The benefits of omega-3 are nothing to scoff at.
Omega-3 is a type of fatty acid that can help improve your mood, lower triglycerides, and blood pressure, and protect against heart disease. The average person should eat three servings per day, Unfortunately, most people don’t meet these recommendations!
When you’re trying to stay healthy in this challenging world, it’s important to know what foods contain good fats like omega 3s. That way you can ensure that you get the nutrients you need and can feel confident about your health.
Right, you may now think Omega-what? So let’s start at the beginning to find out what Omega-3 fatty acids are, why they are important, and how they relate to other fatty acids, such as Omega-6 fatty acids.
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that play a vital role in the health of our bodies. They are key to the structure of every cell wall, and they help build and maintain a healthy body. Omega-3s can be found in specific fish, as well as plant-based sources such as nuts and seeds. The term “omega” refers to the chemical structure of the fatty acid.
ALA, EPA, and DHA
Omega-3s are a category of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The three most important omega-3 fatty acids are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). They each have slightly different roles and are found in different foods. ALA is a so-called essential fatty acid. This means your body can not make this acid by itself, you have to get it through food from your diet.
The fatty acids EPA and DHA are not essential. Our body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, so technically we do not need to get them through our diet (as long as we get enough ALA). However, there is one caveat. Our bodies can only convert small amounts and some bodies are better at this conversion than others. Getting EPA and DHA from food sources is still important for optimal health and a great way to increase the omega-3 levels in your body.
Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The following foods are great sources of omega-3s:
- Sprouted walnuts
- Sprouted chia seeds
- Sprouted flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Fatty fish (especially salmon, anchovies, trout, mackerel, and sardines)
- Sprouted soybeans
- Canola Oil
What are the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids play a key role in pretty much every cell of our body as they are responsible for the structure of the walls in our cells. DHA is particularly important for eye, brain, and sperm cells. But Omega-3 fatty acids also nourish our body with calories and support a variety of other bodily functions that keep our lungs, heart, blood vessels, hormones, and immune system healthy.
Read on to find out all the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Support Heart Health
Research has shown that a diet high in omega-3s can improve and support our cardiovascular system. It seems to be especially effective in managing triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), and cholesterol as it prevents the building of plaque that blocks the arteries. Omega-3 fatty acids can even help to lower blood pressure.
The Italian Federation of Cardiology carried out a big randomized controlled trial in 2007, analyzing the effect of omega-3 capsules on over 11.000 patients with heart disease. Patients who received the supplement had a 15% lower immediate risk of death due to a stroke or heart attack, as well as a 20% reduced risk of death due to health reasons in general compared to a placebo group. A follow-up study after 3.5 years even revealed a 45% decrease in death from heart attacks compared to the placebo group.
This research strongly suggests a close link between omega-3 intake and a healthy heart. Since omega-3s have also been shown to improve cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure, two vital factors of long-term heart health, the evidence is pretty clear that a sufficient level of omega-3 fatty acids in our diet is important.
2. Omega-3s Can Fight Depression and Anxiety
Depression is a highly debilitating disorder that can interfere with all aspects of our lives and is often very difficult to treat. A growing body of evidence suggests a link between diet and our mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are suspected to have a positive impact on people affected by depression.
A lot of research has been done on this topic but the results are often interpreted very differently. A big meta-analysis screened the available research and came to the conclusion that omega-3 fatty acids can significantly improve the symptoms of depression. It is still not completely clear how omega-3s improve depression, however, a likely reason is the anti-inflammatory infect of omega-3 fatty acids.
Another suggested reason is that omega-3s have the ability to increase the transmission of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters responsible for mood stabilization and happiness. Omega-3s also seem to have neuroprotective characteristics, which means they can protect brain cells from damage and therefore keep our brains healthy.
Clinical trials have also been done to research the effect of omega-3 fatty on anxiety. A randomized controlled trial has shown a 20% reduction in anxiety for patients who increased their omega-3 intake, compared to a placebo group.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Reduce Inflammation
Long-term inflammation can have severe consequences on our health. It has been linked to causing strokes, cardiovascular disease and even being a driver of arthritis. There are a variety of causes for inflammation, but depression and anxiety are two factors that increase the number of proinflammatory cytokines in our body. I guess it’s true, stress does take a toll on our health.
As we have seen before, omega-3 fatty acids are effective at fighting depression and anxiety. This suggests, that they would also have an effect on the level of inflammation in our body. A randomized controlled trial with 86 medical students was able to prove this suspicion. The study showed a 14 % reduction in Interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine, in people who increased their omega-3 intake, compared to a placebo group.
The ratio between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids also plays a very important role in fighting inflammation. AA (arachidonic acid) is an omega-6 fatty acid, which has been shown to increase the production of proinflammatory cytokines. Omega-3 fatty acids on the other hand are able to reduce the production of these cytokines. A healthy balance between omega-3s and omega-6s seems to be an important aspect of reducing inflammation and with that increase our overall health. More about the optimal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio below.
4. The Effects of Omega-3 on Losing Weight
Research has suggested a positive effect between omega-3 fatty acids and metabolism. Several animal studies have shown a decrease in body fat when the intake of omega-3s was increased. Even though the evidence in human trials is not quite as clear, some trials have suggested that this effect is also true for humans.
If you are trying to lose weight, your doctor most probably will suggest you increase your physical activity. Whilst this is always a good idea, many studies have shown that an increase in physical activity often only shows a very small change in weight. Increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, coupled with an increase in physical exercise could be a great strategy to shed some excess weight.
5. Omega-3 May Help Prevent Breast Cancer
The main reason for developing breast cancer seems to be a hormonal one. However, the level of inflammation and cytokine production in our body also plays a role in the development and progression of breast cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are very important in fighting inflammation and are therefore suspected to also impact the risk of developing breast cancer. This suspicion is supported by the fact that western populations with low omega-3 levels show higher rates of breast cancer compared to populations with high omega-3 consumption. Particularly interesting hereby is the observation that the rate of breast cancer significantly increases in populations migrating to western countries and adopting a western diet.
Research in this field is ongoing and more human studies are needed to come to a definitive conclusion. However, the current evidence strongly suggests that a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent breast cancer.
6. Omega-3s Can Improve Eye Health
What we eat has a major impact on the health of our eyes and how good our vision is. Some evidence indicates that omega-3 fatty acids can support eye health.
One of the most common eye and vision problems is the so-called dry eye disease (DED). Essential fatty acids have long been of interest as a potential treatment and prevention for DED. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids indeed play a crucial role in preventing DED.
Another common eye disease is AMD (age-related macular degenerations). Again, omega-3 fatty acids have been suspected to have a positive effect, especially when it comes to the prevention of AMD. The evidence is in. High consumption of omega-3s had a positive effect, especially in the prevention of early AMD.
7. Omega-3s Can Fight Autoimmune Diseases
Due to the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids, it is assumed that they also have a positive effect on autoimmune diseases, such as Lupus or Chrones Disease. A variety of animal and clinical intervention studies seem to support this assumption. Randomized controlled trials with a placebo group could show a significant reduction in autoimmune disease activity when supplementing with a fish-oil high in omega-3.
A large randomized, placebo-controlled, and double-blind trial, called VITAL was conducted in 2011 to research the effects of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids on autoimmune disease, particularly rheumatoid arthritis. Over 25.000 participants over 50 years of age were enrolled and followed for a period of 5 years. The study showed an overall reduction of risk for autoimmune disease of 25-30% compared to the placebo group.
This is quite compelling evidence for a close link between a diet high in omega-3s and a decreased risk to suffer from debilitating autoimmune diseases.
8. Omega-3 Is Good For Your Skin
Fatty acids are an essential building block of healthy skin (and hair as well). Omega-3s are showing a variety of benefits when it comes to skin health.
First of all, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to protect our skin from UVA and UVB rays. Especially EPA and DHA reduce the sensitivity of our skin to harmful ultraviolet light. One study, in particular, supports this claim. Participants who increased their intake of EPA for a duration of 3 months, showed a 136% increase in protection against sun rays, compared to the placebo group.
Omega-3 fatty acids also have a positive effect on acne. Research has shown a strong link between high levels of inflammation and acne. Since omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect, they play a vital role in fighting acne. Studies experimenting with omega-3 supplements to reduce acne have also shown positive outcomes.
But that’s not all. Patients with severe acne often take isotretinoin to reduce the symptoms. Unfortunately, this drug often comes with severe side effects. A recent study suggests that a diet high in omega-3 can reduce these side effects. So far this has been a small study, so more research is needed to prove these findings.
9. Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Improve Sleep
We can’t speak about health, without speaking about sleep. A variety of dangerous diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and even cardiovascular disease are linked to sleep deprivation. Getting adequate amounts of and most importantly, good quality sleep is one of the most important aspects of our health. But this is often easier said than done.
A diet low in omega-3 fatty acids is linked to severe sleep problems in children as well as sleep deprivation due to sleep apnea in adults. Melatonin is the sleep hormone, which helps our body to regulate the wake-sleep cycle. Low levels of omega-3 (particularly DHA) are associated with low levels of melatonin, thus messing with our sleep cycles and preventing us from falling asleep.
A study has demonstrated the effect that high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have on how long and how well we sleep. The participants that received an omega-3 supplement showed a significant increase in the duration of sleep as well as in the quality of sleep compared to the placebo group. This resulted in a better mood but also better functioning in the daily lives of participants.
What about Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
You may have also heard about omega-6 fatty acids and it is important to mention them in the context of talking about omega-3s. Why? Mainly because the ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids also hugely impacts our overall health. But let’s start at the beginning.
The Difference Between Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
So, what are omega-6 fatty acids, and aren’t they the same as omega-3 fatty acids? Well, no. They are very similar as they are both fatty acids but they are not the same. They each have a slightly different molecular structure. However, they are both very important for cell health and are used by our bodies to create other substances needed for various bodily functions, such as controlling inflammation and blood pressure.
