How To Harness the Sleep-Boosting Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
“A few recent human studies have linked omega-3 consumption, from both EPA and DHA omega-3 sources, and the ability to help boost sleep,” says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook.
For example, one study found that omega-3 supplementation was able to improve sleep in people who don't typically eat sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, seeds, and walnuts. "Studies have shown that supplementing with omega-3s can help improve sleep quality and quantity, because low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the body have been associated with lower levels of melatonin, the sleep hormone,” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD. Hultin agrees, noting that omega-3s may affect both melatonin release from the brain as well as interact with the body's natural 'endocannabinoid signaling' system.
According to Hultin, however, animal sources of omega-3s may offer more sleep-boosting benefits and have been more recently studied than plant-based sources of ALA omega-3s. “DHA and EPA come from animal sources or from algae, and are considered a 'direct' source of omega 3s. This is a little different from plant-based ALA sources like nuts and seeds, because ALA has to get converted into DHA and EPA in the body,” says Hultin. Conversion can also vary by person. Still, she emphasizes that if you are plant-based, keep in mind that algae is an excellent provider of EPA and DHA and shouldn’t be overlooked.
All of this being said, the correlation between omega-3s and sleep requires more research, as studies have not been conclusive yet. Regardless, both Hultin and Best agree that consumption of this longevity-boosting polyunsaturated fat has been shown to fight inflammation in the body and improve heart and brain health, which can help to improve sleep as well as overall health.
How to harness the sleep-boosting benefits of omega-3 fatty acids
Because omega-3s offer a wide variety of health benefits beyond just sleep, it's important to eat as many omega-3 rich foods as possible and supplement on an as-needed basis after consulting with a physician or dietitian.
“The studies have indicated that a deficiency in omega-3s is correlated with poor sleep, so maintaining your omega-3s is certainly important for improving sleep,” says Best. She emphasizes that there isn’t enough research to support recommending anyone eats omega-3s at a specific time during the day or evening, as they don't directly induce drowsiness like melatonin does. Instead, what's most important is looking at your meals as a whole and figure out where you can squeeze in more omega-3 rich foods. "The most important way to harness the sleep-boosting benefits of omega-3s is being consistent and mindful of the importance of incorporating omega-3-rich foods into your diet," Best says.
RD-recommended omega-3 foods to add to your diet
According to Best, upping your fatty fish intake—especially of salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies—is one of the easiest ways to get a rich source of EPA and DHA. "It’s best to eat fatty fish two to three times a week for breakfast, lunch, or dinner," she says. Try a protein-rich salmon and rice bowl recipe, or top your morning avocado toast with smoked salmon.
Nuts and seeds are two of the best plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly walnuts. Use them in trail mix or as a topper for Greek yogurt or oatmeal. “Walnuts are one of the best omega-3 rich foods to choose as a bedtime snack, as they are also high in magnesium, which is another nutrient known to help improve sleep, and contain a fair amount of melatonin, the sleep hormone,” says Best.
Chia seeds are also packed with ALA omega-3s. They taste delicious in a nutrient-dense chia seed pudding, in salads or grain bowls, or on almond butter toast. “Combine chia seeds with dairy or nondairy milk and some fresh or frozen fruit for a nutrient-rich treat that contains omega 3s,” recommends Hultin.
Soybeans can also be a good snack for upping your omega-3 and magnesium intake, as are flax seeds and hemp seeds. “Hemp seeds are soft, chewy, and add super tasty nutty flavor to homemade granola bars,” says Hultin.
For a sleep-friendly snack rich in omega-3s, try adding chia, walnuts, flax, and/or hemp to these delicious gluten-free oat bars:
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