The Health Benefits of Omega-3s:
A Registered Dietitian’s Perspective
There are thousands of self-proclaimed “foodies” positioning themselves as health and wellness experts, but Jane Dummer RD—President of Jane Dummer Consulting—is the real deal. A registered dietitian and respected thought leader in the food industry, Jane holds a Nutrition Science degree from one of the world’s leading food universities. She consults with medium to large food and beverage companies across North America and has made countless media appearances as both a guest and commentator. The author of “The Need for Seeds: How to Make Seeds an Everyday Food in Your Healthy Diet,” Jane is also a writer for Baker’s Journal and a member of the College of Dietitians of Ontario. She has served on Scientific Advisory Boards for Danone Canada and the Canadian Foundation of Dietetic Research.
The majority of nutrition experts, including myself, agree that eating a balanced diet is the best way to get your share of good food for health. As a health professional, I encourage my clients to focus on a dietary pattern best suited to their needs, taking into account family history, medical conditions, lifestyle, and activity choices. It’s important to make food and nutrition solutions as simple as possible.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is a common omega-3 fatty acid mostly found in plant foods such as flaxseed and walnuts. However, there’s a glitch: the human body can only convert exceedingly small amounts of ALA into EPA and then DHA. This means that consuming ‘enough’ omega-3 in the form of ALA can still lead to a shortfall when it comes to EPA and especially DHA. Therefore, getting EPA and DHA from foods or dietary supplements is the most practical way to increase levels of these omega-3 fatty acids.
Most North American adults (including childbearing-age and pregnant women) consume significantly fewer omega-3s than the daily recommended dose of 500mg of EPA and/ or DHA (1, 2). These lower intakes cause nutrient shortfalls which can lead to health concerns. Because omega-3s are known to have anti-inflammatory properties, and inflammation is often at the root of many modern diseases, making the effort to increase daily intake is essential for peak health.
Hitting the 500mg/day mark can feel next to impossible for many, but especially vegetarians and vegans. Fortunately, an algal source of DHA represents a safe and equally bioavailable source of DHA for those who prefer plant-based options.
Fish oil is currently the primary source of omega-3 DHA and EPA worldwide, but it’s a lesser-known fact that these omega-3s are derived from the microalgae that fish eat and not the fish themselves. Omega-3 EPA and DHA are synthesized by microalgae and are then stored in fish tissue.
Global demand for macroalgal and microalgal foods and dietary supplements is growing. Increasingly, algae is being consumed for its nutrition and health benefits as a non-fish source of omega-3 DHA. Non-fish sources of omega-3 are particularly important for vegans, vegetarians, people with allergies, and pregnant mothers. Growing algae in a closed system as Algarithm does is particularly effective because it eliminates the risk of potential contaminants.
Interventions using algae oil have been extremely successful in terms of the safety and bioavailability of algal DHA (3, 4). Most importantly, we see marked differences in individual health and wellbeing. We’ll turn to these health benefits next.
Many of omega-3’s benefits stem from the fatty acids’ anti-inflammatory action. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to defend against harm. For example, acute or short-term inflammation takes place when you hit your knee during a fall. After the fall, your knee will become red and swollen; this is the body reacting to the injury, dispatching its defenses to expedite the healing process. Chronic or long-term inflammation, on the other hand, is more complex. This type of inflammation contributes to almost every chronic Western illness, including cardiovascular disease (CVD). Here, the body goes into a constant state of alert over an extended period of time, increasing the risk of damage to otherwise healthy cells. There is evidence to suggest that omega-3s reduce inflammation by dampening inflammatory reactions, reducing levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids (5).
We see this process at work when it comes to brain health, mood and mental health, eye health, heart health, and athletic performance and recovery times.
Omega-3 fats are critical in building cell membranes throughout the body and the brain (6, 7). In fact, the human brain is 60 percent fat, with DHA accounting for 40 percent of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
DHA omega-3 is especially crucial for brain growth and functional development in infants (7). Omega-3s during pregnancy are associated with numerous brain benefits for children later in life, including intelligence, better communication and social skills, and decreases risk of ADHD, autism, and cerebral palsy (7, 8).
DHA is also required to maintain normal brain function in adults (6). A decline in brain function is one of the unavoidable consequences of aging. Omega-3 supplementation may improve memory in older adults without evidence of dementia and those with mild cognitive impairments (9, 10). Researchers have also found a link between increased omega-3 intake and both a decrease in age-related mental decline and risk of Alzheimer’s disease (11, 12, 13).
Omega-3s are critical for normal brain function and development. If you want to reach your best possible brain health, be sure to meet the recommended 500 mg/day of omega- 3s.
Inflammation is a key mechanism in the pathophysiology of mood disorders such as major depression, postpartum depression, and bipolar disorder. Omega-3 fatty acids are a promising natural treatment for mood disorders, with different mechanisms of action proposed. For example, omega-3s easily travel through the brain cell membrane, interacting with mood-related molecules and biomarkers (14, 15).
