Omega-3s have been a hot topic in the wellness world for a while now. But what do they actually do, where do we find them, and are we getting enough?
What are Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are a form of essential fatty acids. Known as some of the “good fats” we need in order to support a healthy brain and body, Omega-3s are considered polyunsaturated fats (fats that contain two or more carbon-carbon double bonds). They are referred to as “essential” fatty acids because they’re critical for healthy human development, but the body cannot produce the amount we need on its own — which means we have to get them either from our diet or from additional supplementation.
The three most noteworthy (and important!) Omega-3s are ALA (Alpha-Linolenic acid), DHA (Docoahexaenoic Acid), and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid). Let’s break them down:
ALA Alpha-Linolenic Acid is an Omega-3 fatty acid found in plant-based sources (mostly seeds and nuts), like flaxseeds and walnuts. ALA is a shorter chain fatty acid, meaning there are less carbon atoms in its makeup (where DHA and EPA are longer chain, with more carbon atoms!). The two important Omega-3s that the body really needs, EPA and DHA, can be made from ALA, but the conversion process is highly inefficient — with research revealing that only between two and ten percent of ALA actually gets converted.
DHA Docosahexaeonoic Acid is an Omega-3 fatty acid that is critical for brain and eye development and function. It is the most abundant fatty acid in our brains, however our bodies don’t create it efficiently enough which is why we must ingest foods or supplementation that contain DHA. DHA is especially important during pregnancy and childhood, as it is critical to healthy cognitive development. DHA is found in marine sources, like fish.
EPA Eicosapentaenoic Acid is able to inhibit particular enzymes that can be harmful to the health of cells. It is also supportive of healthy cognitive function. Like DHA, EPA is also found in fish.
What are the benefits of Omega-3s?
There have been numerous studies that have noted Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular DHA and EPA, for their critical roles in cellular membranes in the body — which is why it’s essential that we get enough so that our cells can function properly.
DHA and EPA are critical for proper development — specifically cognitive, cellular, and eye function. DHA in particular is critical for cognitive support, and EPA is essential due to its properties that support cellular health. Although ALA is important, because it is difficult to synthesize, we don’t get as many benefits. It’s highly important to get DHA and EPA from food and supplementation as their benefits are essential to long-term health.
DHA’s positive impact on brain development give it an important role in supporting cognitive health from its earliest developmental stages to our older years. Many researchers have found that this is in particular due to the fact that fatty acids help maintain the fluidity of brain cells and encourage synaptic activity and messaging for neurotransmitters in the brain.
These fatty acids support the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is a network of enzymes, receptors, and cannabinoids in the body that are known to support the mitigation and regulation of pain and stress. They have also been shown to support a healthy immune system.
DHA and EPA are also essential in supporting cardiovascular health. They help maintain healthy levels of LDL (low-density lipoproteins) in the blood, as well as support healthy cortisol and adrenaline levels so they do not become too high. Many studies have linked adequate intake of Omega-3s with a healthy cardiovascular system.
Are you getting enough Omega-3s?
Chances are — you aren’t. In fact, more than 90% of Americans are deficient in both DHA and EPA. Because our bodies don’t make them on our own, we have to rely exclusively on outside sources from our diet to get what we need, which can be difficult.
It’s easier to get ALA in our diet, as it’s found in many plant-based sources we already ingest. The tricky part? ALAs low-efficiency conversion rate for DHA and EPA makes it harder for us to get the Omega-3s we really need (DHA and EPA) — so we would have to consume a lot of nuts and seeds to get an adequate intake of Omega-3s. It’s already harder for us to get those, so we have to maintain a healthy diet with plenty of fish, or turn to supplementation to get what we need (especially if fish really isn’t your thing, or if you’re concerned about mercury intake).
Foods high in Omega-3s include: salmon, sardines, halibut, mackerel, flaxseeds, walnuts, and vegetable oils. You can find ALA in many seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. DHA and EPA are found in fish (why you will hear them called Fish Oils), and in some marine algae sources. Ideally, to get the amount of Omega-3s we need, we should be consuming fish at least twice a week. Not sure you’re getting enough? Talk to your physician and see if supplementation is right for you!