You know there’s no such thing as a magic pill—but if one did exist, it’d probably have a lot in common with an omega-3 supplement. The nutrient gets a lot of love for its anti-inflammatory superpowers, which may assist with the management of all sorts of different health woes.
“Omega-3 supplements can help with depression, ADHD, hypertension, joint pain, eczema, or psoriasis,” says Jacqueline Schaffer, MD. Naturopath and professor of natural medicine, Sally Warren, PhD, adds that omega-3 supplements are particularly beneficial for pregnant women, and that they can help with hormone and fertility problems.
Even those without any major health issues are known to take omega-3s on the reg—like Kerry Washington, who swears they give her softer skin and hair, or Lea Michele, who pops two of them each day in between trail hikes and Epsom salt baths.
Clearly, deciding to take an omega-3 (with the help of your doctor, of course) is the easy part. Once you hit the supplement aisle, however, it gets a little more complicated—like, are plant-based omegas superior to fish oil? How much should you take each day to truly reap the benefits? And, um, is there anything that can be done to get rid of that not-so-pleasant fishy aftertaste? I dove deep with some medical experts to find out.
Here’s your beginner’s guide to taking fish oil and other omega-3 supplements.
Do I even need an omega-3 supplement?
According to Dr. Warren, our bodies don’t make omega-3s on their own. Since they’re essential for our systems to function optimally, she adds, we need to get them from our diets.
And while you can certainly consume all the omega-3s you need from food, supplementing can be helpful when you aren’t getting the recommended 3-4 servings of low-mercury fish per week.
Some experts also claim you can get sufficient omega-3s from flaxseeds, chia seeds, or flaxseed oil. But Dr. Schaffer says this method isn’t as effective as eating fish or taking an omega-3 supplement. That’s because fish and fish oils contain EPA and DHA fatty acids—the ones associated with omega-3s’ many health benefits—in their pure form. Seeds, on the other hand, contain an omega-3 called ALA, which must be broken down by the body into EPA and DHA. Research shows that only 2 to 10 percent of ALA actually gets converted to EPA and DHA, so you’d have to eat a lot of seeds to get the same benefits as you would from a piece of salmon. “The EPA and DHA [in fish] are more bioavailable, because they avoid going through the conversion process that ALA has to go through in the digestive tract,” Dr. Schaffer explains.
How much fish oil should I take—and which supplement is best?
When reading a fish oil label, Dr. Schaffer says you should first look for the amount of EPA and DHA in the supplement. “When you’re looking at the back of the label, make sure you have at least 1,000 milligrams [of both combined],” she says. “If it’s lower than 1,000 milligrams, you’re actually not going to get the benefit.”
If you have health concerns, a slightly higher dosage can make a difference. “Studies have found that 1,200 milligrams [per day] is the magic number for improvement of cognitive issues,” says Dr. Warren. “But the most I recommend is 2,000 milligrams [per day], simply because too much can cause diarrhea, heartburn, and a fishy taste.”
The ratio of EPA to DHA also matters, adds Dr. Warren. “The ratio I generally recommend is a higher EPA to DHA,” she says—research shows this is the best option for reducing inflammation and promoting heart health. But the DHA level shouldn’t be too low, she adds. “DHA is essential for the growth and functional development of the brain [in babies], and for normal brain function in adults.”
Dr. Warren adds there’s another easy way to narrow down your options when reading labels. “Make sure that it’s an environmentally friendly source, a known source. Don’t think that all fish oil is the same,” she explains. “I like Nordic Naturals since they’re very good about sourcing their products [in an eco-friendly way] and they’re not overfishing.”
What if I’m vegan or vegetarian?
Algae-based omega-3s are the most commonly recommended option for those who don’t eat fish. Although most brands don’t contain EPA fatty acids, one study showed that vegetarians actually saw both their EPA and DHA levels increase after taking DHA-only algae oil. What’s more, the buzzy supplement company Ritual uses vegan, eco-friendly algal oil that contains both EPA and DHA fats—made from fermented microalgae—in its line of multi-vitamin supplements. As mentioned before, you should aim for a dose of 1,000 milligrams per day.
How should I take my omega-3 supplement?
It’s important that you actually take your omega supplement daily. “It’s not a once-a-week thing, because [our bodies] go through this stuff [quickly],” Dr. Warren says.
Dr. Schaffer advises popping the pills in the morning to make the most of their brain-boosting benefits. “Because your brain is all fat, consuming omega-3s is nourishment for it. They really help you have a clear mind,” she says.
What about that gross, fishy aftertaste?
If you have trouble digesting fish oil supplements (like me—hello, fishy burps), then there a few things you can try. Dr. Warren recommends taking the supplements with digestive bitters, like the ones by Urban Moonshine. Another option is a fish oil supplement like Coromega that’s formulated specifically for bioavailability and faster, easier digestion. (FYI—I tried both of these options and got much better results than I did from regular fish-oil gels on their own).
If you continue having trouble digesting the supplements, Dr. Schaffer recommends turning to a vegan alternative or asking your doctor to run a food sensitivity test to determine if you’re reacting to an ingredient used in the supplements.
Okay, cool. Anything else I should know?
Finally, remember that even though omega-3 supplements sound like wellness miracle workers, they can only do so much. “If you’re taking these supplements and you’re eating greasy foods that are high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, that will actually cancel out the benefits of taking omega-3s,” says Dr. Schaffer. (Some common omega-6 sources are canola, sunflower, and corn oils—and they can also be found in “healthy” foods, like Sweetgreen salad dressing and processed snacks.) So be mindful of your diet and lifestyle choices, too—that way, you’ll be creating the best possible environment for your omega-3s to strut their stuff.
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