Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known for their tremendous roles in various bodily functions. So it is not uncommon for us to reach one of these omega-3 supplements through fish oil to reinforce our heart health, keep our brain mentally sharp, and brighten our eyesight.
Although the incidence of low omega-3 is rare, a deficiency in these vital substances can be detrimental. This article reviews the significance of omega-3 fatty acids and explains how omega-3 deficiency may harm your overall health and lifespan.
Omega-3 Deficiency May Shorten Your Life Expectancy
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential unsaturated fatty acids that the human body cannot produce but play many crucial roles in human health.
The human body can synthesize most of the fats it requires from other fats or raw materials. However, that is not the case with omega-3 fatty acids, which is why they are referred to as “essential” fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cell membranes all over the body. They also serve as a starting point for producing hormones that regulate blood clotting, artery wall contraction and relaxation, and inflammation.
The three primary types of omega-3 fatty acids are ALA, EPA, and DHA.
ALA is the precursor for converting into the usable EPA and DHA in our bodies, meaning that most of our body’s omega-3 derives from ALA. However, the human body primarily uses ALA, with minimal conversion to EPA and DHA.
Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in marine-based sources such as salmon and tuna or plant-based sources such as flaxseed or walnut. Because EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish, they are sometimes called “marine omega-3s.”
Why Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids Important?
The close link between omega-3 and cardiovascular health has long been well established. As a result, people have been seeking food products and supplements that contain omega-3 as a convenient option to maintain a healthy heart.
Furthermore, the American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended using omega-3 fatty acids from fish and fish oil to reduce heart-related complications, such as heart attack or stroke, in people with preexisting cardiovascular disease.
This means omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to maintaining overall heart health in healthy people; this group of nutrients also helps individuals with heart conditions prevent the disease from worsening and even aids in the treatment process.
According to a report by Harvard Medical School, omega-3 supplementation in over 8,000 patients with high cardiovascular risk reduces blood triglyceride levels, the occurrence of heart attacks and strokes, the need for heart surgeries, and the mortality rate.
Omega-3 fatty acids are not only essential for the normal functions of the heart but also for the development of the brain.
Research has found that these substances protect against cognitive decline among elderly individuals. Given the prevalence of dementia at up to 10 percent among individuals aged 65 and 30 percent above 85, sufficient omega-3 intake has been recommended to reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline.
Omega-3 also plays a vital role in the composition of the brain. Research shows consuming more of these fatty acids is associated with greater gray matter volume. Gray matter allows humans to maintain memories and regulate emotions. Such an association may mediate the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on a human’s mental capacity.
Other research shows supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids can prevent loss of gray matter thickness, aiding in treating a mental disorder.
The human eye has a very high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, optimizing the integrity and visual function of the retina. These fatty acids accumulate in our eye tissues even before we are born.
DHA also has a protective role in the retina. It contributes to releasing the healthy oil that lubricates our eyes for eye comfort.
On this account, omega-3 fatty acids are essential in maintaining eye health, especially in seniors. One common eye condition among the elderly is dry eye syndrome, in which the tear cannot provide sufficient lubrication for the eyes.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, people with dry eye syndrome feel relieved from the symptoms after consuming omega-3 fatty acids. Further, people who consume the most omega-3 fatty acids have a lower risk of dry eye than those who consume little or no seafood.
Omega-3 Deficiency in Health and Longevity
Coronary Heart Disease
Given that omega-3 is essential to cardiovascular health, a deficiency can cause heart-related morbidities in humans.
According to research, people who consume no fish have a higher coronary heart disease mortality rate than those with at least some fish weekly. Those refraining from fish consumption also have a higher risk of non-sudden death from a heart attack.
In women, the risk for coronary heart disease death is up to 34 percent higher in those who rarely eat fish compared with those consuming fish over five times per week.
Alzheimer’s disease is a cognitive disorder characterized by a progressive deficit of memory, thinking, and behavior due to the abnormal build-up of a harmful protein known as amyloid-β.
Research shows that Alzheimer’s patients have lower DHA levels than healthy people of the same age, suggesting that a DHA deficiency may contribute to cognitive impairment. Accordingly, DHA supplementation can protect against the production and accumulation of amyloid-β in subjects with Alzheimer’s disease.
Age-related Macular Degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) affects the central part of a person’s vision without causing total blindness.
Research shows a negative correlation between omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of AMD. While evidence has not yet confirmed whether increasing omega-3 may help prevent or delay the progression of AMD, these fatty acids can offer protection against it, and a deficiency may hasten the development of the disease.
