What you need to know about omega-3 fatty acids

Sara Suchy | May 6, 2013

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Fish oil is numbered among one of the more popular health trends. How healthy is it and what can it do for your body?

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What is it?

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Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of polyunsaturated fatty acid that is essential to metabolic function.The catch is that the body cannot create omega-3 fatty acids on its own. They must be consumed, either as part of a normal diet or as a dietary supplement.

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Where do you get it?

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Omega-3 fatty acids are found in:

  • Nuts
  • Cold water fish (mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines)
  • Cod liver
  • Soybeans, tofu
  • Walnuts

The American Heart Association now recommends that people eat fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids at least three times a week.

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Growing popularity

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Several studies have also linked omega-3 fatty acids to reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Most of these protective effects come from the way omega-3 reduces inflammation throughout the body. But there are other less commonly known health benefits of omega-3.

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Reduces postpartum depression

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A study from the University of Montreal and the Research Centre found that new mothers with low levels of omega-3 acids are at a higher risk for post-partum depression. The low levels of omega-3 in pregnant women happen because it is transferred from mother to fetus before birth. Breastfeeding also transfers omega-3 to the baby, depleting the mother’s supply.

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Slows breast cancer

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Omega-3 fatty acids can work against all kind of cancer cells, but they are particularly effective against triple negative breast cancer cells. In a study by researchers at the Fox Chase Cancer Center, the omega-3 acids found in foods such as sardines, tuna, trout, salmon, flax and hemp reduced the proliferation of triple negative breast cancer cells by up to 90 percent.

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Helps prevent skin cancer

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A study found that omega-3 could help make the skin more resistant to the sun’s harmful effects. Scientists found people who consumed regular doses of fish oils had increased immunity to the harmful effects of sunlight after exposure for eight and 15 minutes. However, subjects exposed to the sun for 30 minutes or longer did not have any decreased risk of skin damage or skin cancer even if they consumed fish oils.

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Fights age-related vision loss

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A 2012 study found that the omega-3 acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) was able to prevent age-related vision loss in mice. When eyesight starts to fade in old age, it usually happens because there is a buildup of a toxic molecule in the eye that binds with the retina and slowly inhibits vision over time. Mice fed with DHA did not experience this toxic build up as they aged and their eyesight did not fail.

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Improves behavior and reading skills in children

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The first double-blind study on this topic found that kids given a daily supplement of omega-3 improved reading skills and behavior. Previous studies suggest a link between omega-3 acid consumption and behavior and cognitive improvements in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD.

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Fights Alzheimer’s

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A study from UCLA found that omega-3 fatty acids (and a specific kind of vitamin D) may help clear the brain of amyloid plaques, which is one of the physical signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers that it appears to help the immune system regulate inflammation and get rid of the plaque.