Everyone knows that omega 3 fatty acids are the king of all fats, but some people aren’t exactly sure why. When it comes down to it, omega 3 fatty acids possess some incredible health benefits that will amaze you.
Specifically, they have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve brain and heart health, and even prevent cancer. Overall, there are over 10 different scientifically proven health benefits behind omega 3 fatty acid intake.
No matter what diet you’re on, you can benefit from eating lots of omega 3’s. This is especially important if you’re on the ketogenic diet as you’re eating a lot of fat anyway and you want to make sure you’re getting the highest quality fatty foods in your diet as possible.
Here are the scientific benefits of eating omega 3’s and how to get more into your diet.
What is Omega-3?
Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids, which means that the human body can’t produce them on its own so they must be obtained from the diet. It’s one of the healthy fats you should eat.
Fatty acids are classified by the number of double bonds they have in their chemical chain. Each fatty acid is made up of a long chain of carbon atoms. Polyunsaturated fatty acids contain numerous double bonds in its chain (1).
Omega 3 fatty acids have one carboxylic acid on its end (known as alpha) and one methyl acid on the other end (known as omega). The omega 3 fat ALA is located on the top of the chain while the omega 6 fatty acid LA is located on the bottom or at the end. The number 3 refers to the location of the first double bond of the fatty acid.
In other words, the first double bond of an omega 3 fatty acid molecule is three carbon atoms away from its omega end. On the other hand, omega 6 fatty acids have a double bond located six carbons away from the omega end.
In the body, omega 3’s are needed for several important functions. They help make up the membrane wall that surrounds each cell in your body. They are also found in significant concentrations in various other parts of the body, such as the brain, eye, and sperm cells.
Omega 3 fatty acids help energize your body and play a role in the functioning of the blood vessels, heart, immune system, lungs, and endocrine system (2).
Types of Omega-3
The three primary types of omega 3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
ALA is commonly found in plant-based sources of omega 3 fatty acids, such as flax seeds, walnuts and chia seeds, while DHA and EPA are found in animal-based sources such as fish and fish oil (3).
ALA is made up of three double bonds and its entire fatty acid chain is 18 carbons long. Before it can be used in the body, ALA must first be converted into EPA or DHA.
Research shows that humans aren’t very good at this conversion process and only a small percentage of ALA is made into EPA (4, 5).
The amount of ALA converted to DHA is even less. If ALA cannot be converted into DHA or EPA, it becomes inactive and is used as energy or stored as fat (6, 7, 8, 9).
In addition to flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, you can find ALA in spinach, kale and hemp seeds.
EPA has five double bonds and is 20 carbons long. Its primary job in the body is to interact with signaling molecules known as eicosanoids to assist in many different roles.
The eicosanoids that are produced from omega 3 fatty acids are especially useful for reducing inflammation, and you can use them to fight off chronic diseases (10, 11).
EPA has also been shown to reduce menopausal symptoms and help alleviate depression (12, 13).
You can find EPA (and DHA) in seafood, fatty fish such as herring, salmon, shrimp, eel and sturgeon, algae, and grass-fed animal products such as meat and dairy.
DHA has six double bonds and is 22 carbs long. Its main job is to help make up the structural component of the skin and retina located in the eye (14).
DHA is also needed for brain function and development in children and adults alike. When you don’t get enough DHA early in life, it may cause problems later on in life, including the development of ADHD, anger, and learning disabilities (15).
Older adults who don’t get enough DHA may experience Alzheimer’s disease and impaired brain function (16).
DHA helps prevent inflammation by breaking up lipid rafts in membranes, which makes it harder for cancer cells to survive (17, 18).
It also has roles in the prevention of heart disease because it can help reduce blood triglyceride levels (19).
Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, you can use DHA to help reduce the symptoms of high blood pressure, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes (20).
As mentioned above, you can find DHA in fatty fish, algae and grass-fed animal products.
What Is Omega 3 Good For?
Research shows that omega 3 fatty acids have many different scientifically backed health benefits, which are listed below.
#1. Protects Against Heart Disease, Insulin Resistance, Obesity, And Even Cancer
Metabolic syndrome refers to a bunch of different disorders that includes high blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity or belly fat, low HDL cholesterol levels and high triglycerides. It has been linked to an increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes (21).
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and insulin resistance. It can also reduce the risk of heart disease in people who have metabolic syndrome (22, 23, 24).
