Omega-3 fatty acids: Benefits, sources, side effects, types

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital nutrients that promote a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle, renowned for their numerous health benefits. These nutrients play a critical role in various aspects of our health, including our heart, brain, joints, and overall wellness.

This article is intended to provide a comprehensive overview of omega-3 fatty acids, covering their benefits, types, sources, applications, recommended dosages, and potential side effects. 

It aims to offer valuable insights and practical information for individuals who are familiar with or new to omega-3 fatty acids.

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that are essential for optimal human health. They are essential in the functioning of our body’s various systems, impacting the brain, heart, joints, and eyes significantly [1]. 

Since our bodies cannot produce these fatty acids, acquiring them through diet or supplements is essential.

To understand omega-3s thoroughly, distinguishing them from omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids is imperative. All three are classes of essential fatty acids, but they differ in their structures, functions, and impacts on health. 

Omega-6 fatty acids are typically pro-inflammatory, whereas omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-9 fatty acids, though not essential, are highly beneficial and can be synthesized by the body.

Featured product offer
Vitalitown Krill Oil
  • Offers rich source of Omega-3 in their natural phospholipid form.
  • Also includes potent antioxidant astaxanthin and essential nutrient choline.
  • Easily absorbed by the body and has no fishy aftertaste or burps.

Types of omega-3 fatty acids

Within the broader category of omega-3 fatty acids, three primary types exist:

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

ALA is predominantly found in plant-based foods and acts as a precursor for other omega-3s [2]. However, the conversion process is typically low and inefficient. While ALA is necessary for overall health, it does not provide the specialized benefits of EPA and DHA.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

EPA is found in coldwater fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, and mackerel [3]. It has potent anti-inflammatory effects that can mitigate inflammation, contribute to heart health, and alleviate symptoms of depression.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

DHA, like EPA, is primarily found in marine sources and is vital for brain and eye development and function [4].

It is a fundamental component of the brain and retina, and having sufficient levels of DHA is crucial for maintaining visual health and minimizing the likelihood of chronic diseases.

It’s important to understand the distinct qualities and advantages of each type of omega-3 fatty acid to optimize their consumption and utilize their health-boosting properties. 

ALA is necessary for basic health, whereas EPA and DHA offer specific benefits influencing inflammation, brain function, and vision, among other aspects of well-being.

Benefits of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are lauded for their extensive health benefits, which are vital in promoting overall wellness and preventing various diseases. Their positive impacts range from enhancing brain function to supporting cardiovascular health.

1. Promotes heart health

One of the most well-researched benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is their ability to foster heart health. Regular intake of these essential fatty acids helps in:

  • Reducing triglyceride levels, minimizing the risk of arterial plaque buildup.
  • Lowering blood pressure levels, benefiting those with hypertension.
  • Decreasing the likelihood of arrhythmias contributes to a regular, healthy heartbeat [5].
  • Mitigating the risk of blood clots by preventing blood platelets from clumping together.
  • Reducing inflammation levels lowers heart disease risk.

2. Enhances brain function

Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, are crucial components of brain cell membranes and are indispensable for optimal brain function and development. Adequate levels of omega-3s are associated with:

  • Improved cognitive function and mental clarity
  • Reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s
  • Enhanced memory and learning abilities
  • Lowered incidence of mood disorders and depression
Enhances brain function

3. Supports joint and bone health

Inflammation is a major contributing factor to joint pain and stiffness, especially in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3s assist in:

  • Reducing inflammation, relieving joint pain and stiffness
  • Improving bone strength and reducing osteoporosis risk [6]

4. Boosts mental health

EPA, in particular, has been shown to be effective in managing mood disorders and boosting mental health. Regular intake of omega-3s can lead to:

  • Lowered symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Improved mood and reduced incidences of mood swings
  • Possible reduction in symptoms of ADHD in children

5. Improves eye health

DHA is a vital component of the eye’s retina structure. Consuming adequate omega-3s is associated with:

  • Lowered chance of developing macular degeneration, which is a major contributor to vision loss and blindness.
  • Prevention of dry eye syndrome by aiding in the production of tear fluid

6. Strengthens immune system

Omega-3 fatty acids fortify the immune system, enhancing the body’s ability to fend off illnesses. They are pivotal in:

  • Strengthening immune response [7], protecting against common illnesses.
  • Modulating inflammation and improving the body’s defense mechanism against infections.

