Omega-3: What It Does, and Why You (Absolutely) Need It

When was the last time you ate a fish-filled meal? The reason we ask: health experts recommend eating fish at least twice a week. There’s a good reason why, too: many types of fish – and other seafood – are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. And, in the realm of human health, omega-3 is quite a potent nutrient: it protects your heart, improves cognitive functioning, bolsters your respiratory system, and boosts the health of your joints and eyes. So having optimal levels of omega-3 should be a priority for any health-conscious person (you can test your own omega-3 levels with EverlyWell’s Omega-3 Basic Test).

But why is omega-3 such a powerful health-booster – and what even is omega-3 in the first place?

Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fat. It’s known as an essential fatty acid because your body can’t make it from nutritional building blocks. Instead, your body gets its supply of omega-3 from your diet.

Your body uses omega-3 to build cell membranes. Omega-3 fatty acids make cell membranes permeable and flexible – which allows your cells to efficiently carry out a variety of functions, such as cell signaling. And since your body is made up of billions upon billions of cells (all of which rely on omega-3 for normal membrane function), omega-3 is vital to your health and enhances your wellbeing.

Three main types of omega-3 affect human health: alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). (We’ll use these acronyms for the rest of this article.) ALA is frequently found in plant oils, while EPA and DHA are abundant in fish oils.       

Incidentally, omega-3 is not the only essential fatty acid. There’s another essential fatty acid the human body needs, called omega-6. Ideally, your body would have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that’s close to 1:1. However, the majority of people living in industrialized nations have a very unbalanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 – with high levels of omega-6 and low levels of omega-3. Why is this the case?

The Omega-3 and Omega-6 Story

If we traveled back in time and got a firsthand look at the diets of early humans, we’d see that these diets had a fairly balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3. In fact, this ratio was (approximately) 1:1, a ratio which persisted for tens of thousands of years. Because this 1:1 ratio lasted for so long, human biology, including its nutritional requirements, adapted to this ratio. In short, human biology evolved features that depended on this 1:1 ratio.

But then, all of a sudden, human dietary patterns (at least in the United States and Western Europe) changed very quickly. The rapid emergence of industrial production caused the creation of hydrogenated vegetable oil (rich in omega-6, but not omega-3) to soar, making it a staple item in the diet. And while this was occurring, modern agricultural practices resulted in the widespread use of grain for feeding domestic livestock, instead of grass (grain contains higher quantities of omega-6 than omega-3). As a result, the meat we ate, and the dairy products we consumed, were all far richer in omega-6.

So what was once a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 quickly spiraled out of balance. Today, the diets of industrialized nations tend to have an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 10:1, and even as high as 25:1.

This startling turn of events has had rather severe health consequences: when the body doesn’t have the right balance of omega-6 and omega-3, there is a heightened risk of diseases with chronic inflammation (such as cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes, among others).

Thus, for optimal health, it’s a good idea to aim for an omega-6:omega-3 ratio that’s close to 1:1. (Curious about what your own omega-6:omega-3 ratio is like? Then take EverlyWell’s Omega Plus Test – which also tells you your trans fat levels.)

How Omega-3 Benefits Your Health

Omega-3 benefits your health in an impressively large number of ways. Heart disease may indeed be the scourge of the 21st century (it’s the leading cause of death in the United States), but with optimal levels of omega-3 in your diet, your risk of heart disease is lowered. (One of the ways omega-3 reduces heart disease risk? It drops your cholesterol levels.)

Like heart disease, sudden cardiac death is another frightening aspect of 21st century living. In fact, sudden cardiac death accounts for 15% of deaths in Western nations. But here, too, omega-3 is useful – high levels of both EPA and DHA are cardioprotective and thus reduce the likelihood of sudden cardiac death.

In addition, DHA has potent anti-inflammatory properties – and promotes neurogenesis (the growth of neurons), so it helps ward off dementia (particularly if used alongside antioxidants).

This brain-protecting effect of DHA underscores a key fact about omega-3 in general: that it is extremely important for brain function and development. Brain cells are very reliant on omega-3 for smooth functioning, so we need healthy omega-3 levels at all stages of our lives – even before birth. (For this reason, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should especially optimize your omega-3 levels – the young, developing brains of babies need this compound!)

Omega-3 also affects your eye health – preventing vision loss and macular degeneration, as well as dry eyes.

However, despite the far-reaching health effects of omega-3, most Americans don’t consume enough of this extraordinary compound. If you’re deficient in omega-3, you may begin to experience a number of less-than-pleasant symptoms.  

Some Symptoms of Omega-3 Deficiency

Do you sometimes feel like your mind is clouded over with fog? Then it’s possible that you’re deficient in omega-3. Brain fog, in fact, is a definite warning sign of omega-3 deficiency. Also, if you’re not getting enough omega-3 in your diet, you could have difficulty concentrating – with your mind darting about from one train of thought to another, impairing your performance at work and in social situations.

And if you happen to be tired most of the time – burdened with chronic fatigue – then your omega-3 levels may be too low.

So if you’ve noticed any of these symptoms creeping up, then it’s probably a good time to check your omega-3 levels. Do this quickly and easily with EverlyWell’s Omega Basic Test.

How to Optimize Your Omega-3 Index Levels

If testing reveals that you’re low on omega-3, there’s certainly a silver lining: you can take very practical steps to bump up your omega-3 levels. Eat fatty fish (like mackerel, salmon, and anchovies) more regularly – at least two times a week. Non-meat sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, eggs (choose DHA-fortified eggs), and algae.

Do note that boosting your omega-3 levels through better eating won’t happen overnight: you’ll only see an improvement in your omega-3 levels after consistently eating the right foods for about 3-4 months.

Conclusion

Optimizing your omega-3 levels can impact your health very positively, yet most people in the United States don’t consume enough of this crucial compound. But before committing to eating habits that boost the amount of omega-3 in your body, you may want to see what your omega-3 levels are like right now – so test your omega-3 levels with EverlyWell’s at-home Omega Basic Test (use the Omega Plus Test to check your omega-6:omega-3 ratios).

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