We’ve known forever that you need to eat to live. But it’s only in recent history that modern nutrition science strongly connected the concept of what you eat as a contributing factor to how long—and how well—you live.
Think about it. The vitamin was first discovered in 1912. Early in the 20th century, scientists found—and memorialized—evidence that specific components of food were important for maintaining health and could even cure or prevent diseases based on nutrient deficiencies—for example, scurvy, rickets, night blindness.
These were important steps in elevating the role of nutrition in health, and for several decades, researchers and medical schools were intrigued by nutrition science.
But the scientific community had not yet begun to seriously explore the role of nutrition in reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer and by the 1950s the burgeoning interest in doctors-to-be studying nutrition in medical schools was relegated to a lower priority in the curriculum. Even today, with nutrition science gaining steam, courses that specifically teach the science of nutrition are found only in a minority of U.S. medical schools.
Nutrition Gains Important Recognition in Good Health
As for the federal government, it offered dietary advice to the public for more than a century, but it wasn’t until 1980 that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, now considered the cornerstone of food and nutrition policy and guidance, was first published.
It was also in 1980 that the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) turned its annual “National Nutrition Week” (launched in 1973) into an annual month-long campaign dedicated to encouraging people to make informed food choices and develop healthful eating and physical activity habits. As we learned in last week’s blog, that means March is National Nutrition Month.
This week, in honor of National Nutrition Month, we’re focusing specifically on omega-3s EPA and DHA and their service as lifelong nutrients for a healthier existence.
In every stage of your life, from fetus to infant, and from child to adult, science shows that omega-3s can positively impact your health in some way:
- Your eyes
- Your brain
- Your heart
- Your mood
- Your sleep
And, getting the right amount of omega-3s throughout (preferably throughout your lifespan)—whether by eating the right foods (think fatty fish!) or taking fish oil (or algae) supplements—may even increase your longevity. (More on that later.)
Let’s start from the beginning—even before birth.
Life stage 1: Omega-3 Pregnancy Benefits May Include Reducing Preterm Births
In the U.S. approximately 10 percent of American women will experience preterm births—babies born before 37 weeks—a leading cause of infant mortality, morbidity and long-term disability.
While identifying the specific cause of a premature birth is often difficult, genetics may play a role in some preterm pregnancies. There are also some known risk factors including chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, previous multiple miscarriages, smoking and weight issues including obesity.
Here’s where omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, step in. Scientific momentum has been building for the last several years for omega-3 DHA supplements helping prevent premature births.
Some research has shown that women with low blood DHA levels are at a 10-fold increased risk of early preterm birth.
Another study showed even more promise. The release of an updated Cochrane Review of 70 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving nearly 20,000 women, left little question about whether benefits exist for pregnant women in reducing the risk of preterm births and other pregnancy issues by consuming omega-3 EPA and DHA fatty acid supplements. They do.
The meta-analysis concluded there is strong evidence to suggest that women taking omega-3s during their pregnancy can reduce the risk of preterm (before 37 weeks) and early preterm (before 34 weeks) birth by 11% and 42%, respectively.
Those statistics are impressive enough. Add to that, the Cochrane Review determined that omega-3s can reduce the risk of low birthweight by 10%, as well as perinatal death by 25%.
Stating that “supplementation during pregnancy is a simple and effective way to reduce preterm, early preterm birth and low birthweight, with low cost and little indication of harm,” the researchers then went one step further, advising “More studies comparing omega-3s and placebo (to establish causality in relation to preterm birth) are not needed at this stage.”
Although not all research reached the same results, two pieces of advice are clear for pregnant women seeking to supplement with omega-3 DHA as a way to avoid having a baby too early: 1) test omega-3 DHA status before and during pregnancy; 2) take a personalized, targeted approach to omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy based on the results of those tests. Read more about the research and how to test your DHA levels here.
Life stage 2: Omega-3 Baby Brain Development and More
Have you heard of the phrase “the first 1,000 days?” According to Kristina Harris Jackson, PhD, RD, Director of Research at OmegaQuant Analytics, experts consider this the most important period of time to influence health, and it starts from conception and continues to the baby’s 2nd birthday.
This is also the time when brain growth and brain development is key—something that will impact your entire life. Without enough DHA, especially during this critical timeframe, there is the risk of the infant developing learning issues and memory problems.
