Dietary supplements have grown in popularity over the years, as ever more of us are keen to maintain our health and be the very best version of ourselves. All the same, for younger men this often involves such well-known supplements as creatine or whey protein. Others, such as omega 3 oils, are typically seen as supplements for the over 50’s, but is this really accurate?
What is Omega 3?
Omega 3 oils are a great source of essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make itself and so must be consumed in the diet. Most notably, these fatty acids help to control inflammation in the body, which has in turn been linked to healthy aging.
The most common source of omega 3 oils in the diet are oily fish. A study that examined the omega 3 content of fourteen popular species of fish found the highest volumes are to be found in salmon, mackerel and red mullet. Generally speaking, experts recommend consuming at least two portions of oily fish per week to ensure that you’re getting enough omega 3.
In reality there are a number of reasons why many of us fail to meet this target. For some, it is the impracticality of buying and preparing so much fish, whilst for others it is a dislike of seafood. In these cases, omega 3 is available in supplement form, and it has been suggested that omega 3 is now the most popular dietary supplement in the world.
Vegetarians and vegans can struggle to get enough omega 3 in the absence of fish in the diet. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Some seeds and nuts contain an omega 3 oil known as ALA, which the body can transform into the EPA and DHA normally derived from fish. Flaxseed (or a flaxseed-derived supplement) is the best-known source of this alternative omega 3 oil.
Debate has raged in the scientific world about whether food-based sources are better than supplements. Generally it seems that deriving omega 3 from the diet is recommended because oily fish also offer a variety of other nutrients such as vitamin D and selenium. As one study comparing the two concluded, however, “supplements are a suitable alternative”.
Furthermore, a separate study found that “major prevention trials have clearly indicated that omega-3 fatty acid capsules confer cardiovascular benefits and, therefore, that both are cardioprotective”.
In other words, the current understanding can be summarised that omega 3 oils are important for our health, but that whether this is achieved through dietary means or via supplementation is of less importance.
But what are the potential benefits of making sure you’re consuming the recommended volume of omega 3 oils?
Healthy Brain Function
Possibly the most exciting and most heavily-researched aspect of omega 3 oils is how they can support a healthy brain. The fatty acids derived from omega 3 oils play an important role in the central nervous system. Unsurprisingly, therefore, evidence points to deficiencies in these fatty acids impacting a range of brain-related elements.
DHA, one of the essential fatty acids to be found in omega 3 oils, are known to support growth and function of the brain in infants, but can also promote healthy brain function in adults. Studies have shown, for example, that a diet that is rich in DHA can improve concentration and the ability to learn, whilst a deficit has the exact opposite effect. There is some evidence to suggest that childhood deficiencies in DHA may be linked to ADHD, aggression and depression. In adults, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is also linked to decreases in DHA levels and general cognitive decline.
The polyunsaturated fatty acids contained in omega 3 oils have long been linked to depression and mood disorders, with increased volumes of omega 3 oils often linked to improvements. As one study summarized “deficits in omega 3 fatty acids have been identified as a contributing factor to mood disorders”.
In one study, children were tested for polyunsaturated fatty acids, then had their behaviour recorded by parents. Those individuals with lower omega 3 fatty acid levels were found to suffer more sleep problems and temper tantrums.
Not only have numerous trials found benefits of omega 3 supplementation with psychiatric conditions, but scientists have also suggested that the use of omega 3 oils should be “prophylactic and continue treatment before aging”. In other words, whilst omega 3 oils seem to offer the greatest benefits to those already suffering from health conditions, making sure you’re getting enough fatty acids, either in the diet or through supplementation, may help to stave off risks in later life.
Studies have found that alongside supporting the brain, the polyunsaturated fatty acids found in omega 3 oils also have an important role to play in maintaining vision. One study examining the benefits of omega 3 claimed that “an adequate intake of omega 3 is essential for optimal visual function”.
So-called “age-related macular degeneration” (AMD) is one of the most prevalent causes of reduced vision and even blindness in the West. Whilst studies have shown that cigarette smoking almost doubles the risks of developing AMD in later life, it seems that omega 3 oils can have quite the opposite effect. The scientists in question found that consumption of at least two portions of oily fish per week can reduce the onset of AMD by as much as 22%. The effects were most prominent in those individuals who, through improper diet, were found to be deficient in DHA.
Omega 3 seems to play a big role is in helping to protect the circulatory system. Getting enough omega 3 oil has been linked to a reduction in hardening of the arteries, and the various heart-related issues this can cause. It seems that consuming enough omega 3 oil may therefore help to reduce the incidence of heart disease and strokes.
In one wide-ranging study an astonishing 32,000 people took part in experiments with omega 3 oils. One half of the group was provided with a supplement that included the key fatty acids DHA and EPA, while the other half took a placebo. Neither group knew which supplement they were taking. The scientists found that the group taking omega 3 oils saw a significant reduction in “cardiovascular events” of 19%. In other words, this study suggests that supplementing with omega 3 oils may reduce your chances of cardiovascular disease by as much as a fifth.
It is known that the fatty acids found in omega 3 oils can help to reduce chronic inflammation in the body; a major factor in a huge range of commonly-experienced diseases. It has been suggested, for example, that fish oils may help to control everything from psoriasis to migraines, asthma to rheumatoid arthritis. As one scientific study concluded “many of the placebo-controlled trials of fish oil in chronic inflammatory diseases reveal significant benefit, including decreased disease activity”.
The current scientific understanding is that the essential fatty acids found in omega 3 oils can have wide-ranging positive impacts on health. For example, one study claimed that “dietary supplementation may benefit patients with atherosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, metabolic syndrome, obesity, inflammatory diseases, neurological/ neuropsychiatric disorders and eye diseases”.
What is more, consuming the recommended weekly intake of oily fish, or the use of omega 3 supplements, have been linked to the prevention of many such diseases. Whilst omega 3 oils may popularly be seen as a supplement for older generations, there is evidence to suggest that regular supplementation may play an important “preventative” role in younger people.
Simply Supplements, one of the UK’s best known supplement providers, supplied this article.