You’ve probably heard someone, somewhere rave about the benefits of omega-3 supplements. They’re supposed to be good for your brain, good for your heart, and even good for your skin. But if you’re wondering why, exactly, omega-3s are so good for you, then you’ve come to the right place.
In short, omega-3 is an “essential” fatty acid, says registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Skovran, RDN LD, which means the body can’t produce it but requires it for good health. While there are 11 different types, the three main omega-3s to know about are EPA and DHA, aka the kinds found in fatty fish and ALA, which is the kind found in seeds and nuts. One type isn’t necessarily better than the other, Skovran explains. They’re just converted in the body differently.
Many dietitians recommend getting your omega-3s by eating whole foods. Skovran suggests adding a couple tablespoons of hemp, chia, or flaxseed to your food every day, maybe to a smoothie, salad, or baked good. You might also choose to up your intake of fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, to get more omega-3 that way.
That said, it can be tough to get enough of the recommended daily dose of omega-3, especially if you aren’t a big seafood eater. You also might want to boost your intake as a way to ward off certain health concerns, like heart disease. And that’s when adding an omega-3 supplement to your routine might start to sound like a good idea.
The Benefits Of Omega-3 Supplements
One of the main draws of omega-3 is its anti-inflammatory properties. “Research on omega-3 fatty acids has found that they inhibit an enzyme called ‘cyclooxygenase’ that produces hormones that trigger inflammation,” says Jordan Dorn, a certified holistic nutritionist at Zuma Nutrition. “When the immune system has an inflammatory reaction, omega-3 blocks the inflammatory pathways and prevents the reaction from causing inflammation in the body.”
Reduced inflammation can reduce your risk for related diseases like heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and eczema. According to The Harvard School of Public Health, omega-3s may even play a role in reducing your risk of cancer.
Improves Heart Health
How well your blood flows through your arteries is another major factor in heart health. “High blood pressure can damage your arteries and decrease the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart,” Dorn says, “which can eventually lead to heart disease.”
Omega-3s help to lower your blood pressure by directly stimulating the channels in your body that dilate blood pressure, he says. “As these blood vessels dilate, it allows blood flow to increase, which lowers blood pressure and improves heart health as a result.”
Good For Skin, Hair, Nails
If you want to improve your skin, adding an omega-3 supplement might do the trick. “Omega-3 supports skin health because it improves the function of the skin barrier, which helps to keep moisture in and keep irritants out,” Dorn says, adding that omega-3s moisturize the skin and help to prevent skin disorders, too.
Some studies have also shown that upping your intake of omega-3 can be good for your hair and nails. “Omega-3 fatty acids provide essential nutrients for hair follicles and nails, which can improve hair and nail health,” Dorn explains.
Supports Brain Health
Omega-3 fatty acids have many benefits for brain health as well. “They help to lower inflammation in the brain, and also help to form brain and nerve cells,” Dorn explains. “The brain is 60% fat. Not only does omega-3 make up brain cells, but it is essential for learning and memory.”
This fatty acid is also neuroprotective, Dorn says, meaning it protects nerve cells against damage, degeneration, and impairment of function. One study found a decline in DHA levels in patients with Alzheimer’s disease in the areas of the brain associated with cognition and memory, which is why it’s thought that a diet rich in omega-3 could be beneficial in restoring cognitive function.
Helps Improve Mental Health
Various studies have shown that EPA and DHA may help reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Others have found that it might be a brain-friendly supplement for those with ADHD. And while more research is needed to look at the connection between mental health and omega-3s, other studies have found that omega-3 seems to reduce symptoms of anxiety, too.
Omega-3 might also play a role in hormonal health, Dorn says, which is essential for many functions in the body and can improve your overall well-being. “Having a stable chemical balance in the brain and ensuring the body is meeting its nutrient requirements plays a big role in mental health, and omega-3s certainly play a role in this,” he says.
Since EPA and DHA are the types of omega-3 that the body uses, while ALA has to be converted, Skovran recommends taking EPA and DHA. Look for a supplement that includes both EPA and DHA in amounts that total about 500 mg. For example, 300 mg of EPA and 200 mg of DHA.
If you’re vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, or have a fish allergy, you can go for the plant-based ALA. Just up your daily dosage to 1,000 or 1,5000 mg, Skovran says. Throw it back with a meal —preferably one that contains some fat to aid in absorption — and you should be good to go!
How To Choose An Omega Supplement
There are different delivery methods for omega-3, including pills, capsules, and oils. Which one you choose might come down to cost, Skovran says, but in general you should look for a supplement that comes from a reputable brand that does third party testing. This is a good bet to avoid mercury and other toxins, which can show up in fish oils.
Other things to keep in mind include whether the fish is wild caught or sustainably sourced, says registered dietician Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, CLT. If you’re going for a fish oil, Volpe recommends looking for salmon, cod, sardines, or anchovies and skipping pollock, which is said to be higher in pollutants. Avoiding supplements made from larger fish like mackerel or swordfish is another way to avoid a big dose of mercury, Volpe says.
To get plant-based omegas, get your hands on some algae-based omega, since algae is one of the highest plant-based sources of DHA and EPA, Volpe says. “Algae is also often sustainably sourced and easy to take in capsule form,” she says. “These capsules don't have much of a taste, and they look like the other types of omega-3 gel-based capsules.”
When in doubt, pills and capsules are a safe choice. “They are a much easier way to take omega-3 supplements regularly,” Volpe says. “This method is by far the most ‘user-friendly.’ The downside of this method is that there can sometimes be additives and preservatives in capsules, and it isn't always as regulated as oil, which is considered food-grade.”
It’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before taking a new supplement, especially so that you can make sure it won’t interact with any medications you’re taking, Skovran says. While omega-3s are usually easy to tolerate, keep in mind that some folks experience rather unpleasant “fish burps,” aka fish-flavored indigestion, after swallowing an omega pill.
“If this happens to you, there are a couple of solutions,” Skovran says. “One is to simply switch brands. A second solution is to switch to a non-fish based supplement. Another is to buy pills that come in smaller doses, and spread your supplements throughout the day.” That way you can get all the benefits of your omega-3s, without smelling like the sea.
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Sarah Skovran, RDN LD, registered dietitian nutritionist
Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, CLT, registered dietician nutritionist