The two main omega-3 fatty acids are known as DHA (docosahexaenoic) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic). Scientists and researchers know the most about these two omega-3-fatty-acids and they have been studied extensively for their health properties.
Most omega-3 supplements contain DHA and EPA, though there’s also another type of omega-3 fatty acid known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is a plant source that converts to omega-3 in the body.
Official recommendations suggest eating oily fish 2-3 times a week, yet many people find it difficult to achieve this. As a result, those who consume Western diets tend to be deficient in omega-3 - which is why supplementation is a popular choice. People with specific health conditions - in particular heart disease risk - can be advised to take omega-3 supplements by their healthcare professionals.
Omega-3 health benefits
Research is supportive of omega-3 supplements for the following health benefits:
- Reduce your risk of heart disease
- Reduces inflammation
- Supports eye health
- Supports brain health
- Reduce symptoms of ADHD in children
- Help to relieve symptoms of depression
- Support overall health and wellbeing
Other research is ongoing into omega-3 supplements and its role in providing a benefit for the following conditions:
Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include:
How do omega-3 supplements reduce your risk of heart disease?
Omega-3 supplements are best known for their role in supporting heart health and preventing heart disease risk. There is good quality evidence to suggest that omega-3 supplements are beneficial for people who are looking to proactively maintain heart health.
Research has suggested that fish oil supplements can help to decrease triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood). Having a high level of triglycerides increases your risk of heart disease, and may lead to clots in your arteries. It can also be a sign of metabolic syndrome.
A high level of triglycerides is usually caused by conditions and lifestyle factors such as:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Poor diet
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Kidney disease
Medications, including steroids, birth control pills and oestrogen, can also raise triglyceride levels.
Omega-3s are beneficial for your heart in other ways, too. It’s thought they help lower blood pressure in people with high blood pressure, and they’re also associated with healthy blood vessels, a lower lipid count - as well as a reduced risk for plaque buildup.
Omega-3 supplements can help to:
- Support heart health
- Lower blood pressure
- Decrease cholesterol
- Decrease triglycerides
Omega-3 and inflammation
There is growing evidence supporting omega-3’s role in preventing and reducing the inflammatory process. There has been a lot of research conducted into omega-3 supplements and rheumatoid arthritis - an autoimmune diseases causing joint inflammation.
Because omega-3 supplements have anti-inflammatory properties, they’re thought to help reduce reducing arthritic pain. Research has suggested that omega-3s are a safer alternative to NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) when treating nonsurgical neck or back pain.
Diets high in omega-3 have also been linked with reduced joint stiffness, pain and other benefits in people with osteoarthritis.
While omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, a high amount of omega-6 fatty acids are thought to promote inflammation. So it’s important to get a balanced amount of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Western diets tend to include an excess of omega-6 and not enough omega-3.
Omega-3 supplements can help to:
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve arthritic pain
- Reduce joint stiffness and pain in people with osteoarthritis
Omega-3 and brain health
As omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in the brain, it makes sense that your brain functions at its best with an optimal supply.
Omega-3s are also thought to be important for behaviour, which could explain why children with ADHD may have low levels of EPA and DHA. Research has suggested that boys with ADHD and low omega-3 levels had more behavioural and learning problems than those with normal omega-3 levels, for example.
Omega-3 consumption is also associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and poor mental performance. Infants who don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids are at risk of developing vision and nerve problems.
Omega-3s can help to:
- Improve mental performance
- Improve behaviour in boys with ADHD
Who can benefit from taking an omega-3 supplement?
An omega-3 supplement may be beneficial for you if you’re someone who is looking to:
- Reduce your risk of heart disease
- Lower your triglyceride levels
- Improve your mental performance
- Mange your arthritic pain
- Reduce your inflammation
- Promote optimal health and wellbeing
Do omega-3 supplements have any side effects?
There are no reported side effects with omega-3 supplements. There have been some reports of gastrointestinal disturbances and nausea. A fishy aftertaste and fishy breath is sometimes reported which is why many supplements aim to counter this by adding flavourings to reduce aftertaste.
Omega-3 supplement combinations
Omega-3 is commonly combined with vitamin E in supplements to help support ‘antioxidation’ in the body.
Omega-3 medicine interactions
Omega-3 supplements may interact with certain medications you may be taking. Seek advice from your healthcare professional if you’re considering supplementing with omega-3.
Omega-3 contraindications and cautions
Omega-3 supplements can make bleeding more likely and may reduce blood clotting, so if you’re taking certain blood-thinning medications, discuss your reasons for supplementing with your healthcare professional.
You should also avoid omega-3 supplements if you have an allergy to fish or shellfish.
If you’re pregnant or breast-feeding, discuss your specific nutritional requirements with your healthcare professional.
How much omega-3 do you need?
There isn’t a standard recommended dose for omega-3 supplements, as the dose that you require depends on the reason why you’re supplementing.
Peak health bodies like The American Heart Association tend to recommend 1 gram per day of DHA and EPA if you have heart disease. If you’re taking omega-3 supplements to lower your triglyceride levels, you’ll need to take a higher amount, though.
You should always discuss your reasons for taking an omega-3 supplement with your healthcare professional.
Foods highest in omega-3
Omega-3s come from fish and seafood as well as animal and plant sources. The best source of omega-3 from foods are fish high in DHA and EPA, including anchovies, bluefish, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout and tuna. Plant sources of omega-3s (ALA) are also found in canola oil, soybean oil, walnuts and linseeds. Eggs, chicken and beef contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Why take an omega-3 supplement?
An omega-3 supplement could be beneficial for you if:
- You struggle to consume 2-3 servings of oily fish each week
- You have a risk factor for heart disease
- You want to maintain your heart health
- You suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and are looking for a natural pain reliever
- You want to support your brain health as you age
- You want to maintain optimal health and wellbeing
Other names of omega-3
Eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, docosahexaenoic acid, DHA, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-3, omega 3, n-3 fatty acids