The third trimester of pregnancy is the time when DHA really begins to transfer its benefits to the fetus, something which continues after birth through the mother’s breast milk, which is an excellent source of DHA for the growing infant and the growing infant’s brain. This is just one reason why breastfeeding can be so important for a baby.
But brain development is just one benefit conferred to infants by omega-3s DHA and EPA. Omega-3 fatty acids also support the development of a baby’s eyes and nervous system.
Omega-3s have proven to be vital during both pregnancy and infancy. One study published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information found that “improving maternal DHA nutrition decreases the risk of poor infant and child visual and neural development.” In addition, the study confirmed that “maternal fatty acid nutrition is important to DHA transfer to the infant before and after birth, with short and long-term implications for neural function.”
Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that infant girls whose mothers received DHA supplements from their fourth month of pregnancy until delivery were less likely to have below-average visual acuity at 2 months of age compared to infant girls whose mothers did not receive the omega-3 supplements.
Omega-3s are also among nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin (known to protect your eyes from harmful light and reduce your risk of eye diseases), vitamin A (a deficiency can lead to night blindness and dry eyes), vitamin C (protects against cataracts), vitamin E (fights against visual degeneration) and zinc (shown to slow macular degeneration in older adults) that protect your eye health throughout your life.
Life stage 3: Omega-3 Benefits for Children
As babies grow into children, and children grow into adults, the benefits of omega-3s continue to grow with them.
The body of scientific research in adults for omega-3s is extensive, with thousands of randomized, placebo-controlled trials, observational studies, white papers and more. When it comes to children and omega-3s, the simple fact is the amount of studies fill a much smaller universe. But even so, there have been some studies that suggest positive findings for omega-3s in children, especially in the areas of omega-3 and brain health, omega-3 and child behavior, and omega-3 and childhood asthma.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder that makes it difficult to control impulses and be attentive for more than short periods of time. ADHD affects an estimated 8.4 percent of kids and 2.5 percent of adults, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Because of their positive effects on brain function, omega-3 fatty acids have been identified as a possible treatment (or additional treatment) to neurological disorders such as ADHD. A recent Norwegian study published in Nature looked at the relationship between omega-3 intake and ADHD behavior and found there to be a correlation between increased omega-3 intake and a reduction of attention problems. Read more from our blog or in this article from Healthline.
Another study showed that something as simple as omega-3 supplementation in children could reduce disruptive, even abusive behavior among parents who have kids with behavior issues. Parents claim this positive change in their children’s behavior made them less likely to argue with each other or engage in verbal abuse.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry established a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3s, especially DHA, and better brain function in children 2-6 years old.
Earlier studies have shown that EPA and DHA seem to have important roles in the developing baby’s brain, which extends into childhood to a significant degree. In fact, several studies have correlated pregnant women’s fish intake or fish oil use with higher scores for their children on tests of intelligence and brain function in early childhood.
At OmegaQuant, we subscribe to the general philosophy of first trying to get your omega-3s fatty acids from foods, recognizing that most people are not reaching appropriate levels of omega-3 EPA and DHA, and in those cases dietary supplements are a smart option to reach your Omega-3 Index goals.
For children, who are especially known as finicky eaters, discuss the possibility of taking omega-3 dietary supplements (and the appropriate dose) with your doctor or other trusted healthcare provider.
Life stage 4: From Heart Health to Good Sleep, Adults Need Omega-3s
Turn to almost any of the weekly blogs on this site, and you’ll find scientific information about omega-3s and what that research has discovered. Not every study is a slam dunk, but that’s to be expected when examining scientific research.
One of the most encouraging aspects about the science surrounding omega-3s EPA and DHA is the fact that researchers continue to study these nutrients and also continue to find new areas where omega-3 fatty acids may contribute to healthier living, providing more and more reasons for adults to consider eating more fatty fish or incorporating fish oil supplements into their daily lives.
Best known for its heart health benefits, studies have tackled questions from omega-3s’ role in promoting healthy blood pressure levels, reducing high triglycerides, and reducing risk for thrombosis and atherosclerosis. Researchers have also looked at how omega-3s can reduce the risk of fatal myocardial infarction, help heart rate recovery, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
But research is also identifying the ways that omega-3s can impact your brain health—from cognition to focus and from mood to mental health. Some researchers consider the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids to be the primary factor in conferring beneficial effects in relation to depression. As pro-inflammatory cytokines appear to play a role in depression, it’s been suggested that omega-3s counteract these inflammatory processes.