7. Regulates metabolism and reduces inflammation

Omega-3s play an important role in managing metabolic rate and reducing overall inflammation in the body, which is critical in preventing chronic diseases. They assist in:

  • Maintaining stable blood sugar levels to lower the risk of developing diabetes.
  • Lowering inflammation, a key factor in many chronic conditions like cancer and heart diseases.

8. Facilitates healthy skin

Omega-3s are vital for maintaining skin health. They help in:

  • Maintaining skin hydration and preventing dryness and flakiness
  • Reducing the risk of skin cancers and protecting the skin from harmful UV rays.
  • Reducing the signs of aging like wrinkles and fine lines

Signs and symptoms of omega-3 fatty acids deficiency

When the body lacks sufficient omega-3 fatty acids, various signs and symptoms can emerge, such as:

  1. Dry and irritated skin: One of the earliest signs can be dry, itchy, or irritated skin [8].
  2. Brittle nails: Weak, brittle, or splitting nails may indicate a deficiency.
  3. Fatigue: Persistent fatigue or lethargy can be associated with insufficient omega-3s.
  4. Poor concentration: Difficulty in concentrating and a shortened attention span can occur.
  5. Joint pain: Experiencing joint pain or stiffness can be a symptom [9].
  6. Mood swings: Increased irritability, mood swings, or depression can be indicative of low levels of omega-3s.

A deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can pose several health risks, potentially leading to more severe conditions, including:

  • Increased inflammation: Chronic inflammation can develop, associated with numerous diseases.
  • Cognitive decline: Over time, a deficiency can lead to problems with cognitive function and memory.
  • Cardiovascular issues: The risk of heart disease can increase due to elevated triglyceride levels and other cardiovascular risk factors.

How to avoid omega-3 deficiency and its associated risks?

1. Address nutritional needs

  • Balance your diet: Regularly consume foods high in omega-3s, such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
  • Consider supplementation: If dietary intake is insufficient, high-quality supplements can help meet the requirements.
  • Monitor intake: Keep track of omega-3 intake to ensure you get enough of these essential fatty acids.

2. Explore management strategies

Addressing and managing a deficiency involves more than just increasing omega-3 intake. It requires comprehensive strategies, such as:

  • Enhance absorption: Combine omega-3 rich foods with those high in antioxidants to improve absorption.
  • Maintain a balanced ratio: Ensure a balanced intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to avoid imbalance that hinders the benefits of omega-3s.
  • Regular monitoring: Regular blood tests can help in monitoring levels and adjusting intake as needed.

3. Seek professional guidance

If signs of a deficiency are observed, seek advice from a healthcare or nutrition professional. They can provide personalized recommendations based on individual health conditions, lifestyle, and dietary preferences, ensuring safe and effective management of omega-3 levels.

Addressing omega-3 fatty acids deficiency is essential for maintaining overall health and preventing various health conditions. 

Being aware of the signs, understanding the risks, meeting nutritional needs, and seeking professional advice can help in effectively managing and preventing a deficiency, contributing to enhanced well-being and quality of life.

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids

Knowing where to find omega-3 fatty acids is crucial to ensuring adequate intake and reaping their extensive health benefits. They are present in a variety of foods, allowing individuals to select sources that align with their dietary preferences and restrictions.

Plant-based sources

For those who prefer plant-based nutrition or follow vegetarian and vegan diets, several sources are rich in ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid. 

While the body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion rate is quite low, so a higher intake is often recommended. Plant-based sources include:

  • Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Brussels sprouts

Animal-based sources

Animal-based omega-3 sources predominantly provide EPA and DHA. These sources are especially beneficial as the body absorbs EPA and DHA more efficiently than ALA. Include these in your diet for balanced omega-3 intake:

  • Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are among the richest sources of EPA and DHA.
  • Krill oil: A potent source of EPA and DHA, with the added benefit of antioxidants.
  • Egg yolks: Eggs from free-range chickens usually contain higher levels of omega-3s.
  • Grass-fed meat: Meat from animals that have been raised on grass contains more omega-3s than meat from grain-fed animals.
Featured product offer
Nutriissa Organic Cod Liver Oil Gummies
  • Pleasant lemon-flavored gummies.
  • Made from wild-caught Norwegian arctic cod liver oil.
  • GMP-certified and vegan-friendly.

Supplements

Supplements can be a convenient option for those who find it challenging to get enough omega-3s from food sources alone. 

When choosing supplements, it’s crucial to select high-quality options and to be mindful of the EPA and DHA content. Some reliable supplements include:

  • Fish oil: Rich in EPA and DHA and is one of the most common omega-3 supplements.
  • Algae oil: A plant-based supplement that is rich in DHA and is a good option for vegetarians and vegans.
  • Krill oil: Similar to fish oil but is more easily absorbed and comes with additional antioxidants.

