Odds are good you’ve been told to eat fish with healthy fats, sprinkle ground flax on your salads, or take an omega-3 supplement. But do you know what omega-3 fatty acids actually are, and how they might help your health? The research is still ongoing, but there are some indications that supplementing with fatty acids and including them in your diet could have some serious, specific health benefits–and in any case, our bodies need them for general good function.
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Put simply, omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. More specifically, they are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, and they can come from plant or marine sources. The body cannot make its own omega-3 fatty acids, also called n-3 fatty acids, but we do need them–which means they have to be taken in via diet or supplements. Good plant sources of omega-3s include flaxseed, hemp, canola, and walnut oils. Mackerel, herring, salmon, sardines, and anchovies are particularly good fish sources.
Omega-3 fatty acids–alpha-linolenic, eicosapentaenoic, and docosahexaenoic–are important for the development and function of the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal column.
Research indicates that dietary lipids could play an important role in major depressive disorder, which is recurring, debilitating, and potentially life threatening. In particular, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) stands out as a potential source of treatment for depression. Since depression is so complex, and there are a variety of potential treatments that may or may not work for an individual patient, the potential that EPA could play a therapeutic role for depression is exciting.
Correlations between omega-3 consumption and rates of depression have been noted around the world, and have also shown up related to fish consumption and post-partum depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. In one study of older men in Crete, higher stores of omega-3 fatty acids in adipose tissue was negatively correlated with depression–those with higher stores were less likely to be depressed. Other research has shown that an increase in blood levels of fatty acids was associated with fewer symptoms of depression in post-partum women, and another study from China found that suicide attempts and fatty acid levels were negatively correlated. More research needs to be done to figure out if these results are actually connected, but they certainly indicate further research and show there may be a connection between fatty acid consumption and our mental health.
The American Heart Association recommends eating seafood, particularly varieties high in healthy fats, twice a week because of the potential benefits for cardiovascular health. Research has shown that following a Mediterranean-style diet, which is naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids, is associated with higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol. Other studies have found that fish-oil supplements reduce triglyceride levels and consumption of walnuts (high in omega-3s) is associated with a drop in total cholesterol. Clinical trials associate omega-3 consumption with lowered blood pressure for people with hypertension, and population studies show that a diet high in the fatty acids could reduce stroke risk.
A 2007 literature review published in the British Journal of Nutrition examined the role omega-3 fatty acids in relieving symptoms for cancer patients. Researchers from the Catalan Institute of Oncology in Spain looked at 17 studies involving cancer patients with a life expectancy of at least two months who took fatty-acid supplements and found that patients with advanced cancer who took oral supplements saw benefits related to weight loss, including increased weight and appetite. As well, post-surgery morbidity was reduced and their overall quality of life improved. The review concluded that patients with advanced cancer would benefit from the long-term use of 1.5 grams of fatty acids daily, taken in an oral supplement.
One Scottish study found that fatty acid intake was associated with lower risk of colorectal cancer, but it remains unclear if the connection was direct. It could be that people who ate more omega-3 fatty acids or took supplements had an overall healthier diet, reducing their risk of the cancer. Or another factor could be at play. But considering that a majority of cases of colorectal cancer are thought to be affected by environmental factors like diet, and that it’s the third most common cancer in the United States, the results are promising.
Other Potential Benefits
Along with the more conclusive, though still ongoing, research in those three areas, omega-3 fatty acids for potential benefits related to intelligence in children, Cronhn’s disease, diabetes, and general mental health. Though the results in those areas are inconclusive so far, or too early to make a call on, in a few years we might know a lot more about the benefits omega-3 fatty acids hold for our health.