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Lifetime of Omega-3 Benefits

Lifetime Omega-3 Benefits

"At Summer's End" by Sam Catanzaro is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A lifetime of benefits from omega-3 fatty acids

By Dale Mayo

Studies of the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids have had results ranging from it’s useless to it’s a panacea.  David L. Katz, MD, MPH, and Founding Director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center (1998-2019) offers a pithy description of the problems related to studying the effects of nutrition and nutritional supplements.  Instead of analyzing the studies and their conflicting conclusions, he states:

Here, I think, is what we really want to know: Is there some truth about omega-3s we can rely on for longer than the duration of a news cycle, and why does keeping pace with the “science” on this particular topic feel like watching PingPong?

Regarding that first question, and the basic health effects of omega 3s, the answer has long been and remains “yes,” for three reasons. First, omega-3 fatty acids are called “essential” because they are. These compounds are required for the integrity of our cell membranes, and in the manufacture of various hormones. They are essential nutrients for the same reason that vitamins, minerals, and “essential amino acids” are essential: they are construction material we need, and cannot produce. We consume them, or we lack a required component of ourselves.

In the case of the long-chain omega-3s found in fish, we can actually make them from the shorter-chain omega-3s found in plants, notably alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, we do that fairly inefficiently and quite variably; that pathway can be blocked with a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids, which is common; and besides, most people eating modern diets have low intake of plant as well as marine omega-3s.[1]

That said, the literature on omega-3s show that omega-3s provide health benefits over a lifetime.  From pre-conception through older adulthood, omega-3s may help prevent premature birth and low birth weight as well as lower the risk of cognitive deterioration.[2]   In brief, the bullets below show the potential benefits of omega-3s at different life stages:

Preconception:  Replacing trans fats with dietary omega-3 fatty acids may improve ovulation, increase egg quality and the health of the ovarian reserve of mothers of advanced age.[3]  There is also some indication that omega-3 supplementation results in enhanced sperm count, motility, and morphology.[4], [5], [6]

Child Development

In-utero/infant development:  According to the National Institutes of Health, it appears that omega-3 fatty acid consumption during pregnancy is associated with improved neurodevelopmental outcomes in the child. Breast-feeding women who ingested omega-3s had infants who performed better on the Bayley Psychomotor Development Index and appeared to have a decreased risk of developing food allergies.[7]  During pregnancy and breastfeeding, eating 8 to 12 ounces per week of fish and other seafood may improve your baby’s health. However, it is important to choose fish that are higher in EPA and DHA and lower in mercury. Examples are salmon, herring, sardines, and trout.[8]

Child development:  Because omega-3 fatty acids affect brain development and function, some have suggested that increasing intake in children might improve school performance. While some studies show some in reading, learning, and memory, the effects were most notable in children with low literacy rates and those who were malnourished. Adding an omega-3 supplement showed some improvement in ADHD symptoms in children already taking a stimulant medication.[9]  According to a study from Chile, omega-3s are  key in children’s growth and development, with special implications in the central nervous system (especially cognitive function); visual development (better visual acuity); cardiovascular health (improving blood pressure); and the immune system (protecting against childhood allergies).[10]

Adults:  Omega-3 fatty acids are a key ingredient in the popular Mediterranean diet.  In fact, omega-3s appear to be a large part of the favorite diets rated in U.S. News.[11]  According to the Omega-3 Fact Sheet on the NIH website, these are some health effects in adults and older adults:

Adults
  • Protection from cardiovascular disease, especially if you replace less-healthy foods with fatty fish and other seafood – decreases triglycerides, raises “good” HDL cholesterol, lowers blood pressure (slightly), reduces blood clotting, decreases risk of stroke and heart failure, reduces irregular heartbeat.[12]
  • Some research shows a lower risk of dementia and other problems with cognitive function.
  • May lower the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration.
  • May help curb the inflammation of arthritis.
  • Regular aerobic exercise combined with omega-3s improves body composition.[13]
  • Can reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome.[14]
  • May improve bone and joint health. [15]
  • May even help reduce anxiety.[16]
  • Omega-3 fats are good for your skin. [17]

The Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) offers guidelines for adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids for various life stages (see table below).