Research shows that eating a diet high in omega 3 fatty acids can help prevent the onset of heart disease by lowering the risks associated with the disease (25, 26).
Additional benefits of eating more omega 3 fatty acids include:
- A reduction of triglyceride levels by as much as 30 percent (27, 28, 29)
- Lower blood pressure levels (30)
- Better HDL (good) cholesterol levels (31)
- Fewer blood clots (32)
- Reduced artery plaque and better overall health of blood vessels (33)
- Reduced overall inflammation (34)
Research shows that you can also use omega 3 fatty acids to help reduce the risk of certain cancers. This is especially important because cancer is on the rise in many Westernized countries.
Specifically, studies show that people who eat higher amounts of omega 3 fatty acids have a 55 percent reduced risk of colon cancer (35, 36).
It has also been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men (37, 38, 39).
#2. Supports Many Different Levels Of Brain Health
Omega 3 fatty acids can be used to help promote various aspects of brain health, such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, mental conditions and disorders, and dementia.
Omega 3 fatty acids appear to have a calming effect on children with hyperactivity disorders. ADHD is a disease characterized by impulsivity, inattention, and hyperactivity.
Research shows that children who have been diagnosed with ADHD have lower levels of omega 3 fatty acids in their blood compared with healthy children (40, 41).
Additionally, taking omega 3 can help improve the symptoms of ADHD by decreasing aggression, restlessness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness (42, 43, 44, 45).
Fish oil appears to be the best treatment for ADHD in children (46).
Anxiety and Depression
Everyone has probably experienced depression or anxiety at some point in their lives, even if they haven’t been diagnosed with a disorder.
Symptoms of depression include feeling sad, lethargic, or experiencing a loss of interest in life while anxiety is often accompanied by worrisome thoughts, restlessness, nervousness, and excessive fear.
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to help. Research shows that people who regularly eat omega 3 fatty acids are less likely to be depressed (47, 48).
In fact, some studies show that people who take omega 3 fatty acid supplements reduce their symptoms of depression and anxiety (49, 50, 51).
Of the three different types of omega 3 fatty acids, EPA is the best at fighting depression. One study found that it’s even just as effective at treating depression as the popular drug Prozac (52).
Mental Health Conditions
Research shows that people with mental disorders tend to have lower levels of omega 3 fatty acids in their body than healthy people (53).
Studies show that supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids helps reduce the frequency of relapses and mood swings in people with bipolar disorders and schizophrenia (54, 55, 56).
It can also help decrease aggressive and violent behavior (57).
Fetal Brain Development
Pregnant mothers may want to increase their intake of omega 3 fatty acids because it helps ensure that their babies will develop healthy brains.
Research shows that infants who are fed formula that has been fortified with DHA have better eyesight than infants whose formula doesn’t include it (58).
Increasing a baby’s DHA intake early in life has also been shown to help the baby become more intelligent, have better communication and social skills later in life, experience fewer behavioral problems, and have a decreased risk of developmental delays, ADHD, autism, and cerebral palsy (59, 60, 61).
Studies show that people who eat a diet high in omega 3 fatty acids have a decreased risk of developing age-related cognitive disorders as well as Alzheimer’s disease (62, 63, 64).
One study found that people who eat lots of fatty fish also have more gray matter in their brain, which is the brain tissues that helps process emotions, memories, and information (65).
#3. Keeps Your Liver Healthy
Keeping your liver healthy and clean is a good way to help prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is a common disorder that is the most common cause of liver cancer among Westernized countries (66).
Studies show that supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids reduces inflammation and fat in the liver among people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (67, 68).
#4. Fights Inflammation and Improves Autoimmunity
Chronic inflammation is the driving force behind almost every disease in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to inhibit the production of inflammatory molecules that build up in the body and cause disease, such as cytokines (69, 70).
Studies show that people who eat more omega 3 fatty acids have lower levels of inflammation in the body (71, 72).
Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakes its own tissues and organs as foreign invaders and attacks them. While the exact cause of autoimmunity is unknown, research shows that inflammation is a driving force. For example, type 1 diabetes occurs when the body attacks the pancreas so that it cannot produce enough insulin needed to stabilize blood sugar levels.
Research shows that omega 3 fatty acids can help reduce autoimmune symptoms, especially early in life. These include type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many autoimmune conditions that develop later in life, too (73, 74, 75).
Specifically, omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to help treat ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (76, 77, 78, 79).
