This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
Excitement about omega-3 fatty acids all started 50 years ago when Danish scientists pondered why the natives of Greenland had a very low rate of heart attacks despite their consumption of a high-fat diet of whale and seal meat. After testing blood samples of the residents, researchers discovered chemicals that were heretofore unknown — omega-3 fats.
Since that time, the research community has studied these fatty acids extensively, and has found an impressive list of health benefits associated with them.
Food Sources of Omega-3s
Omega-3s are called essential fatty acids because the body needs them to work normally. Since your body does not produce these nutrients, it is important to get them in your diet.
These nutrients can be categorized as three types: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Food sources of ALA include olive oil, canola oil, flaxseeds and walnuts. Some green vegetables such as spinach, kale and Brussels sprouts are sources of ALA as well. Primary food sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish like salmon, tuna and halibut along with seafood like algae and krill. Most experts say fish sources of EPA and DHA are more beneficial than plant sources of ALA, but it appears all of these foods are valuable for health.
Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Reduce risk of cardiovascular disease: Research shows strong evidence that omega-3s can help with an array of maladies that affect the health of the heart and blood vessels. Studies suggest diets high in these nutrients lower blood pressure. In addition, Inuit Eskimos, whose diet includes large quantities of fatty fish, have higher HDL cholesterol, known as good cholesterol, and lower triglycerides, which are fats in the blood. Other positive indicators include large population studies that suggest dietary omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of stroke from plaque buildup and from blood clots.
Alleviate arthritis: Studies indicate omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties, a benefit that may relieve symptoms of arthritis, including joint stiffness and pain in addition to impaired grip strength.
Reduce cognitive decline: A number of studies suggest people with a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids are at greater risk of developing age related dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Lower risk of macular degeneration: One study found those who ate more fish in their diet had a reduced likelihood of developing macular degeneration compared to those who ate less fish. This disease is a serious eye condition that can lead to blindness.
Reduce risk of colorectal cancer: Animal research and lab research shows omega-3 fatty acids may prevent colorectal cancer from worsening. Additionally, studies on Eskimos, who consume a significant amount of fatty fish, indicate that the population experiences a lower rate of colorectal cancer.
Lower risk of depression: One study suggests a diet low in omega-3s could increase the risk of depression. Conversely, some studies suggest that cultures where the diet includes foods with high levels of omega-3s have lower rates of depression.
Lower risk of asthma: Research indicates a diet high in omega-3s reduces inflammation, a factor that plays a key role in asthma. In fact, one study found that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 greatly influences childhood asthma, as omega-6 tends to induce an inflammatory response, while omega-3 offers anti-inflammatory properties.
High doses of fish oil may increase the risk of bleeding for those on blood thinning medications. Moreover, eating more than 3,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day may increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke.