I Don’t Understand Why Omega-3s Are so Great—so I Asked 2 Doctors for Insight

Photo: Stocksy / Cameron Whitman
I began taking fish oil a few years ago, around the time I started Crossfit. Not the pills, mind you—straight-up shots of fish oil. Because...omega-3s! Fighting inflammation! I didn't really understand why I was drinking "lemon"-flavored fish juice every morning. I just had the general knowledge that omega-3s were good for you.

Which is problematic when you're deep in the wellness scene like me. I could give you a laundry list of the benefits of turmeric, but if you asked me about omega-3 benefits I'd be all um, they're good for your brain? Then I'd quickly change the subject to something I know more about, like the latest docu-series about murderers or the best dog accounts to follow on Instagram.

"There are over 22,000 scientific articles proving the total body and brain health benefits of omega-3s," says William Sears, MD, author of The Omega-3 Effect. But in my defense...most of them are difficult to understand. To get into the nitty-gritty of the real omega-3 benefits, I turned to the experts. Here's what they had to say.

1. They're really, really good for your brain

Boom, I got this one right. "The brain is 60-70 percent fat," Dr. Sears says. And of this fat, he says that omega-3s are the most important. "Getting enough omega-3’s is critical for helping depression and other emotional disorders," board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, adds. A recent study indicated that omega-3s can help reduce clinical anxiety. And a 2017 review indicated that there's some evidence that omega-3 supplements can help reduce symptoms of depression, although more research is needed.

There are also studies that show omega-3s (specifically a kind called DHA) help boost memory and cognition skills. Research also indicates that the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s make it a boon for people with ADHD, too.

2. And they improve your blood flow

"Omega-3s act like a natural anticoagulant," Dr. Sears says. In other words, It keeps your blood being "sticky"—not really a scientific term, but it paints a pretty good picture. Dr. Sears also uses the words "slimy" and "slippery," which is how you want your blood to be so that it easily moves through your veins. The better your blood flow, the healthier all your organs. "Because it slows blood clotting, it may help promote heart health while decreasing stroke risk," Dr. Teitelbaum adds.

However, the association with blood flow makes omega-3 supplements in particular not the best idea for people who are on blood thinners, have a blood-clotting disorder, or are on meds that lower their blood pressure.

3. They also improve the health of your cell membranes

I know, I almost fell asleep typing that sentence because who really thinks about the health of their cell membranes. But, really, we should all be thinking about it because healthy cells are important for, oh, just about everything. "There is a medical truism that every organ in the body is only as healthy as every cell. Every cell is only as healthy as the membrane," Dr. Sears says. And, as we hopefully all know, every part of our body is made up of cells.

He describes the cell membrane as a "big round envelope" around the cells. "The number one structure that protects the integrity of the cell membrane is omega-3," he explains. This protects them from inflammation and other damage, and helps them function properly.

4. They're great for your skin

Looking for that "I woke up like this" glow? Fatty acids like omega-3s help beef up the skin barrier, which keeps bad stuff out (germs, pollution, etc.) and keeps the good stuff (moisture!) from getting out.

5. They can boost your baby's health if you're pregnant

Folate gets tons of love as a prenatal vitamin (and for good reason!), but omega-3s during pregnancy are super important, too. "Research suggests the benefits may extend throughout a child's life—helping prevent asthma, as well as decreasing the risks of bipolar disorder and cancer (in females)," Dr. Teitelbaum says. A 2018 report also found that the children of women who took omega-3 supplements while pregnant and breastfeeding were less likely to have eczema and allergies. Just take mercury-free fish oil supplements to avoid the mercury risk while pregnant, Dr. Teitelbaum says.

Okay, so where can I find this magical substance slash do I need more of it?

The best way to get omega-3s is through seafood—both fish and algae, says Dr. Sears. He says that wild pacific salmon is the top source of omega-3s because it also contains the antioxidant astaxanthin, which is the thing that gives salmon their pink color and adds an extra hit of anti-inflammatory action to your omega-3s.

You can also get omega-3s from plant-based sources like flax oil, but there's a catch. Your brain prefers long-chain fatty acids, which are 20-22 carbon atoms long, Dr. Sears explains. EPA and DHA, the two omega-3s found in seafood, are long-chain fatty acids. But the ALA omega-3s from plant food not from the sea are only 18 carbon atoms. "So when you something like flax oil, those short guys go through the liver, and the brain tells the liver I need the tall guys," Dr. Sears says. The liver then tacks on a few carbon atoms, a process called conversion. But not everybody is a "good converter" he says, which means that you may not really get the full benefits of those omega-3s if you only rely on ALAs.

"To take the guesswork out of how much you need, have your omega-3s tested by a simple blood test finger stick," Dr. Sears says. He recommends Vital Check. You want your results to be around 8 percent absorption, which means that 8 percent of the fats in your red blood cell membranes are omega-3s, he says.

When choosing a supplement, Dr. Sears recommends fish oil from Alaska and astaxanthin from Hawaii. (If you're a vegan, it's probably best to opt for an algae-based supplement rather than flaxseed-based one to make sure you're getting DHAs instead of only ALAs.) Just talk to your doctor first since, as mentioned, omega-3 supplements could mess with people who are on blood-thinners or other blood-related medications.

Omega-3s: There's nothing fishy about these benefits. If you'll excuse me, I'm off to find some salmon rolls.

Another reason to love omega-3s? They're great for your skin. Here's how to tell how much fish oil you should take.

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