#5. Nourishes Hair and Skin
Because DHA is needed to make up your skin cell membranes, you can use it to improve your skin health by reducing wrinkles and keeping your skin soft and supple.
Additionally, studies show that EPA has been shown to help moisturize skin, manage oi, l production in the skin, prevent skin disorders such as hyperkeratinization, and prevent aging and acne (80, 81).
Omega 3’s also protect your skin against the sun, which can further help prevent wrinkles and premature aging. Studies show that EPA helps inhibit the production of molecules that eat away at your collagen after being exposed to the sun (82).
#6. Improves the Symptoms of Childhood Asthma
Asthma is a chronic lung condition that is characterized by shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. Asthma attacks can be very dangerous for children. They are caused by swelling and inflammation of the airways that lead to the lungs.
Studies show that children and young adults who consume omega 3 fatty acids have a lower risk of developing asthma (83, 84).
#7. Supports Bone and Joint Health
Research shows that omega 3 fatty acids can help improve bone strength and reduce the risk of osteoporosis by increasing the amount of calcium in the bones (85, 86).
Additionally, studies show that taking omega 3 supplements also helps reduce joint pain and increases grip strength amount people with arthritis (87, 88).
#8. Improves Eye Health
Because DHA is found primarily in the brain and eye, it can help improve your eye health. Research shows that DHA is an important structural component of the retina and when you don’t get enough of it, you can suffer from vision problems (89, 90).
Studies show that getting enough omega 3 fatty acids in your diet can help reduce your risk of macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness and permanent eye damage (91, 92).
#9. Alleviates Menstrual Pain
Women can take omega 3 fatty acids to help reduce their menstrual pain in the pelvis, abdomen, low back and thighs.
Research shows that women who eat higher levels of omega 3’s have milder menstrual pain than women who don’t eat enough (93, 94).
One study even found that omega 3’s were better than the over-the-counter pain medication ibuprofen at treating menstrual pain (95).
#10. Helps You Get Better Sleep
Research shows that people who don’t eat enough omega 3 fatty acids are more likely to develop sleep problems, including sleep apnea.
Children are also more likely to suffer from sleeping problems when they are deficient in omega 3’s (96, 97).
One reason for this is because low levels of omega 3 fatty acids are linked to reduced levels of melatonin, which is the hormone that regulates your sleep patterns (98).
Studies show that both adults and children who supplement with omega 3’s have improved sleep length as well as the quality of sleep (99).
Side Effects of Omega-3s
Luckily, omega 3 fatty acids are relatively harmless and come with few (if any) side effects, especially if you get them from diet alone.
According to the FDA, you shouldn’t take more than 3 grams of omega 3 (EPA and DHA combined) per day (100).
It’s pretty hard to eat dangerous amounts on your own. Of course, you may experience side effects if you take too much of it.
If you’re taking a fish oil supplement, always be sure to follow the guidelines on the supplement label and avoid taking more than recommended. Possible side effects of taking too many omega 3’s may include the following:
- Upset stomach
- Fishy smell or fishy taste in your mouth
- Loose stools
If you experience these symptoms, try lowering your intake of omega 3’s and resume with a lower dosage. Some omega 3 supplements may react with certain medications, so be sure to tell your doctor if you start taking omega 3’s if you’re on prescription medication. Also, talk to your doctor before taking amounts larger than recommended on the supplement label.
How To Get More Omega-3 Into Your Diet
Because omega 3 fatty acids are essential, it means that you need to get them from your diet as your body can’t make them on its own. There are two ways you can get omega 3’s into your diet: you can supplement with them, or you can eat more foods that contain omega 3 fatty acids.
Most people find that to get the amount they need, supplementing is best. Be sure to look for an omega 3 supplement that comes from a high-quality, clean fish oil supplement, such as wild-caught salmon or krill.
Related: Omega 3 Fish Oil Supplements: A Buyer’s Guide
You can also get more omega 3’s in your diet by increasing your fish intake, especially salmon, herring, and mackerel. Plant-based sources of omega 3’s include spinach, kale, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
Related: A List of Omega-3 Rich Foods That Are Also Keto-friendly
If you’re on the ketogenic diet, be aware that fish tends to be high in protein as well as fat, so keep this in mind when measuring your macros for the day as you don’t want to eat too much protein. You can eat spinach and kale pretty freely, but walnuts tend to be high in carbs, so eat these in moderation.