The Many Benefits of Omega-3s

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Written by Brian Dixon, PhD

No nutritional program is complete without a high-quality source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Fats are an essential part of our diet. However, we should limit unhealthy fat intake and encourage consumption of healthy fats. Saturated fats found in meat, milk, and cheese help to promote the formation of artery-clogging fatty deposits. The trans-fatty acids (found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils) are even more harmful to our health. Monounsaturated fats found in vegetable oils do not promote arterial fat deposits and polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as the omega-3 fatty acids, are the most beneficial to overall health.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play many roles in our bodies. They are the biosynthetic precursors of a family of compounds called eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes). These compounds are hormone-like substances that control many naturally occurring health processes in our bodies.

It is important to maintain an appropriate balance of omega-3 and omega-6 either from the diet or nutritional supplement, as these two classes of fatty acids work together to promote health. Yet despite the clear health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids, dietary surveys indicate that most of us do not obtain enough omega-3 fatty acids from our diets.

In 2002, the American Heart Association issued new guidance on fish and fish oil consumption because results of large-scale epidemiological studies and randomized controlled studies showed that omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil support cardiovascular health. For example, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) help maintain healthy high-density lipoprotein and triglyceride levels in plasma, which are important for supporting healthy arterial function and blood flow. Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA may support long-term cardiovascular health.

Omega-3 fatty acids influence brain development and structural integrity, impacting biochemical efficiency in the brain and neural development. It is important that women of childbearing age who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding get proper nutrition including consuming adequate amounts of DHA and EPA to support the growth and development of their child. DHA is one of the dominant fats in the nerve cells of fetal and infant brains and plays a role in the healthy development of the visual system. Neural phospholipid membranes selectively concentrate DHA in photoreceptors and some cell-signaling sites, while the retina selectively incorporates EPA to support eye fluidity.

In addition to those listed above, EPA and DHA are also important components for overall health in young children, adolescents, and adults. Studies have also shown fish oil supplements to be effective in supporting healthy joints, articular cartilage, aid in joint comfort, and supporting bone health. Many studies also indicate that taking omega-3 dietary supplements help support the body’s normal, healthy inflammatory functioning in response to exercise and everyday activities.

Your cells have a phospholipid bilayer that acts as a selective barrier—keeping things out or letting them in. Key components of that bilayer, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play a significant role in maintaining our good health at the most basic level. Sufficient levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can help maintain skin’s barrier function to keep it looking healthy and EPA may also help support the skin’s natural ability to protect against the damaging effects of the sun.

In addition, combining fish oil intake with regular exercise is more supportive than exercise alone for helping to maintain a healthy weight and supporting metabolic health.

Many experts believe a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 is ideal, as they work together to promote health. However, as mentioned above, average diets contain significantly more omega-6 fatty acids. Eating fatty fish can be one way to increase your omega-3 intake. However, it is recommended to consume at least two, 6-ounce pieces of fatty fish every single week (104 pieces a year) to meet expert recommendations!

In spite of clear benefits of including fish in the diet, health authorities have warned us to limit our intake of certain species of fish due to concerns about potential contaminants, especially during pregnancy. And many people just don’t like the taste of fish. This is where a high quality, fish oil supplement can be beneficial—to help fill this potentially huge nutritional gap.

About the Author

Dr. Brian Dixon earned his PhD in molecular and cellular biology from Oregon State University in affiliation with the Linus Pauling Institute. Dr. Dixon joined USANA’s department of research and development in January of 2009. As an integral member of USANA’s scientific staff, Dr. Dixon’s main role was to facilitate and manage all human clinical studies conducted at, and funded by, USANA and lead the product innovation team. In November of 2014, Dr. Dixon was asked to head the newly formed department of health and science education as its executive director. He continues to lecture internationally on the importance of nutrition for optimal health and manages the very popular website AskTheScientists.com, where users can find science-based answers to questions on health, wellness, and nutritional supplementation. To find out more about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids, please visit here.