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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jesse Ropat

The Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids: From Heart Health to Cognitive Function

Omega-3 fatty acids (OM3FAs), specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are crucial for our overall health.


We get these from our diet.


My favorite ways to include these in my diet are fish (I personally love salmon), seeds (like flax seeds), nuts (walnuts), green leafy vegetables (spinach which I include in my daily smoothie), and beans. You should try to get some in your diet and not all from supplements.


That being said, Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most important supplements that I take, and that I recommend to most of my patients, due to the vital role they play in heart health, cognitive function, and overall well-being.

How does an Omega-3 supplement work?


Omega-3 fatty acids work through many different pathways.


They can lower cholesterol by suppressing key fat-producing genes, increasing the breakdown of fatty acids, and speeding up the breakdown of LDL (the “bad cholesterol”).


People who take omega-3’s long-term typically have faster metabolisms, less total body fat, and more lean muscle mass.


Omega-3’s are also anti-inflammatory, which is key for preventing eye function degradation, and supporting our brain tissues as we’ll discuss shortly.


Our Diets and Omega-3’s:


The current North American diet has shifted over time to be high in saturated fats, and low in omega-3 fatty acids. This change, largely centered around fast food with high amounts of saturated fat and small amounts of essential omega-3 PUFA has led us down a path of convenience over health.


Our low intake of dietary EPA and DHA is likely associated with a high number of fetal development issues, and general cardiovascular health risks. It may even be linked to the risk of Alzheimer's disease (AD) development.


The first thing I look at in my patients when they are concerned about their overall health is diet.


What you eat directly correlates to how you feel, and how your body functions. It’s important to fuel your body like you care about it!


Omega-3’s and Heart Health:


Cardiovascular disease is the cause of nearly 40% of all deaths in the United States, many of which are preventable. At the heart of this issue is chronic inflammation which causes many chronic diseases.


Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are amazing heart-protecting molecules linked with anti-inflammatory effects. Not only do they help reduce cell death in heart cells, but they also help protect against heart failure and dangerous heart arrhythmia.


They have even been shown to lower blood pressure, and prevent blood clots.


Many patients who have had heart attacks, or are at risk of heart-related issues, are put onto omega-3 supplements in addition to other heart medications they may be taking to help reduce their risk of future heart issues.


In diabetic patients especially, OM3FAs have been able to lower their risk of major heart issues.


Omega-3’s are absolutely crucial in overall health, but definitely in heart health.


Omegas and your skin & eyes:


DHA, a component of omega-3 fatty acids, helps maintain cell structure in the skin and eyes. Supplementation can improve your skin health, and give you back that glowing, healthy complexion you’ve been missing.


Additionally, because omega-3s are embedded in your eye cells, they’re essential for maintaining good eyesight and potentially preventing macular degeneration, which we are all at risk for as we age.


One of the major supplement changes I recommended to my parents as they’ve gotten older is Omega-3 to help support their eyesight and skin.


Expecting moms and their babies:


EPA and DHA are essential for fetal development. Studies show that the intake of omega 3’s like DHA and EPA influence brain, eye, and immune development in the fetus.


The amount of omega-3 fatty acid in the fetus is directly related to the amount taken by the mother, so it is essential that the mom has adequate nutrition


Most moms are recommended to take in 8-12 ounces of seafood per week, but many fall short of this target. That’s why supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding is so important for not only helping your baby develop properly but may even reduce the chance of a pre-term birth.


There is also very interesting emerging evidence that taking these supplements may reduce the chance of your child developing allergies! I’ve given enough people Epipen’s during my time. For both our sakes, make sure you get your omega-3s.


For moms in the third trimester, DHA accumulates in the eyes and brain, which may help your newborn develop normal eyesight and brain function.


One study found that children whose mothers had taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy had significantly better scores for eye and hand coordination.


Another study showed that children whose moms took a DHA supplement had significantly better problem-solving skills at 9 mo old compared with those who did not take DHA.


These potential benefits outweigh the risks for many of my patients, which we’ll discuss at the end of this article.


The Brain and Omega-3 Fatty Acids:


Mental disorders have become an increasingly important public health issue. They’re one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, and it’s something I’m incredibly passionate about for a myriad of reasons.


We know that good nutrition is key for physical health, but it’s also important for your mental health. Diet is now being viewed as a factor influencing the development of many mental disorders.


Omega-3 fatty acids also play a major role in brain development and function, and inflammation, and when people are deficient, it can lead to disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, ADHD, and autism.


Lucky for us, we can all modify our diet!


DHA is a key component of our brain cell membranes, and we need it for proper nervous system function. Fish consumption and omega-3 supplementation have shown preventive effects on depression, and their administration is considered promising in managing cognitive decline and dementia.


Some studies have drawn a link between diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease, but this data is not yet convincing enough for me just yet.


If you’re dealing with mental health issues, one easy place to start is diet modification. Even easier is picking up an Omega-3 supplement to make sure you’re fueling your body with the fats it needs to keep you healthy both mentally and physically.


Side effects and cautions:


While generally safe, omega-3 supplements may cause fishy taste, acid reflux, diarrhea, gas, and nausea.


Normally, my patients don’t notice any of these. It’s only when you push the dose higher than recommended.


I do caution people on blood thinning medications because high doses of OM3FA’s have been shown to thin the blood slightly, but usually, this is not relevant.


In general, I recommend taking in about 2g of EPA and DHA combined daily, and you can split this up into 2 doses, or simply take it all at once.


Taking with food will help prevent stomach upset, but many of my patients take it on an empty stomach as well.


In summary, omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, offer a wide range of health benefits throughout life. From heart health and prenatal care to cognitive function and mental health, their positive effects make them a dietary necessity.


While supplementation is generally safe, it's crucial to adhere to recommended daily intake guidelines and chat with your healthcare provider before you start a new supplement.


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