We’re digging into omega 3 supplements today! We’ll address questions about their benefits, uses, safety, and more. So, if you’ve been curious to know about whether you should be taking an omega 3 supplement, read on!
What are Omega 3 Fatty Acids?
First, let’s explain Omega 3 fatty acids. These are long-chain fatty acids that have a double bond at the third carbon from the end of the chain. (You don’t need to remember that part.) They contribute to cell membranes in the body. They also serve as precursors to eicosanoids, which are signaling molecules involved in reducing inflammation.
There are three main omega 3 fatty acids including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in certain plant oils or seeds including flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, soybean, and canola oil. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood.
ALA is an essential fatty acid – meaning, your body cannot make it – so you must get it from food. Your body can convert very small amounts of ALA into EPA and then into DHA. Hence, consuming EPA and DHA from foods (or supplements) is the only way to get enough of these omega 3s. DHA plays a role in the eye, brain, and sperm cells.
Omega 3s in general provide energy and are involved in many functions of the heart, blood vessels, the lungs, immune system, and endocrine system. Let’s dive deeper into where they can be found and their benefits!
Where are Omega 3 Fatty Acids Found?
Experts have not established recommended dietary amounts of EPA and DHA. They have established recommendations for ALA though. Adults men should aim for 1.6 g/day, adult women should aim for 1.1 g/day. Needs are higher during pregnancy. In general, it is recommended that you should aim for the best food sources of Omega 3s:
|Food||ALA (g)||DHA (g)||EPA (g)|
|Flaxseed oil, 1 Tbsp||7.26|
|Chia seeds, 1 oz||5.06|
|Walnuts, 1 oz||2.57|
|Flaxseed, whole, 1 T||2.35|
|Salmon, 3 oz||1.24||0.59|
|Herring, 3 oz||0.94||0.77|
|Canola oil, 1 T.||1.28|
|Sardines, 3 oz.||0.74||0.45|
|Mackerel, 3 oz||0.59||0.43|
|Salmon, canned, 3 oz||0.04||0.63||0.28|
|Soybean oil, 1 T||0.92|
|Trout, rainbow, 3 oz||0.44||0.4|
|Sea bass, 3 oz||0.47||0.18|
|Edamame, ½ C.||0.28|
|Shrimp, 3 oz||0.12||0.12|
|Tuna, canned, 3 oz||0.17||0.02|
|Cod, 3 oz||0.1||0.04|
Omega 3s & Inflammation
Omega 3 fatty acids reduce overall inflammation through multiple actions, but we’ll mainly focus on one pathway today. Omega 3 fatty acids serve as building blocks for signaling molecules called eicosanoids. Omega 6 fatty acids also serve as building blocks to form eicosanoids. The difference between these two is that eicosanoids formed from omega 6 fatty acids contribute to inflammation, while eicosanoids from omega 3 fatty acids reduce inflammation.
In fact, some of these signaling molecules can only be made from omega 3 fatty acids. These signaling molecules are called resolvins, protecting, and maresins. It has been stated that these molecules may be beneficial in protecting the brain and other nerve cells, reducing blood pressure, and preventing the growth/formation of tumors. One study stated that Omega 3s were even shown to improve treatment and recovery from COVID-19, which is likely due to their anti-inflammatory properties.
Where do we get the omega 3s and omega 6s from? Our diet! When it comes to eicosanoids, we literally are what we eat. If chronic inflammation is something that you deal with, including more omega 3 fatty acids in your diet is a smart idea.
Omega 3s & Heart Disease Risk
The relationship between omega 3’s and heart disease has been widely studied. Many studies show that eating fatty fish and other seafood helps to keep your heart healthy. It has been shown that 4 grams per day of EPA and DHA combined helps to lower triglycerides by at least 30% in those with very high triglyceride levels. Higher triglyceride levels contribute to heart disease, so this is a significant finding!
A meta-analysis looking at 13 clinical trials found that omega-3 supplementation from marine sources was associated with a lower risk of heart attack, death from Cardiovascular disease, and total cardiovascular disease. This analysis concluded that the CVD risk reductions appeared to be directly related to the omega-3 dose.
The American Heart Association has stated, “Although the ideal amount [of omega 3s] to take is not firmly established, evidence from prospective secondary prevention studies suggests that intakes of EPA+DHA ranging from 0.5 to 1.8 grams per day (either as fatty fish or supplements) significantly reduce the number of deaths from heart disease and all causes.” If you choose not to take supplements, they recommend eating two servings of fatty fish per week.
Omega 3s & Depression
This study had patients who were diagnosed with major depressive disorder either take 1000 mg EPA or fluoxetine (Prozac) daily. They even had some take both. They found that EPA and fluoxetine had equally beneficial effects on major depressive disorder! They also found that taking EPA with fluoxetine was superior to either of them alone.
When it comes to taking a supplement for depression and other mental disorders, it is recommended to get higher amounts of EPA than DHA. Meet with a dietitian to discuss your individual needs.
Omega 3s & Age-Related Macular Degeneration
If you know macular degeneration runs in your family, it’s worth looking into everything you can do to prevent it! A study showed that one of the ways to help reduce the risk of developing AMD is to consume omega 3 fatty acids. However, there is no evidence to show that taking omega 3 fatty acids after developing AMD will reduce eye damage. There are many other benefits of omega 3 fatty acids that we will have to cover in another post!
Are Omega 3 Fatty Acid Supplements Safe?
Now, to answer the big question, are these supplements safe? Here’s the answer: sometimes. You want to pay attention to a few things when looking for a high-quality supplement. Some of the things to look for are listed below:
- Third-party tested. Has it been tested by a separate lab to show that it contains what it says it has and that it doesn’t have mercury or other heavy metal contamination? You can usually look for symbols such as the Consumer Labs symbol (a beaker), or the USP symbol (a green, black & gold circle that says “USP”), or NSF International. There are plenty of other labs out there, so if it doesn’t have one of these symbols, it could still be a quality supplement. You’ll just have to dig a little deeper. There are a couple of companies that certify supplements and provide a full report. Here’s the link to one of these. Search for your supplement brand and see if it shows up. If it does, you can look at individual reports for the most recent batches of your supplement including mercury levels, PCB levels, EPA & DHA levels and more.
- Dosage. You’ll want to pay attention to the dose. Is the amount of EPA higher than the amount of DHA? Most of the time, you’ll want one that is higher in EPA. If you’re seeking omega 3s for a specific medical condition, you will likely want to look at studies that show which dosage you need to aim for. Or, you can talk to a dietitian 😉
- Fish oil source. You’ll want to see if they list where the fish oil came from. Ideally, you’ll want fish oil from small, sustainably caught fish like sardines and anchovies because these tend to be less contaminated with mercury.
- Molecularly distilled. You might have to look at the supplement website to see whether their products are molecularly distilled. This is a process that removes heavy metals. It’s important to look for this to ensure you’re getting a low-mercury product.
- Bottle. Yep, that’s right. Pay attention to the bottle. You want one with an opaque container that does not allow light through. Why? Light will degrade the fatty acids. Do not store your omega 3 fatty acids in a separate pill container because they can be degraded that way.
In general, we recommend eating fatty fish twice a week. If you dislike fish or do not consume it that often, it is wise to consider an omega 3 supplement. Feel free to reach out to a registered dietitian to discuss specific dosages and supplements that will help you.