And if you’re one of the more than 50 million Americans who suffer from any of the 80 different sleep disorders, like us, you’ll want to keep an eye on emerging science studying the role of diet, including omega-3s EPA and DHA, on healthy sleep patterns. Read more here.
Anxiety can be a common cause of sleep disruption or even making it difficult to fall asleep to begin with. In 2011, researchers evaluated anxiety levels in 68 medical students in one of the first studies to show that omega-3s EPA and DHA might help reduce anxiety. Fast forward to 2018 and a new meta-analysis published in JAMA added another layer of support to the role of omega-3s in reducing anxiety. “This review indicates that omega-3s might help to reduce the symptoms of clinical anxiety. Further well-designed studies are needed in populations in whom anxiety is the main symptom,” the researchers concluded. Learn more here.
What a Difference the Dose Makes
In all of these areas, researchers are now better understanding the role that dose plays in unlocking the benefits of omega-3s. Think of it as the Goldilocks theory. If you don’t get enough omega-3s, the benefits don’t kick in; on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you get too much—well, too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Like Goldilocks, you want to get the dose “just right.” At OmegaQuant, we can help you do just that.
OmegaQuant Analytics’ founder, William S. Harris, PhD, FASN, now President and Founder of the Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI), is a leader in the omega-3 research field and the co-inventor of the Omega-3 Index, a simple, at-home blood test to help you identify your omega-3 blood levels.
Based on research findings that identify the optimal level for reaping the benefits of omega-3s, the target goal is to reach a desirable blood level for omega-3 EPA and DHA of at least 8%. Learn more about the Omega-3 Index and the Omega-3 Index calculator to help you ensure you can reach and maintain your target goals.
Omega-3s and the Longevity of it All
As long as you’re healthy, longevity seems to be the goal. Live long enough to have experienced a great love, maybe two, maybe many; to have found a satisfying career or at least hobbies that brought you joy; to have seen your children (or your nieces and nephews) become self-reliant adults blessed with their own good health and even greater opportunities for happiness; to have held the hands and hearts of grandchildren; to have traveled to exotic locales, or just gone back home to discover meaningful memories.
While omega-3s can’t create those moments along your life’s journey, they can help you stay healthy at every life stage. And, it turns out, they may also have a role in your longevity.
A study published in an October 2018 edition of the British Medical Journal found an association between higher blood levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA, DPA and DHA and “healthy aging.”
This report was based on an analysis of the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS), a prospective observational study in a large cohort of Americans whose average age was about 74 when the study began in 1989. The original purpose was to identify risk factors related to the onset of coronary heart disease and stroke. But as the cohort has aged, CHS has become an important study of the aging process.
For this study, researchers tracked more than 2600 adults from 1992 to 2006 to see if they continued to live without chronic diseases and without mental or physical problems. Blood levels of the long chain omega-3s EPA, DPA and DHA, as well as the short-chain omega-3 ALA, were measured three times over the ensuing years and averaged to give a long-term estimate of omega-3 status.
When investigators tallied up all the “unhealthy” things that typically happen to people as they age — cardiovascular disease, cancer, cognitive or physical dysfunction, lung disease, chronic kidney disease, in addition to death from any other cause besides these listed — individuals who did NOT develop these conditions were defined as “healthy agers.”
The research team reported that higher overall levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA, DHA and DPA, but not of the short-chain ALA, were found in those individuals who exhibited the healthy aging pattern, and specifically an 18% lower chance of unhealthy aging.
The associations were evident for EPA, DPA and DHA, with the clearest signal for the former two fatty acids. The authors concluded that their findings support guidelines for increased dietary consumption of long-chain omega-3s in older adults.
Furthermore, these findings confirm previous reports that identified a lower risk for death in those with a higher Omega-3 Index (i.e., red blood cell levels of EPA & DHA).
So, here’s the bottom line: people with more of these nutrients—omega-3s—in their blood tend to live longer, healthier lives. Good advice for National Nutrition Month, and for the (hopefully many!) years to come.