Omega 3 has long been lauded for its positive impact on our heart health, but what about our brain? Here’s why this fatty acid is every nutritionist’s liquid gold
In our efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, we know a plethora of vitamins and nutrients act as essential allies. Calcium, for example, is vital for strong bones; vitamin C is essential in maintaining healthy cell function; while iron is key for keeping energy levels up. But omega 3 is often overlooked, despite being just as important. Not only does this polyunsaturated fatty acid assist and enhance multiple areas of our health, including our heart, bones and our mood, but it’s also a substance that the human body is unable to produce naturally – which leads us neatly back to the importance of diet and supplements for everyday health.
The main players
They say three is the magic number and although there are 11 types of omega 3 in total, only a few offer the health benefits to sing from the rooftops about: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). “It’s important to get a good balance of EPA and DHA,” explains Sophie Medlin, consultant dietitian and founder of City Dietitians (citydietitians.co.uk). “ALA (on its own) doesn’t have a function in the body, but it can convert some of that into EPA and DHA.” Ready to find out why these are so essential? Then read on…
Omega 3 is often associated with good heart health and it is indispensable for “quality vascular function and the heart pumping in a healthy way,” explains Sophie. “It can even impact how effectively our heart can change rhythm, and speed up and slow down in response to things we’re doing, such as walking up and down the stairs.” In fact, a US study reported in the Lancet Journal found those who regularly consume oily fish, which is rich in omega 3, three times a week, are 50 percent less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease, while researchers at Harvard University discovered taking omega 3 supplements could reduce the risk of heart-related illnesses by 25 percent. However, the supporting role of omega 3 extends much further than just the heart. “The thing we don’t talk about very often is how essential (these fatty acids) are for brain function,” says Sophie. And, considering more than 850,000 adults in the UK currently live with dementia – a figure that’s predicted to double within the next 20 years – it’s a significant finding. “In an ideal state, about 25 percent of our brain is made up of DHA. Not getting enough omega 3 is a bit like taking out 25 percent of the bricks in your house and replacing them with polystyrene. It’ll still kind of look and work the same, but if anything goes wrong or you start ageing, it won’t be able to function as effectively or be as strong and robust as you’d need it to be.”
Research shows omega 3 can be incredibly effective at boosting the wellbeing of our brains, too. In 2019, a US-based study reported in the Journal of Neurology, monitored a group of cognitively healthy people taking omega 3 supplements. The results? Improved recall, coordination, reaction speed and memory over an extended period. Meanwhile, a 2015 review by Swiss researchers revealed a link between consumption of DHA and a delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease. “The changes we see in brains (deficient of) omega 3 are visible in scans from as young as the age of 30 – and these are the factors linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia,” confirms Sophie.
But it’s not just memory decline that omega 3 deficiency is linked to when it comes to cognitive health. Not hitting your optimum fatty acid levels is also associated with conditions such as ADHD and heightened aggression, along with depression and symptoms of anxiety, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine. And the benefits of boosting your omega 3 intake don’t end there: research carried out by the National Institute of Health in the US shows that it can also have a positive impact on everything from arthritis, inflammation and eye health, to lowering your risk of developing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and colorectal cancer. Plus, if you’re heading towards the menopause stage of life, you’ll be pleased to hear that omega 3 can significantly reduce incidents of sleep-ruining hot flushes, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
A different kettle of fish
So, we’ve unpacked omega 3’s many body benefits, but how can you tell if you’re not getting enough? According to Sophie, deficiency is “not something you’d necessarily spot immediately. But if you’re struggling with your mood or notice an increase in your anxiety or stress levels, or feel your mental performance is lacking, it could be a sign you’re not getting enough essential fatty acids in your diet.” The longstanding answer to upping your intake is to embark on a diet that’s rich in oily fish. “The guidance is we should eat three portions of fish a week – two of which should be oily, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, which have higher concentrations of omega 3 in them than larger white, flaky fish, such as cod,” says Sophie.
For the non-meat eaters
For the increasing number of us turning to vegetarian or plant-based diets, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, soybeans and eggs are also great sources of omega 3, but it’s important to understand that plant sources only provide ALA – the ‘lesser’ of the key trio – and “the body’s conversion rate is usually inadequate,” Sophie adds. “If you don’t habitually eat fish on a regular basis, and you’re vegetarian or vegan, then definitely consider taking a supplement.” And, finally: be sure to look for EPA and DHA on labels and packaging and watch out for fish oil, too – this ingredient makes them unsuitable for veggies and vegans, so search for algae oil alternatives instead, which are equally effective, more environmentally-friendly, odourless, and don’t contain cholesterol. However, if you choose to up your intake, there’s no denying omega 3 is far more important than it’s often given credit for and, with a few simple dietary tweaks, we can all make positive changes that our bodies will thank us for – both now and in years to come.