Recent Findings in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Improves HDL Cholesterol to Reduce Cardiovascular Risks
HDL, or “good” cholesterol, absorbs the “bad” cholesterol LDL that accumulates in blood vessels and removes it from circulation. As a result, high HDL cholesterol levels can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
A clinical study on the role of omega-3 fatty acids in HDL discovered that taking omega-3 supplements for eight weeks can increase the content (12 percent) and particle size of HDL (36 percent of increased HDL had larger particles). These modifications improve HDL functionality while decreasing cardiovascular risk.
The presence of omega-3 fatty acids in HDL may also reduce the chance of individuals with cardiovascular risk having higher levels of non-esterified fatty acids (NEFAs).
NEFAs are the byproducts of fat breakdown and have been linked to abnormal glucose metabolism and diabetes, which are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Omega-3 is More Beneficial for People With Cardiovascular Risks
Another study discovered that a moderate intake of omega-3, between 2 and 3 grams per day, might result in a blood pressure reduction of approximately 2 to 3 mm Hg.
Notably, daily consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may be associated with additional benefits in populations at high risk for cardiovascular disease.
Individuals over the age of 45 with a high risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension and hyperlipidemia, may benefit more from the effects of omega-3 on blood pressure reduction when compared to younger populations. Furthermore, omega-3 may help blood pressure control even before hypertension develops.
The study suggests that the difference in omega-3 effects between older and younger populations may be due to the interaction of omega-3 with factors that vary with age, such as triglyceride levels, inflammation, and heart rate. Furthermore, there may be differences in the bioavailability and efficacy of omega-3 across populations.
Omega-3 Can Increase Attention and Lower Impulsivity in Adolescents
According to a study, omega-3 fatty acids, DHA in particular, are associated with better attention in adolescents. On the other hand, ALA is associated with lower impulsivity, which is beneficial for several psychiatric disorders.
During adolescence, significant structural and functional changes occur in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal area, which controls attention. The most abundant fatty acid in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, is DHA.
In the study, those participants with the highest DHA showed significantly lower reaction time and error, meaning they had higher attentiveness. Meanwhile, those with higher ALA recorded lower impulsivity indexes.
The findings support the importance of eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids for attention-demanding tasks and healthy brain development.
How Much Omega-3 Fatty Acids Should You Consume?
There are no guidelines for how much fish oil you should consume. There are, however, guidelines for total omega-3 intake and EPA and DHA. Most health organizations recommend at least 250 mg of EPA and DHA daily.
According to the European Food Safety Authority, omega-3 fatty acid supplements in doses of up to 5 grams daily are safe to consume. Typically, 1,000 mg of fish oil provides approximately 300 mg of EPA and DHA combined. These amounts are equivalent to 8 ounces (about two servings) of fish per week.
However, taking too much fish oil is not always beneficial, as it can harm your health. High doses of omega-3 can stimulate glucose production, contributing to high blood sugar. Moreover, because omega-3 can lower blood pressure, people with hypotension should take caution when consuming it.
The most efficient way to absorb omega-3 fatty acids is to consume them directly from fish, fish oils, and supplements. Meats such as beef, pork, and chicken can also add small amounts of omega-3 to your diet.
Omega-3 Foods and Supplements: Which One to Choose?
If you do not eat fatty fish regularly or are allergic to fish, consider taking fish oil supplements to meet the minimum intake demand.
Given that today’s Western diets are characterized by excessive amounts of total fat, especially saturated fat, and a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, ensure your body is getting enough EPA and DHA, the most beneficial and readily usable omega-3 fats for our body.
You can also increase omega-3 intake by changing the oils commonly used in the Western diet and replacing high omega-6 fats in corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil with omega-3 in olive oil.
Bottom Line: Omega-3 Can Add Years to Your Life
Adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids plays a significant role in the normal development and upkeep of various health aspects, including cardiovascular health, cognitive function, and eye health. Conversely, omega-3 deficiency may result in heart disease risks, impaired cognition, and early or accelerated eye disease onset.
Besides natural sources like food, omega-3 supplements can efficiently aid in reserving a healthy body and brain. A nutrient-rich and balanced diet can provide most of the omega-3 fatty acids our body needs. However, if sufficient consumption of omega-3 through diet is not practical, supplementation is the alternative to obtaining this nutrient.
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Robinson, J., Ijioma, N., Harris, W. (2010). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cognitive Function in Women. SAGE Journals.
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Pawełczyk, T., Piątkowska-Janko, E., Bogorodzki, P. et al. (2018). Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation May Prevent Loss of Gray Matter Thickness in the Left Parieto-occipital Cortex in First Episode Schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Research Journal.
Vimont, C., Taylor, R. (2020). The Benefits of Fish Oil for Dry Eye. The American Academy of Ophthalmology.
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Pinar-Martí, A., Fernández-Barrés, S., Gignac, F. et al. (2022). Red Blood Cell Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Attention Scores in Healthy Adolescents. Journal of the European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
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