Benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids
Benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids

Dr. Sanjay Agrawal

Leading Pharmaceutical consultant and editor-in chief of IJMToday


  • Reduces inflammation
  • Lowers risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
  • Improves cognition and behavioural function.
  • Mediates important cellular function such as inhibition of platelet function, prolongation of bleeding time, anti-inflammatory effects and reduction of plasma fibrinogen.

Omega-3 supplements : Ideal to restore the balance

  • The correction in the imbalance can be done by taking Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) supplement.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids : Health benefits-
  • There are several areas where the role of essential fatty acids is well documented and where the importance of Omega-3 is particularly well demonstrated. These areas include the normal development of babies and young children, heart and circulatory health, inflammatory conditions and immune function.

Omega-3 fatty acids in High cholesterol

  • Fish oil supplements containing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have been reported in several large clinical studies to reduce low density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids in High blood pressure

  • Several clinical studies suggest that diets or supplements rich in omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure significantly in individuals with hypertension. An analysis of 17 clinical studies using fish oil supplements found that supplementation with 3 or more grams of fish oil daily can lead to significant reductions in blood pressure in individuals with untreated hypertension.

Heart disease

  • There are also strong evidence that these substances can help prevent and treat atherosclerosis by inhibiting the development of plaque and blood clots, each of which tends to clog arteries. Clinical studies of heart attack survivors have found that daily omega-3 fatty acid supplements dramatically reduce the risk of death, subsequent heart attacks, and stroke.
  • Eating at least 2 servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50%.


  • Individuals with diabetes tend to have high triglyceride and low HDL levels.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can help lower triglycerides and apoproteins (markers of diabetes), and raise HDL, so people with diabetes may benefit from eating foods or taking supplements that contain EPA+ DHA .
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), may not have the same benefit as EPA + DHA because some people with diabetes lack the ability to efficiently convert ALA to a form of omega-3 fatty acids that the body can use readily.

Weight loss

  • Clinical studies suggest that overweight people tend to achieve better control over their blood sugar and cholesterol levels when fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, mackerel, and herring) is a staple in their low-fat.
  • Arthritis
  • Several articles reviewing the research in this area conclude that omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduce tenderness in joints, decrease morning stiffness, and allow for a reduction in the amount of medication needed for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • The results suggest that omega-3 fatty acids are effective treatment, along with conventional therapies such as anti-inflammatory drugs, for joint pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and dysmenorrhea.


  • Clinical studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA help increase levels of calcium in the body, deposit calcium in the bones, and improve bone strength. In a study of women over 65 with osteoporosis, those given EPA and GLA supplements experienced significantly less bone loss over 3 years than those who were given a placebo. Many of these women also experienced an increase in bone density.


  • The omega-3 fatty acids are important components of nerve cell membranes. They help nerve cells communicate with each other, which is an essential step in maintaining good mental health. In particular, DHA is involved in a variety of nerve cell processes.


  • Preliminary clinical evidence suggests that people with schizophrenia experience an improvement in symptoms when given omega-3 fatty acids. Similar to diabetes, individuals with schizophrenia may not be able to convert ALA to EPA or DHA efficiently.

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may have low levels of essential fatty acids (including EPA and DHA) in their bodies.
  • In a clinical study of nearly 100 boys, those with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids demonstrated more learning and behavioral problems (such as temper tantrums and sleep disturbances) than boys with normal omega-3 fatty acid levels.
  • In animal studies, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower the concentration of certain brain chemicals (such as dopamine and serotonin) related to attention and motivation.
  • A clinical study used omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid supplementation in 117 children with ADHD ( attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder ). The study found significant improvements in reading, spelling, and behavior in the children over the 3 months of therapy. Another clinical study found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation helped to decrease physical hostility in school children with ADHD (attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder).

Skin disorders

  • In one clinical study, 13 people with a particular sensitivity to the sun known as photo dermatitis showed significantly less sensitivity to UV rays after taking fish oil supplements. In another study of 40 people with psoriasis, those who were treated with medications and EPA supplements did better than those treated with the medications alone.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

  • When added to medication, such as sulfasalazine (a standard medication for IBD), omega-3 fatty acids may reduce symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – the 2 types of IBD.


  • Clinical research suggests that omega-3 fatty acid supplements may decrease inflammation and improve lung function in adults with asthma.

