture strong, flexible cell membranes. And that’s not all. A new study from Ohio State University has found that omega-3 supplements protect your all-important telomeres from everyday wear and tear.

Another clinical trial found that individuals taking omega-3 supplements actually lost the least telomere length, profoundly slowing the aging process at the cellular level! To my knowledge, this is a true milestone, and something no prescription drug can accomplish.

But here’s the best news—I’ve found an excellent way to increase omega-3’s effectiveness and boost your overall health. Recently, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., the researcher at University of California San Francisco who shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres, published a new study.

Her research showed that cutting back on omega-6 and increasing intake of omega-3 actually lengthened telomeres in a group of sedentary, overweight, middle age and older individuals. In addition, markers for three serious age-related issues—inflammation, damaging free radicals, and aging immune cells—all improved in the group with fewer omega-6 and more omega-3.

Omega-6 can be found mostly in cheap vegetable oils used in processed and prepared foods. Think soybean, safflower, corn, sunflower, and cottonseed oils. Omega-6 aren’t bad. But when your diet is low in balancing omega-3, the omega-6 end up stimulating inflammation—exactly the opposite of what’s best for your health. Since omega-6 are so common in the Standard American Diet (SAD), they overwhelm omega-3, leaving very little opportunity for these good fats to connect with your cells, where they can benefit telomeres.

That’s why I always encourage my patients—and readers—to cut back on processed, prepared, and fast foods. One delicious way to do that is with the Mediterranean diet. You’ll not only eliminate unhealthy refined grains, sugar, and salt from your diet, but also give the omega-3 plenty of opportunity to work their magic.

Omega-3—Anti Inflammatory Natural Remedies

Research shows that a diet high in the omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can help reduce inflammation and, in turn, reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases like arthritis, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. Omega-3 has also been shown to help balance mood, as well as boost cognitive function and overall brain health.

A diet high in omega-3 can also help lower risk of heart disease. Because, beyond their anti-inflammatory properties, studies show that EPA and DHA can help boost healthy HDL cholesterol while lowering dangerous triglycerides. They can also help lower blood pressure.

Research shows that DHA and EPA have different roles in the body, so if you are supplement shopping, I recommend looking for a product containing at least twice as much DHA as EPA for best results.

Research shows that the greatest health benefits from omega-3 come from DHA, which has strong ties to a healthy brain, vision, and nervous system functions, as well as children’s growth and development. (Not surprisingly, DHA is abundant in mother’s milk.) When omega-3 is credited with improving conditions like attention deficit disorder (ADD), Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and depression, that’s the DHA at work.

DHA also appears to benefit individuals with insulin resistance, according to one recent study. After just three months of DHA supplements (1.8 grams every morning), 70 percent of the study participants, all of whom began the study with insulin resistance, had significantly improved insulin function.

Meanwhile, EPA is best for reducing inflammation and increasing circulation, so it supports heart and joint health. EPA also minimizes symptoms of such common disorders as arthritis, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Of course, there is some overlap in EPA’s and DHA’s duties. Earlier clinical trials, for example, have shown that DHA is effective for lowering triglycerides, as well as elevating good cholesterol, minimizing arrhythmia, and reducing blood pressure. The bottom line: Both EPA and DHA are necessary for good health, but I’ve seen the best results from formulas favoring DHA.

Natural Remedy for Depression

Many studies show both DHA and EPA to be important for reducing depression and a host of other inflammatory conditions. Fortunately, they’re plentiful in many foods, especially cold water fish, and they’re also available in supplement form.

A recent meta-analysis reviewed 13 studies of 1,233 participants with major depressive symptoms. They were looking for evidence of the effects of omega-3 supplements on those symptoms. They also hoped to determine the optimal doses and ratios of DHA to EPA that would be most effective against symptoms. The depressed patients who supplemented with omega-3 experienced a significant reduction in symptoms.

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Another study recently confirmed that omega-3 helps managing depression. An analysis of 35 trials looked at 6,665 participants receiving omega-3 and 4,373 receiving placebo. The patients with diagnosed depression who took omega-3 formulations experienced greater clinical benefit compared to placebo.

Not only this, but omega-3 also helps make prescription antidepressants more effective—a win-win finding for patients and the antidepressants. I’m not a fan of such medications, with their often dreadful side effects and limited efficacy. But if patients benefit, I’m OK with it, at least until natural interventions outperform Big Pharma’s offerings.

Omega-3 Protects Against Brain Damage

You’ve probably heard the standard advice for keeping your brain healthy and, especially, protecting it against the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Recommendations range from working crossword puzzles to socializing, exercising, and learning a second language.

Those are solid ideas, backed by research. But are they enough? Remember, there is very little available in conventional medicine for treating brain shrinkage and related diseases, even though researchers all over the world are searching for remedies.

Considering how devastating Alzheimer’s disease is, I recommend my patients do everything they can to keep their brains fully functional. That’s why I was thrilled to learn about new studies showing that one simple nutrient can help prevent brain shrinkage while providing huge benefits for the rest of your body.

