Healthcare provider holding blood pressure device and speaking with patient about omega-3 fatty acids

What is omega-3 good for?

Medically reviewed on May 17, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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A nutritious diet is made up of countless essential nutrients, vitamins, and fatty acids—one of which is omega-3.

What is omega-3 good for? Besides supporting a variety of critical cell functions in the body, omega-3 fatty acids can offer other potential health benefits, like improved heart health, fertility support, and more.

In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about omega-3 fatty acids, including their general purpose, additional health benefits, and different nutritional sources (learn more about Everlywell omega-3 fish oil supplements).

What are omega-3s?

Omega-3s are a group of three fatty acids used for a variety of human bodily functions.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Let’s explore each acid in the omega-3 group [1]:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – ALA is mainly found in plant oils (like canola and flaxseed). Because the human body doesn’t naturally make it, you can only introduce it to the body via drinks and food.
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – You can find EPA in fish and other seafood. The body can only make small amounts of EPA from ALA, so EPA-rich foods and supplements are crucial for maintaining healthy levels.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – Like EPA, DHA is commonly found in seafood products. The body can convert ALA to EPA and then DHA, but since this process accounts for only a small amount, it’s equally important to find nutritional sources of the fatty acid.

Omega-3s: primary purposes

All three fatty acids in the omega-3 group play a critical role in cellular health in the human body, particularly in eye, brain, and sperm cells. As one of many components in cell membranes, omega-3s perform the following key tasks [2]:

  • They facilitate various receptors in cell membranes, which accept and interpret chemical signals sent throughout the body.
  • They bind to receptors that control genetic functions, like DNA and RNA production.
  • They provide a basis to produce the hormones that regulate:
  • Inflammation and cellular water retention
  • Blood clotting
  • Relaxation and contraction of arterial walls throughout the circulatory system

Recommended daily values

So how much omega-3 should one take on a daily basis? While medical experts haven’t created official recommendations for total omega-3 intake each day, they recommend ALA daily values specifically. These recommendations are based upon age, sex, and pregnancy status.

Experts recommend the following daily values [1]:

  • 0.5 g for infants under 12 months
  • 0.7 g for children aged 1 to 3 years
  • 0.9 g for children aged 4 to 8 years
  • 1.2 g for males aged 9 to 13 years
  • 1.0 g for females aged 9 to 13 years
  • 1.6 g for males aged 14 and older
  • 1.1 g for females aged 14 and older
  • 1.4 g for pregnant people
  • 1.3 g for breastfeeding people

If you’re not getting enough omega-3s, you may experience scaly, itchy skin or a dry rash. However, omega-3 deficiency is uncommon in the US.

It’s also important to note that the FDA doesn’t recommend consuming more than 5 grams of any omega-3 acid per day. If you do take too much, you may experience mild symptoms, like bad breath, heartburn, or headache.

Benefits of omega-3s

Without omega-3s, your cells couldn’t perform crucial tasks to sustain life. But what is omega-3 good for besides performing basic functions?

Let’s explore a few examples of how healthy omega-3 consumption can also potentially improve other health outcomes.

Heart health

Since omega-3s are crucial for the production of hormones that regulate arterial contraction and blood clotting, researchers have spent ample time studying the general impacts of omega-3s on human heart health.

Recent studies suggest that treatment with EPA and DHA could reduce or prevent the following cardiovascular issues [3]:

  • General cardiovascular mortality (deaths from heart-related events)
  • Non-fatal myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Coronary heart disease-related health events (plaque buildup)
  • Major adverse cardiovascular events (MACE), such as
  • Heart attacks
  • Strokes
  • Congestive heart failure

Recent research also suggests that omega-3s can reduce the risks associated with revascularization—various treatments used to improve circulation in obstructed arteries, such as stent placement and bypass surgeries [4].

Before adding more omega-3s to your daily nutrient regimen, consult a healthcare provider for expert guidance specific to your personal health status.

Fetal development during pregnancy

It’s crucial that pregnant people consume healthy levels of omega-3s during the early stages of fetal development. For this reason, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that pregnant people eat at least 8 (but no more than 12) ounces of low-mercury seafood each week [5].

A 2016 study determined that omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy resulted in two positive outcomes:

  • Slightly increased infant birth weight
  • Slightly extended gestation periods

While supplementation didn’t decrease the likelihood of low birth weight or premature birth, even small, positive changes to gestation nutrition can lead to improved post-natal outcomes.

Interestingly, one study in Denmark found that the infants of pregnant people with low EPA and DHA levels pre-supplementation were less likely to develop mild respiratory issues, like persistent wheezing and asthma in early childhood, post-supplementation [5]. While researchers need to conduct further studies to confirm these findings, the information could indicate even further potential benefits of maintaining healthy omega-3 levels during pregnancy.

Fertility support

Healthy omega-3 levels pre-pregnancy may also improve fertility outcomes [6]. Recent research suggests that omega-3 supplementation to FDA-recommended levels may improve both sperm and egg performance when trying to conceive.