Just like omega-3s, omega-6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. The most common omega-6 fatty acid is LA (linoleic acid). The other three types of omega-6 fatty acids are ARA (arachidonic acid), GLA (gamma linoleic acid), and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). Most Omega-6 fatty acids can be made by our body, so they are not essential. Except for LA, this one our body can not produce on its own, we have to get this from food sources.
Food Sources High in Omega-6 Fatty Acids
The following foods are good sources of omega-6s:
- Sprouted soybeans
- Sprouted sunflower seeds
- Sprouted Cashews
- Sunflower oil
- Sprouted almonds
- Sprouted pumpkin seeds
Are Omega-6 Fatty Acids healthy?
Omega-6 fatty acids are a vital building block for our body and are crucial for cell function. They are able to reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels in our blood and increase “good” HDL cholesterol. Omega-6 fatty acids also improve insulin sensitivity, helping our body to keep blood sugar levels under control. But often omega-6 gets a bad rep. Especially in comparison to its brother omega-3.
The main reason for this is that the omega-6 fatty acid AA (arachidonic acid) is the foundation of pro-inflammatory molecules. It also has been linked to damage in blood vessels and increased blood clotting. But AA also plays a role in reducing inflammation and blood clots, so it is not quite that simple. The key to this is in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
What is the Optimal Ratio Between Omega-3 and Omega-6?
Humans evolved by eating a diet with a ratio of about 1:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Today this ratio is close to 17:1, especially in the western world. This means our intake of omega-6 fatty acids is dramatically higher in comparison to our omega-3 intake than our bodies are used to.
An often proposed solution is to cut back on omega-6 fatty acids in order to bring this ratio back into balance. But the real truth is, that most people on the standard western diet are highly deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. Increasing omega-3 fatty acids in order to balance out the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 seems to be a much better strategy for optimal health.
So it is not omega-6 per se which is bad for us. The problem is that our diets are too high in omega-6 fatty acids, whilst simultaneously being too low in omega-3 fatty acids. This imbalance promotes cancer, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune responses.
Research has shown that a ratio of 4:1 (omega-6:omega-3) reduced the overall risk of mortality by 70%. Many dietary guidelines have incorporated this research and it seems that attempting a ratio close to this is a good aim.
Maximizing Omega-3s In Your Diet
Increasing omega-3 fatty acids in our diet is important. But how can we do that? Firstly, make sure to regularly include the foods mentioned above, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. If you want to take it a step further, you can sprout nuts and seeds which are high in omega-3 before consuming them.
Sprouting initiates the process of germination, which activates a variety of enzymes. This process produces ALA, therefore increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in those foods. These enzymes also break down proteins and starches, making them easier to use by our body. This means sprouting seeds and nuts not only increases omega-3 levels but also makes it easier for our bodies to absorb them.
Another important thing to know is that fat increases the absorption rate of omega-3 fatty acids. If you get your omega-3s from whole foods, you most likely won’t have to worry about this as they are naturally packaged with healthy fats. But if you are getting most of your omega-3s from supplements, make sure you are taking them together with a healthy source of good fats.
Are Omega-3 Supplements a Good Idea?
Omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil or algae oil as a vegan alternative, have been around for many years and are often referred to as a good way to boost your health. But what does the evidence say?
As discussed before, including good sources of omega-3 fatty acids in our diet can significantly reduce our risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, there is no significant evidence that taking omega-3 supplements has the same benefits.
When it comes to rheumatoid arthritis, some studies have shown a small reduction in joint pain when patients are supplemented with fish oil. Even though the reduction was very small, it did reduce the need for medication, suggesting a big benefit here.
Taking an omega-3 supplement to relieve high blood pressure, has also only shown small effects. These effects are not significant enough for the general population. However, people with very high blood pressure could benefit from taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
Side Effects of Omega-3 Supplements & Fish Oil
So far no significant side effects have been reported in connection with taking omega-3 supplements. The most commonly reported side effects include:
- bad breath
- unpleasant taste
Whilst supplementing with omega-3 capsules seems to be safe for most people, those who take drugs affecting blood clotting should be cautious. The supplements could interfere with the performance of these drugs, so this should be discussed with a doctor beforehand. The same goes for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
It is also uncertain if fish oil is safe for people who are allergic to seafood.
The Bottom Line
Unless you take medication for blood clotting or have a seafood allergy, taking omega-3 supplements is safe for you. If you are affected by rheumatoid arthritis or have high blood pressure, discussing omega-3 supplements with your doctor may be a good idea. However, most people do not need to supplement with fish or algae oil.
The ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is highly imbalanced in western societies. Instead of decreasing our intake of omega-6, we should all strive to increase the level of omega-3 fatty acids. The best way to do this is by incorporating whole foods which are high in omega-3s into our diet. Sprouting these foods increased their omega-3 levels even further, maximizing their nutritional value and impact on our health.
Take charge of your health!
Improve your diet and start sprouting today! The Sprouty Starter Set includes everything you need to get started: two jars with stainless steel mesh lids for continuous sprouting, high-quality ceramic trays, and two packages of seeds so that you can get started right away!