You have probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids. They are well-known for their health benefits, and they purportedly can help tackle everything from cardiovascular disease to depression. But what does the science say? Are omega-3s really as beneficial as people suggest?
What Are the Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
The omega-3 fatty acids are types of fat known as essential fats. Unlike other fats that your body can construct from the raw building blocks, essential fats must come from your food. There are three types of omega-3: docosahexaenoic acide (DHA) , eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA and EPA are the two that come mainly from fish and other seafood. ALA is the most prevalent in a Western diet, as it is in animal fat and vegetable oil. Unfortunately, the body predominantly uses ALA as an energy source, so the real benefits come from both EPA and DHA.
What are the Health Benefits?
Heart Health: Most research on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is in heart health, and the evidence is overwhelming. A diet rich in omega-3s can massively reduce the chances of developing many forms of heart disease. The fatty acids help by regulating the heartbeat, minimizing the chances of heart attack, arrhythmia, and other cardiac issues.
Cardiovascular Health: Evidence also indicates that other areas of the cardiovascular system benefit from omega-3s. Research shows that people who eat foods high in these fatty acids have, on average, lower blood pressure, wider blood vessels, and less atherosclerosis, than those lacking in omega-3s.
Mental Health: Another area that omega-3s may help in is depression. The exact mechanism is unknown, but the evidence points towards improving symptoms with an omega-3 rich diet. Further, these fatty acids can also reduce anxiety and improve brain function. The improvement in brain function has led to suggestions that omega-3s may be crucial in the fight against Alzheimer’s. While there is promising evidence in this area, there is no conclusive link.
Eye Health: DHA is in the eye’s retina, so a diet rich in this type of omega-3 can improve eye health and help prevent degenerative conditions such as muscular degeneration. Research suggests that EPA can also improve eye health to a lesser degree, but the reasons are, as yet, unknown.
Infant Development: Around 40% of the fatty acids in a person’s brain, and around 60% in the retina, is DHA. So, as the body grows, it is no surprise that a deficiency of omega-3s can lead to problems. A diet rich in DHA is vital during pregnancy when the child develops the most. This diet should then carry through if the mother is breastfeeding to give the child the numerous benefits omega-3s provide.
The science is clear about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. A diet rich in omega-3s can have numerous advantages in many areas of health. However, the EPA and DHA predominantly in seafood are of most benefit. Seaweed is an excellent source for people who choose not to eat fish, or taking a supplement is also an option, so the benefits are available to everyone.
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