Macular Degeneration

  • A larger clinical study confirms that EPA and DHA from fish, 4 or more times per week, may reduce the risk of developing macular degeneration.

Cancers : Colon/ Breast/Prostate

  • Consuming significant amounts of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids appears to reduce the risk of cancers. For example, Eskimos, who tend to follow a high-fat diet but eat significant amounts of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, have a low rate of colorectal cancer. Daily consumption of EPA and DHA also appeared to slow or even reverse the progression of colon cancer in people with early stages of the disease.
  • Researchers speculate that omega-3 fatty acids in combination with other nutrients (namely, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, and coenzyme Q10) may prove to be of particular value for preventing and treating breast cancer.

        ALA, however, may not offer the same benefits as EPA and DHA. In fact, one recent clinical study evaluating 67 men with prostate cancer found that they had higher levels of ALA compared to men without prostate cancer.

Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and pregnancy :

  • It is advised that pregnant women and mothers, nursing mothers, young children, and women who might become pregnant should consume sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include extreme tiredness (fatigue), poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.

Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) : Benefits in pregnancy

  • The primary rationale for supplying sufficient intakes of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids for mothers is to support the optimal health of the baby during pregnancy (neonatal period), after birth (during infancy), and during the subsequent childhood period as well as providing for the health and physiological needs of the mother.

The benefits for baby are:

  • A better brain with higher intelligence
  • Good nervous system development
  • Better eyesight from retina formation
  • Fewer behavioral problems after birth
  • Better sleep patterns for a new born

Health benefits for mom include:

  • Less chance of developing pre-eclampsia
  • Protection against brain loss during pregnancy
  • Less chance of pre-term labor and cesarean
  • Much lower risk of postpartum depression
  • According to researchers at the University of Oslo in Norway, during the last trimester, maternal levels of omega-3 fatty acids tend to fall as they are transferred to the fetus to support the developing brain, eye and nervous system.
  • According to food consumption surveys, 85% of all women are deficient in these omega 3 fatty acids. Among pregnant women, only 2% had diets that met their needs of EPA+ DHA  and DPA.
  • Since ALA (found in certain plant foods such as flax, canola oil, walnuts) is very poorly converted via metabolism to EPA and DHA, the most direct and efficient means of supplying these fatty acids to the mother and to the developing baby during pregnancy is via supplementation.

Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) : Role in fetal brain development

  • Development of the brain begins during the first few weeks of gestation. At birth the brain will be composed of 100 billion neurons and Omega fatty acids make up 70% of the total brain mass.
  • By twenty four weeks, neurons begin traveling to the brain’s cortex, an important step for effective brain function. The third trimester brings tremendous growth of the baby’s brain. Omega 3 supplements during pregnancy and nursing are brain food for baby. DHA levels in the brain continue to increase from the third trimester through the first two years of life.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function as well as normal growth and development. These essential fatty acids are particularly important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function. In fact, infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and nerve problems.
  • DHA, with its unique structure, physico-chemical properties, and prevalence in neuronal cell membranes (brain, nerve), plays a key role as a physiologically-essential nutrient for optimal brain functioning of the infant cognitive performance and retinal performance (optimal visual acuity). A significant supply of DHA to the developing infant is generally considered advisable throughout pregnancy and particularly during the last trimester.
  • DHA intakes average only 80 mg/day in pregnant women based on a Canadian study. The published paper(s) from the 1999 NIH Workshop in Bethesda advised that pregnant women should attempt to consume at least 300 mgs DHA/day.
  • There is evidence from published clinical trials that women with higher DHA intakes (via 4 fish servings/week) or by way of supplementation during pregnancy, ranging up to 1100 mg DHA (plus 800 mg EPA) daily, gave birth to infants with higher cognitive development scores and young children with higher IQ scores and mental processing scores up to 4 years of age. A quantitative positive relationship between increasing intakes of DHA (per 100 mg/day) during pregnancy and the child’s IQ has been determined.