Adequate Intake (AI) for Omega-3 Fatty Acids[18]

Life Stage

Age

Males (g/day)

Females (g/day)

Infants*

0-12 months

.5

.5

Children

1-3 years

.7

.7

Children

4-8 years

.9

.9

Children

9-13 years

1.2

1.0

Adolescents

14-18 years

1.6

1.1

Adults

19 years and older

1.6

1.1

Pregnancy

All ages

-

1.4

Breast-feeding

All ages

-

1.3

* As total omega-3s – all other values are for ALA alone.

Salmon

Food vs. supplements

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans says that we should get most of our nutrients from foods that contain vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and other substances that benefit health. Sometimes fortified foods and dietary supplements may provide nutrients when you don’t get enough from food.  The Mayo Clinic, in a myth-busting article, also says that it’s better to get omega-3 fatty acids from your diet, rather than from a bottle of supplements.[19] 

The webpage Seafood Health Facts:  Making smart choices (a joint project by the Universities of Oregon State, Cornell, Delaware, Rhode Island, Florida, and California and the Community Seafood Initiative) has a list of the omega-3 content of frequently consumed seafood products.  Another useful website is the US Department of Agriculture FoodData Central, where you can search the nutritional values of a large variety of foods.

Good omega-3-rich fish options include salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, cod, herring, trout, and light tuna.  Sizzlefish offers a number of seafood collections that include omega-3-rich fish.

Please Note: 

Omega-3 dietary supplements may interact with the medications you take. For example, high doses of omega-3s may cause bleeding problems when taken with warfarin (Coumadin®) or other anticoagulant medicines. As always, you should talk with your health care provider about any complementary health approaches you use (including fish oil supplements).This article is meant only to be educational.

 

References

[1]  Katz, D. L. (2018). Lazarus took fish oil. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/lazarus-took-fish-oil-david-l-katz-md-mph-facpm-facp-faclm

[2]  Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Center website. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids

[3] Polotsky, A. (2018). A plate full of omega-3 fatty acids with a side of fertility boost.  University of Colorado Advanced Reproductive Health. https://arm.coloradowomenshealth.com/doctors-blog/omega-3-fatty-acids-fertility

[4] Safarinejad, M. R., Safarinejad, S. (2012). The roles of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in idiopathic male infertility. Asian Journal of Andrology, 14(4): 514-515. https://doi.org/10.1038/aja.2012.46

[5]  Falsig, A.-M. L., Gleerup, C. S., & Knudsen, U. B. (2019). The influence of omega‐3 fatty acids on semen quality markers: a systematic PRISMA review. Andrology, 7(6):794-803. https://doi.org/10.1111/andr.12649

[6]  Bakalar, N. (2020). Fish oil supplements tied to sperm health. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/well/live/fish-oil-supplements-tied-to-sperm-health.html

[7]  Coletta, J. M., Bell, S. J. & Roman, A. S. (2010). Omega-3 fatty acids and pregnancy. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 3(4):163-171.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3046737/

[8]  Omega-3 fatty acids:  Fact sheet for consumers.  Updated October 1, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/

[9]  Kelly, L. (2019). Mayo Clinic Q and A:  Omega-3 supplements for children – what does the research show? https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-q-and-a-omega-3-supplements-for-children-what-does-the-research-show-2/

[10]   Gonzales, F. E. & Baez, R. V. (2017). In tie:  Importance of omega 3 in children’s nutrition. Revista Paulista de Pediatria, 35(1):3-4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5417803/

[11]  https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-diets-overall

[12]  https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/omega-3/art-20045614

[13] Hill, A. M., Buckley, J. D., Murphy, K. J., & Howe, P. R. C. (2007). Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 8(5):1267-74.  https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/85.5.1267

[14]  Hjalmarsdottir, F. (2018). 17 science-based benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-health-benefits-of-omega-3

[15]  Hjalmarsdottir, F. (2018). 17 science-based benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-health-benefits-of-omega-3

[16]  Su, K., Tseng, P., Lin, P., et al. (2018).  Association of Use of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids With Changes in Severity of Anxiety Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Network Open, 1(5):e182327. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.2327

[17]  Hjalmarsdottir, F. (2018). 17 science-based benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-health-benefits-of-omega-3

[18]  Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Fats: Total Fat and Fatty Acids. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. 2005:422-541. (The National Academies Press)

[19]  https://www.mayoclinic.org/dont-get-tricked-by-these-3-heart-health-myths/art-20390070