In the past 50 years or so, fat has gotten a pretty bad rap. People assume that fat causes heart disease, weight gain, and a host of other issues. However, this is simply not true. Fat is actually quite healthy, and among the healthiest of fats are Omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are incredibly important, and an essential component of a healthy diet. This article will discuss what exactly these important acids are, and why these are so important throughout the human body.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are found in a variety of different plant and animal-based foods that are essential for basic human health. There are three types of Omega-3 fatty acids, Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
EPAs and DHAs are generally found in fish, and are oftentimes referred to as “marine” or “seafood’ omega-3’s. ALAs are found more broadly in a diet, including plant-based oils, nuts and seeds, in some leafy vegetables, and as well as in animals that have been grass fed.
Why Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids Important and Why Are They Essential?
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential because they can’t be made by the body, and the body needs these fatty acids for optimal functioning. Instead, the only way to get these incredibly important nutrients is directly through the diet.
Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In the past few decades, heart health has been a main topic of conversation between many patients and doctors, and for good reason. Heart disease, and many related conditions including high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes have been on the rise for the past few decades, and what diets are including- and missing- play a major role in these ailments.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for heart health. Studies and anecdotal evidence have for a long time suggested that those who have diets that are high in omega-3 fatty acids are at a lower risk of mortality from heart-related conditions, have lower blood pressure and heart rate, and have healthier blood vessels, even though these diets may be higher in fat overall than average. (1)
Most people love to spend time out in the sun, and there are definite benefits from getting some Vitamin D from enjoying a couple of rays. However, excess UV radiation can cause problems for the skin- ranging from wrinkles and sunspots to the much more extreme basal cell carcinoma, and at the worst, melanoma. Omega-3 fatty acids can help to fight inflammation caused by sun damage and may help prevent skin cancers from developing. There is also suggestions that omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce the localized inflammation caused by acne, leading to quicker healing time and decreased redness. (2)
Most people assume that Vitamin A and carrots are what’s necessary to keep eyes healthy. However, omega-3’s also play an important role. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent macular degeneration and dry eyes. They are what helps protect against a condition known as retinal angiogenesis, which occurs when new, excessive blood vessels form throughout the eye. (3)
As soon as a woman becomes pregnant, and even when she is still trying to conceive, there are so many suggestions and guidelines about how to change her diet to best help her and her baby be as healthy as possible. There are many studies and research that suggests that omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for fetal development and the mother’s health. These fatty acids can help the mother conceive by increasing fertility, keep the baby growing healthy by increasing birth weight and decreasing premature births, and can lower the risk of delivery complications. Deficiency in omega-3 DHA’s during pregnancy have been shown to result in poorly developed neurons and synaptic connections. (4)
Healthy Menstrual Cycles
Pain, cramping, and bloating are among some of the symptoms that women experience during their monthly menstrual cycle. Studies have shown that increasing omega-3 fatty acids can help to decrease instances of menstrual pain. Additionally, one study has even suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can be better at reducing uterine inflammation and pain than ibuprofen. (5)
Brain Health and Mental Health
As we age, it becomes critical to take extra care to protect our brain health. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are quickly becoming prevalent in many of the elderly, and early onset cases are becoming more common. Those who are regularly consuming the recommended amount of Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to have a larger brain size than those who are deficient in this valuable fatty acid. A smaller brain size in adults is a determination of premature aging and memory loss. More importantly, the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3’s can help prevent the onset of brain complications. (6)
While nothing can truly reverse memory loss, consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can help to aid in the reversal of minor memory loss. Studies have also suggested that combining fish oil supplements or increasing omega-3 fatty acid consumption in other ways may help to lower incidences of mild depression and anxiety. Of course, it is always important to avoid self-medication without consulting a doctor first, particularly if an individual is taking prescription medications for depression or anxiety, as it is important not to cause a negative reactions with supplements and prescription medications.
Inflammation is responsible for some of the most common ailments that affect the human body, including high blood pressure, heart disease, Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis, diabetes, asthma and COPD, Rheumatoid Arthritis, as well as a host of other conditions. Recent studies also suggest that inflammation may play a role in the development of cancerous tumors by producing changes in the individual cell DNA.
Omega-3 Fatty acids play an important role in the reduction of inflammation throughout the body. Omega-3’s are metabolized in the body into potent anti-inflammatory molecules called resolvins and protectins. These molecules help reduce and eliminate inflammation by eliminating pro-inflammatory signaling molecules from chronic inflammation that result from 1) disease, 2) immune system dysregulation or dysfunction, 3) chronic stress, 4) allergens or microbes, and/or 5) injury. (7)
Unless part of the 3% of people who are consistently able to function on less than 5 hours of sleep a night, most people need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep to be able to feel fully rested and at their best. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to poor sleep patterns and can increase stress hormones, which in turn makes it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. Without enough sleep at night, you are more prone to disease, obesity, and chances are you won’t be very pleasant to be around. (8)
Good Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in some very specific foods. Fish, particularly fatty species such as salmon, tuna, and sardines, are perhaps some of the most common ways to consume omega-3 fatty acids and have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids per serving. You can also consume fish oil supplements that provide your daily needed amount of this fatty acid.
Additionally, grass-fed beef is another source of omega-3 fatty acids, and you may find that you prefer the taste of beef that is grass fed. Finally, there are also fortified foods, such as milk, eggs, and other foods, that contain omega-3 fatty acids when they normally would not (although we don’t recommend these; it is much better to get your omega-3’s from natural sources like wild-caught fish and grass-fed beef).
What About Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
Now that you are familiar with omega-3 fatty acids, you may be curious about omega-6 fatty acids as well, as these two are often discussed together. While Omega-6s are important for certain cellular functions, they are much more common in the diets of Americans as they are present in a wider variety of foods compared to omega-3’s so the pressure to ensure that you are consuming enough in your diet is not as high. More importantly, omega-6’s are processed into pro-inflammatory molecules in the body. As a result, while necessary in small quantities for cellular health, these fatty acids are considered pro-inflammatory and excess consumption should be avoided.
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