Balancing your intake of omega-3s from various sources is crucial. Whether you prefer plant-based foods, animal-based foods, or supplements, the key is to ensure that you are getting an adequate amount of EPA, DHA, and ALA. 

This balance enables you to maximize the potential health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and supports your overall well-being. 

Choosing high-quality, sustainable sources is not only good for your health but is also a responsible choice for the environment.

Omega-3 fatty acids dosage and uses

Understanding the appropriate dosage of omega-3 fatty acids is essential to optimize their health benefits effectively and to avoid any potential adverse effects associated with excessive intake. 

The recommended dosage can vary, depending on individual health goals, age, and lifestyle.

For maintaining general health, adults can aim for a daily intake of about 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA [10], which is usually achievable through diet alone. 

However, higher dosages may be recommended for specific health conditions, under a healthcare provider’s guidance. 

Pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as children, have different recommended intakes, emphasizing the importance of individualized dosage considerations.

Therapeutic uses

Beyond general well-being, omega-3 fatty acids have specific therapeutic uses. For example, higher doses of EPA and DHA, often in the range of 2–4 grams per day, are sometimes used to lower high levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood linked to heart disease, under medical supervision. 

People with specific health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or depressive disorders might also benefit from elevated intakes, following healthcare provider recommendations.

Dietary uses

On a dietary level, incorporating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can support overall health and wellness. 

Regular consumption of fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds can help in maintaining healthy levels of omega-3s. 

For those who do not consume fish or other animal-based sources, algae oil supplements can be a suitable alternative to ensure adequate DHA intake.

The use of omega-3 supplements can be particularly beneficial for individuals with dietary restrictions or those who find it challenging to meet their needs through food sources alone. 

However, it is crucial to choose high-quality supplements and to consider the ratio of EPA to DHA, depending on individual health needs and goals.

Complementary medicine

In complementary medicine, omega-3 fatty acids are used to manage conditions like rheumatoid arthritis due to their anti-inflammatory properties. 

They are also valued for their potential to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression, contributing to enhanced mental well-being.

Choosing the right sources and ensuring a balanced intake of EPA, DHA, and ALA based on individual health needs and lifestyle can help in leveraging the varied benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. 

Whether it’s through dietary sources or supplements, maintaining consistent and appropriate intake is pivotal for optimal health. 

Moreover, any alterations to omega-3 intake, especially for therapeutic purposes, should be discussed and monitored with a healthcare provider to ensure safety and efficacy.

Different forms of omega-3 fatty acids

Different forms of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are available in several forms, allowing individuals to choose the one that best suits their preferences, lifestyle, and dietary needs. Each form offers distinct characteristics and advantages.

Food sources

When it comes to dietary forms, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids can provide a natural and wholesome source. 

Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flaxseeds, and plant oils like canola oil are all excellent choices. Consuming a variety of these foods can ensure a balanced intake of ALA, EPA, and DHA.

Supplements

For those who prefer supplements or have specific dietary restrictions, omega-3s are available in various supplemental forms including:

  • Capsules: A convenient option, allowing for precise dosage.
  • Liquid: Suitable for those who may struggle with swallowing capsules.
  • Soft gels: Easy to swallow and often have no taste.

When selecting supplements, considering the source, purity, and concentration of omega-3s is crucial to ensure safety and efficacy. It’s also essential to pay attention to the ratio of EPA to DHA, as different ratios may be more beneficial for specific health conditions or goals.

Concentrated forms

Concentrated forms of omega-3s, available in high-dose capsules or oils, can be useful for those requiring higher doses to manage specific health conditions. 

However, such concentrated forms should be taken under the guidance of a healthcare provider to avoid potential side effects and interactions with medications.

Selecting the appropriate form of omega-3 fatty acids can make it easier to incorporate them into your daily routine and optimize their health benefits. 

Whether you opt for dietary, supplemental, or concentrated forms, the key is to maintain a consistent and balanced intake tailored to your individual health needs and lifestyle preferences.

Considerations and potential side effects of omega-3 fatty acids

While omega-3 fatty acids offer extensive health benefits, it is also crucial to be informed about the potential side effects and considerations to ensure safe and effective use.