Postpartum depression :

  • A higher dietary intake of DHA during pregnancy has been associated with a lesser risk of postpartum depression. Maternal fatty acid levels (especially DHA) steadily drop in late pregnancy, increasing risk for post-partum depression. A meta-analysis of 41 studies showed that lower fish consumption and breast milk DHA content were associated with increased risk for post-partum depression.
  • If a mother’s supply of DHA is low, the fetus will take most of that supply leaving the mother depleted of DHA. During the nine months of pregnancy, a woman could lose as much as 3 percent of her own brain mass from EPA and DHA depletion. Studies show that this depletion of DHA is one possible precursor to the development of postpartum depression.

Eye development :

  • DHA is also important for the development of the light-sensitive cells in the retina of the eye. Studies have shown that infants with an adequate supply of DHA developed better visual acuity and retinal response to light.

Allergy protection:

  • Fish oil (with EPA + DHA ) supplementation during pregnancy may enhance infant immunity (better allergy protection) and reduce to risk of allergic disease.
  • Maternal fish oil supplementation (3.7 g/day n-3, 56% DHA) in allergic (atopic) women (offspring considered at high risk for allergic diseases) significantly increased breast milk levels of the protective Immunoglobulin A (IgA) and CD14.
  • Children born from these mothers have reduced levels of allergic related cytokines and allergen-specific immune responses.

Healthy pregnancy :

        Higher intakes of EPA + DHA  during pregnancy (levels as low as 150 mg/day) have been implicated with increased birth weights, moderately prolonged gestation, and reduced risk of preterm delivery.

  • DHA is also thought to lower the risks of premature birth, low birth weight, and post-partum depression. Generally, women with higher omega-6 to omega-3 intake have a higher likelihood to deliver prematurely. This phenomenon is thought to be related to changes in eicosanoid production (prostaglandins, leukotrienes) which take place prior to parturition.
  • Epidemiological studies suggest that gestation is generally longer in women with higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish. High omega-6 to omega-3 fatty ratios also

        correlate to an increased risk for pre-eclampsia.

  • A study among 1718 women was conducted to assess the first-trimester omega-3 fatty acids (docosahexaenoic and eicosapentaenoic acids) consumption and the incidence of pre-eclampsia. Lower risk of pre-eclampsia was associated with higher intake of the elongated n-3 fatty acids. The results support a potential benefit for elongated n-3 fatty acids in first trimester in preventing preeclampsia. Ann Epidemiol. 2007 September; 17(9): 663–668.
  • Another study was conducted to measure the effect of EPA and DHA on birth weights of infants. Fifty-six percent of the study women consumed fish with low daily median intakes (3.4, 4.1 and 3.8 g day-1 at the three trimesters, respectively). EPA and DHA intakes were associated with their status in erythrocyte membrane phospholipids during pregnancy. Women who did not eat fish during the third trimester had a significantly higher risk of LBW. Similarly, low EPA intake during the third trimester had an association with a higher risk of LBW.

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition24 October 2007

  • In women with high risk pregnancies, fish oil supplementation that provided 2.7 g/day of EPA + DHA during the last trimester of pregnancy lowered the risk of premature delivery from 33% to 21%. In healthy Danish women, fish oil supplementation that provided 2.7 g/day of EPA + DHA increased the length of gestation by an average of 4 days. More recently, consumption of only 0.13 g/day of DHA from enriched eggs during the last trimester of pregnancy increased the length of gestation by an average of 6 days in a low-income population in the US.

Summary of Omega-3 Recommendations

  • Total omega-3 fats: at least 2.4 grams per day
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) + docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) included within your total omega-3s: 400-500 milligrams per day
  • EPA and DHA intake recommendations by various organizations
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are recognized as GRAS (Generally recognized as safe) by USFDA.
  • The American Diabetic Association (ADA) recommends an average of 500 mg of total EPA and DHA per day. This would be approximated by having two 4-ounce (after cooking) servings of fatty fish per week.
  • The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends two servings of fish per week, preferably fatty fish.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends one to two servings of fish per week, with each serving providing between 200 and 500 mg of total EPA and DHA.
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) working group recommends 220 mg each of EPA and DHA per day in a 2000-calorie diet.
  • The Child Health Foundation (CHF) recommends that pregnant and lactating women should receive an average of at least 200 mg per day of DHA.

On A Parting Note

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for optimal health.
  • Getting them from whole foods is the best way to ensure robust omega-3 intake.
  • However, if you don’t eat a lot of fatty fish, then you may want to consider taking an omega-3 supplement. For people deficient in omega-3, this is a cheap and highly effective way to improve health.

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