Take a walk down the supplement aisle and you’re bound to see shelves packed with fish oil supplements. That’s because omega-3s, a type of fatty acid found in fish oil, have become a go-to for heart health support. And while you probably already knew omegas were good for your ticker, they have quite a few other benefits, too.
The Omega-3 Basics
Omega-3s are a type of molecule called a polyunsaturated fatty acid. The body can only produce so much on its own—so you need to get these polyunsaturated fatty acids through your diet, too. “There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, and all are important for good health,” says Kim Melton, R.D., owner of Nutrition Pro Consulting.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are the two most useful kinds of omega-3s. They’re found in salmon, tuna, shrimp, herring, seaweed, and some grass-fed meats, says Melton. The third omega-3, ALA (alpha linolenic acid), is found in plant sources like flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp, kale, and spinach. Since the body can’t produce this one at all, it has to come from food. Your body has to convert ALA into DHA and EPA through a multi-step process before it can use it, says Melton, hence why it gets the bronze medal.
Once in your body, omega-3s play a role in cell membranes and cell receptors, and help produce hormone-like substances that regulate artery function and inflammation, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The role of omega-3s regarding immune system and inflammatory response may be perhaps most noteworthy, says Myers Hurt, M.D., general physician at Diamond Physicians in Dallas, Texas. And that’s because they suppress inflammatory chemicals within the body.
The Health Benefits of Omega-3s
Omegas offer up plenty of health benefits, from boosting your immune system to supporting your heart health.
Omegas and your heart: Dietary omega-3s can help reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as help support cholesterol and blood pressure, says Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D., director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
Omega-3s and your immune system: Because they may bolster the body’s productions of immune cells called cytokines, omega-3s may promote immune health. A study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, for example, found that participants with joint issues who took fish oil for eight weeks reported less joint discomfort and stiffness than those who took a placebo.
Omega-3s and your gut: Some researchers suggest that essential fatty acid deficiency may affect gut health because of EFAs’ interactions with immune cells and role in cell membrane structure. (The concept is that EFAs support the gut’s ability to act as a barrier between substances you consume and your bloodstream.) A review of studies published in the World Journal of Clinical Cases concluded that dietary omega-3s may even have some beneficial effects on ulcerative colitis, a condition that causes ulcers in the digestive tract.
Omega-3s and your skin: These essential fatty acids may also support healthy skin, says Steinbaum. In fact, they may calm and soothe skin due to their role in the immune system, according to Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews. However, more research is still needed in this area.
Omega-3s and your brain: Here’s a fun fact we bet you didn’t know: Omega-3s are highly-concentrated in your brain, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Because of this, they play an important role in cognitive and behavioral brain function. One review published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity suggests that omega-3s may support mood stability and feelings of wellness. While the study suggests further research, they propose that inadequate omega-3 intake in the Western diet may negatively impact brain function and overall health.
Considering A Supplement?
Many people don’t get enough from their diet alone—unless they regularly eat a lot of fish or plant sources like flaxseed. Steinbaum recommends talking to your doctor before adding any supplements to your regimen. A blood test can determine if you’re actually deficient in omega-3s.
The typical dosage for an omega-3 fish oil supplement is 1,000 milligrams, with at least 500 milligrams coming from EPA and DHA—though Steinbaum notes that a doc may recommend higher dosages for some individuals.
And if you’re less than thrilled at the thought of fishy burps, Hurt recommends stashing your soft gels in the fridge to help them go down easier.