The first study, published in the respected journal Neurology, found that older people who had high blood levels ofomega-3 essential fatty acids scored better on mental function tests and had less brain shrinkage than people with low levels of those nutrients.

Research has shown that Alzheimer’s patients have lower than normal brain concentrations of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a key omega-3.

Fish and fish oil supplements are one source of omega-3. But I stopped recommending my patients eat fish a while ago. Instead, I prefer they get their EFAs from marine oil, like squid, that’s sustainable, distilled to remove toxins and heavy metals, and contains my preferred ratio of DHA to EPA (2:1).

Considering that DHA makes up about 40 percent of your brain, this makes sense. The EFAs, and DHA in particular, are building blocks for cell membranes, so you’ll want to provide your brain with plenty of the raw materials it needs to function.

And yes, it’s worth it, as a second recent study showed. When Alzheimer’s patients were given omega-3 supplements for six months, they had improved markers for brain-damaging inflammation and for the disease itself.

That’s a remarkable achievement, something no drug I’m aware of can match.

Best Sources of Omega-3

There’s still ongoing research into the optimal composition and source of omega-3 supplements. As your own best caretaker, these are issues you should try to learn about.  Keep in mind that if you embark on an omega-3 supplement regimen, all supplements are not created equal.  You’ll find a range of offerings, from a range of suppliers, offering a range of formulations, for a range of prices.

Where can I get Omega-3?

You can quickly rule a supplement in or out if you go by two key criteria:

  1. Recent research tells us that an optimal formulation of DHA and EPA, the two most common omega-3 essential fatty acids, is about 2 parts DHA to 1 part EPA. Most omega-3 supplements are not formulated this way because EPA is a less expensive material. In fact, most have a ratio that is the opposite of the optimum ratio, with more EPA than DHA.
  1. I wish it were possible to simply recommend eating a few portions of fish each week to make certain your omega-3 needs are being met. Unfortunately, there are three problems with that approach. One, today’s fish supply is so tainted by toxins, heavy metals, and pollution that consuming fish even once a week could actually be harmful to your health. Two, overfishing has created supply problems that could affect availability. And three, the best heart- and brain-protecting results from omega-3 are obtained from a higher ratio of DHA to EPA (omega-3’s two essential elements) than you would get by eating fish alone. All things considered, supplements are clearly preferable to consuming fish these days.

Given omega-3’s incredibly long list of health benefits, I firmly believe, given the potential threats to health that men in particular face, it’s not a question of whether you should be taking an omega-3 supplement.  It’s just a question of which.

Now the Real Test—Following Through

Unfortunately, even those who know that omega-3 is vital to their health are not getting enough of it. A new study compared what people know about the importance of omega-3 nutrients and benefits with what they do with that information. Of the 200 people in the study, only 2% of them actually enough omega-3 levels in their blood.

A big reason why stems for the main problem with the fish diet in general – excessive contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency gives a “poor” rating to 55% of the rivers and streams in this country. What that means is that they are so contaminated by mercury, unhealthy bacteria, and other toxins that they couldn’t support healthy populations of aquatic life. What’s in the water is in the fish. When we eat that fish, it’s in us.

As a result, fish oil supplements have become popular. But you’d have to take between 5 to 8 capsules a day to maintain ideal omega-3 levels. That amount of fish oil can cause “fish burps” and a fishy aftertaste. If you are in that lot, look for fish oils that are lemon and orange flavor. Or if you want to forego fish oil entirely, other alternatives re krill oil and calamarine (squid) oil.

Another possible reason for widespread omega-3 deficiency is that—short of getting expensive blood work done—it’s hard to know exactly what your omega-3 levels are to begin with. These omega-3 testing kits can show you how much omega-3 is actually in your blood so you can know exactly how much omega-3 your body needs.

How much do I need?

When taken at the recommended dosages, and up to 3,000 milligrams daily, omega-3 fatty acids are almost completely devoid of negative side-effects. Anything more than 3,000 milligrams a day can increase risk of bleeding, so it’s best to stay below that threshold unless you’re working closely with your physician.

If you’re considering giving omega a try, make sure your prescribing doctor is up to date on omega-3’s ability to complement your current medications. Then, slowly add omega-3. If your doctor agrees, you may even be able to begin “weaning” off the medication. You must go slowly. Changing intake of any prescription drug is a delicate matter—you’re asking every cell in your body to modify its behavior.

To get the most from omega-3, experts recommend between 1,250 and 1,500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day. But it’s important to note, that 1,500 milligrams of an omega-3-rich oil is NOT the same as 1,500 milligrams of EPA and DHA. So be sure to read the labels on your omega-3 supplement.

References

Sowmyanarayanan V. Thuppal, et al. “Discrepancy between Knowledge and Perceptions of Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake Compared with the Omega-3 Index.” Nutrients. Published August 24, 2017.

 

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