Address potential side effects

Even though omega-3 supplements are generally considered safe for most people when taken in recommended amounts, they can cause side effects in some cases, particularly at high doses. Some possible side effects include:

  • Digestive issues: Some people may experience stomach discomfort, diarrhea, or bloating.
  • Blood thinning: High doses can result in excessive blood thinning, leading to increased bleeding risk.
  • Fishy aftertaste: Some may experience a fishy taste in the mouth or bad breath, especially with fish oil supplements.
  • Impact on blood sugar: There can be a slight increase in blood sugar levels in some individuals.

It’s essential to start with a smaller dose and monitor your body’s response, gradually increasing the dose as needed and consulting a healthcare provider if any adverse effects are noticed.

Assess interaction with medications

Omega-3 fatty acids can interact with certain medications. For instance, combining them with anticoagulant or antiplatelet drugs can enhance the blood-thinning effect, which can be harmful. 

Additionally, people on blood pressure medication should be cautious, as omega-3s can lower blood pressure levels.

Consider purity and quality

The purity and quality of omega-3 supplements are paramount. Opting for reputable brands that test their products for contaminants like heavy metals, and that provide a certificate of analysis, is advisable. 

Ensuring the supplement contains the right amounts and ratios of EPA and DHA is also vital, depending on individual health needs and goals.

Choose sustainable sources

When selecting omega-3 supplements, considering sustainability and ethical sourcing is responsible and environmentally friendly. 

Look for brands that source their omega-3s from sustainably managed fisheries and that have certifications from independent organizations verifying their sustainable practices.

Mind dietary restrictions and allergies

People with fish allergies or specific dietary restrictions should choose their omega-3 supplements carefully. Algae-based supplements can be an excellent alternative for vegetarians, vegans, and those allergic to fish.

Balance omega-3 and omega-6 intake

Maintaining a balanced intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is crucial as a disproportionate intake can disrupt the body’s inflammatory response. Aim for a balanced ratio to help maximize the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3s.

Being aware of the potential side effects and considerations associated with omega-3 fatty acids is crucial for maximizing their benefits while minimizing risks. 

By choosing high-quality, sustainable sources, being mindful of interactions and contraindications, and maintaining a balanced intake, individuals can safely incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into their lifestyle to enhance overall health and well-being.

Closing thoughts

Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in maintaining our overall health, impacting various aspects of physiological and cognitive function. 

Being well-informed about the types, benefits, sources, and recommended intake of these essential fatty acids enables individuals to make conscious and beneficial dietary choices. 

A balanced and adequate intake of omega-3s, whether through diet or supplements, is paramount in reaping their extensive health benefits, ranging from improved cardiovascular health to enhanced cognitive function. 

By adopting such informed and healthful practices, we can foster our well-being and potentially mitigate the risk of numerous ailments.

FAQs

What do omega-3 fatty acids do for the body?

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for brain and eye development, heart health, joint health, mood, and skin and hair maintenance. They reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and decrease the risk of chronic diseases.

Should I take omega-3 fatty acids everyday?

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for cardiovascular, brain, and overall health. The ideal amount and frequency should be customized to individual needs and lifestyle, with guidance from a healthcare or nutrition expert if necessary.

Who should take omega-3?

Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for maintaining good health, supporting brain and heart function, reducing inflammation, and promoting healthy skin and joints. People with specific health concerns like high triglyceride levels, inflammatory conditions, or cognitive health concerns may benefit from personalized omega-3 intake, as determined with the help of a healthcare or nutrition professional.

What type of omega-3 is best?

Individual health goals, dietary preferences, and restrictions determine the best type of omega-3 fatty acid. A balance of EPA and DHA is generally recommended for optimal health benefits, while those on a plant-based diet can prioritize ALA-rich foods like flaxseeds and walnuts.

Featured product offer
Elm & Rye Krill Oil
  • Contains 500 mg of Krill oil, plus gelatin, glycerol, and water.
  • Rich in antioxidant astaxanthin protecting cells from oxidative stress.
  • Recommended dosage of 2 capsules per serving for adults.

[1] https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/ 
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6835948/ 
[3] https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/eicosapentaenoic-acid-epa 
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7468918/ 
[5] https://www.betterbones.com/bone-nutrition/can-your-bones-benefit-from-omega-3s/ 
[6] https://blog.bioticsresearch.com/how-omega-3s-support-your-bodys-immune-response 
[7] https://blog.bioticsresearch.com/how-omega-3s-support-your-bodys-immune-response 
[8] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/omega-3-deficiency 
[9] https://honehealth.com/edge/health/health-omega-3-deficiency-symptoms/ 
[10] https://draxe.com/nutrition/how-much-omega-3-per-day-should-you-take/

Photograph: microgen/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.