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the world. Fortunately, omega-3s have anti-inflammatory actions that are believed to provide some measure of symptom relief. Increased levels of inflammatory factors such as proinflammatory cytokines and chemokines are found in a subset of depressed patients and may impact symptoms through a direct effect in the brain. We see evidence of this in studies where omega-3 supplementation may lead to improved symptoms in people with depression or anxiety (15, 16, 17, 18, 19).
A similar effect has been observed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a behavioural disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Omega- 3s may improve inattention and task completion, as well as decrease hyperactivity, impulsivity, restlessness, and aggression (20,21,22).
More than ever, considering the dietary factors that lead to optimal mental health should be part of your health care plan. Omega-3 supplementation is a promising natural solution that may have additional beneficial effects for people with mood disorders.
Diet is a major lifestyle factor that can influence eye health. There is evidence to suggest that diets rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids obtained from food sources or supplementation may have ocular benefits (23). The brain and eye are enriched with omega-3 fatty acids which accumulate in these tissues during late fetal and early neonatal life. Consequently, insufficient DHA may lead to vision problems.
There are remarkably high levels of DHA present in the retina, specifically in the disk membranes of the outer segments of photoreceptor cells (23). A number of studies in preterm and term human infants suggest that a dietary supply of omega-3 fatty acids may be essential for optimal visual development (7, 24).
Omega-3s are reported to be associated with improving clinical symptoms of dry eye disease (25). Additionally, omega-3 supplements may improve measures of peripheral nerve function and/or quality of life, meaning this therapy could make significant contributions to the current clinical management of peripheral neuropathy (26). Getting enough DHA omega-3 is also linked to a reduced risk of muscular degeneration, one of the world’s leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness (27).
Based on the research, it makes sense to get enough omega-3s daily to maintain ideal eye health, plus reduce your risk factors for eye concerns such as vision problems and macular degeneration.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a major concern worldwide (28). There are many lifestyle factors—including diet—that contribute to CVD. It is therefore essential to consider the overall dietary patterns and health benefits of a positive lifestyle. A great example of this is the Mediterranean diet, the gold standard in both treatment and prevention of heart disease. Interest in this diet dates back to the 1960s when people around the world began to take notice of the fact that coronary health disease accounted for significantly fewer deaths in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy than in the United States and northern Europe.
With its focus on plant-based foods and healthy fats, researchers associate the Mediterranean diet with reduced risk factors for CVD. There is a strong link between health behaviours and positive mind-body health, including cardiovascular wellbeing. Conversely, the typical Western diet is high in unhealthy fats and low in fruits and vegetables which contribute to the risk factors of CVD. Plus, we have established, most North American adults (including childbearing-age and pregnant women) consume significantly fewer omega-3s than the daily recommended dose of 500 mg of EPA and/ or DHA (1, 2). Therefore, evidence suggests supplementation with DHA and EPA omega-3s is an effective lifestyle strategy for lowering CVD risk factors such as blood pressure and inflammation (29, 30, 31, 32).
Every year, several million people worldwide experience CVD risk factors and events. Even a small reduction in risk factors can translate into hundreds of thousands of avoided heart attacks and CVD-related deaths.
Athletes are no strangers to regular cycles of physiological stress, often accompanied by transient inflammation, oxidative stress, and immune perturbations (5, 33). Exercise activates multiple molecular and biochemical pathways, many of which invoke the immune system. There is research to suggest these pathways are sensitive to nutritional influences. It’s no surprise, then, that there has been rising interest in identifying nutrients and supplements that can improve athletic performance and recovery.
Omega-3s may reduce the production of molecules and substances linked to inflammation such as inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines (5). Of all the available supplements, omega-3s are among the most useful for a wide range of people, from athletes to seniors with sarcopenia and patients with metabolic and inflammatory diseases.
Incorporating omega-3s through nutritional strategies and supplements may result in optimal training gains, enhanced recovery, reduced risk of illness, and high-level competition performance (34). Additionally, because we know omega-3s can affect mood, sleep, and emotional states, they have the potential to act as an ergogenic aid, enhancing training and sport performance at low cost and with minimal risk. Further research is needed to determine optimal supplementation strategies in terms of duration, dose, and EPA:DHA ratio, but what we’ve learned so far is both promising and encouraging (35).
The anti-inflammatory actions of omega-3s may contribute to improved athletic performance and recovery. As individuals set their athletic goals, the inclusion of omega- 3s daily, as part of their fitness plan, seems like a valuable piece of the overall peak performance solution.
Omega-3 is a powerful nutrient when it comes to supporting your overall health and wellbeing. There is a growing body of research showcasing the many, varied benefits of omega-3s. Because omega-3 fatty acids help maintain several crucial bodily functions (our brain, eyes, and heart, to name a few), it’s essential we make the effort to intake at least 500mg of EPA and DHA every day through foods and/or dietary supplements. Doing this helps the body thrive across all stages of life.