Since omega-3s jump-start hormone production, regulate clotting and blood flow, and help reduce cellular inflammation that can decrease cell function, healthy omega-3 levels may promote improved uterine health and an increased likelihood of implantation [7].

Among other vitamins and nutrients, omega-3s contributed to increased sperm count in over 28 studies [8]. An additional study suggests that omega-3 supplementation can improve antioxidant activity in semen and increase sperm motility—one of many sperm characteristics that can impact successful fertilization [9].

Brain health and aging

Maintaining recommended omega-3 levels may positively impact brain health and function, especially as you age. Multiple studies have explored the link between omega-3s and adult brain health, publishing a variety of conclusions:

  • Optimal omega-3 levels (as opposed to deficient levels) have been associated with increased brain volume, improved cognition, decreased progression to dementia, reduced psychiatric disease symptoms, and maintenance of complex brain functions in adults [10].
  • Normal aging results in brain atrophy, which can reduce overall brain mass—specifically in the hippocampal region which largely controls learning and memory. But one study among post-menopausal people correlated a healthy omega-3 index with higher total brain volume and hippocampal volume throughout an eight-year period [11].
  • As life expectancy increases, so does the prevalence of multi-morbid, non-contagious diseases among the elderly. Many comorbid conditions in aging populations correlate with inflammation-related symptoms, and—since they play a major role in cell water retention regulation—omega-3s could help reduce the inflammation caused by a variety of medical conditions. One study suggests that omega-3 supplementation could be a cost-effective treatment for dysregulated inflammation and improve clinical outcomes [12].

Skin health

There are a few major reasons why omega-3s could provide positive skin health benefits based on their primary function in the body [13]:

  • Inflammation regulation – Since omega-3s help regulate water retention in cells, they could promote skin wound healing, decrease recovery times, and improve recovery outcomes by reducing inflammation-related hyperpigmentation and UV damage.
  • Genetic function – Omega-3s are crucial for genetic cell functions, like development of DNA and RNA, both of which play a role in cell regeneration at large. Improved cell regeneration could improve healing times and outcomes for skin wounds.
  • Blood flow regulation – Blood circulation is critical to injury recovery. Since omega-3s impact hormones that regulate clotting and arterial contraction/relaxation, they could promote improved blood flow during skin healing.

Where to find omega-3

The National Institutes of Health recommend two major sources of omega-3s—food and supplements [1].

Food products that include significant amounts of omega-3s are:

  • Fatty, cold-water fish, like salmon, sardines, herring, tuna, and mackerel (fish that aren’t fatty and that don’t live in cold water—like tilapia, cod, and bass—also contain omega-3s, but not as much as their counterparts)
  • Beef from grass-fed cows
  • Plant oils from canola
  • Soybeans
  • Flaxseed (also known as linseed)
  • Nuts, especially Chia seeds
  • Walnuts

Food products often fortified with additional omega-3s include:

  • Juices
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Soy beverages

Omega-3 supplements are useful for people who don’t eat enough of the food above to achieve optimal levels. A typical, 1,000mg dose of fish oil—the most common omega-3 supplement—contains 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA.

Another benefit of omega-3 supplements is reduced mercury exposure risks. While some seafood products can contain mercury in relatively high concentrations, these compounds are usually removed during the supplement purification process.

Support omega-3 intake with Everlywell

Maintaining healthy omega-3 fatty acid levels can help the body complete vital cellular functions, and research continues to reveal other possible health benefits.

Omega-3 fish oil supplements from Everlywell are third-party tested softgels that are an excellent way to help ensure you get enough omega-3. Everlywell also offers a subscription option so that you can skip the grocery store and still maintain a steady supply (you save 10%!).

What to look for in a multivitamin


References

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed May 17, 2022.

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution. Harvard University School of Public Health. URL. Accessed May 17, 2022.

3. Khan SU, Lone AN, Khan MS, Virani SS, Blumenthal RS, Nasir K, Miller M, Michos ED, Ballantyne CM, Boden WE, Bhatt DL. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cardiovascular outcomes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. EClinicalMedicine. 2021 Jul 8;38:100997.

4. King SB 3rd, Marshall JJ, Tummala PE. Revascularization for coronary artery disease: stents versus bypass surgery. Annu Rev Med. 2010;61:199-213.

5. Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. URL. Accessed May 17, 2022.

6. Stanhiser J, Jukic AMZ, McConnaughey DR, Steiner AZ. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and fecundability. Hum Reprod. 2022 May 3;37(5):1037-1046.

7. The Fertility Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. CCRM Fertility. URL. Accessed May 17, 2022.

8. Salas-Huetos A, Rosique-Esteban N, Becerra-Tomás N, Vizmanos B, Bulló M, Salas-Salvadó J. The Effect of Nutrients and Dietary Supplements on Sperm Quality Parameters: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. Adv Nutr. 2018;9(6):833-848.

9. Safarinejad MR, Safarinejad S. The roles of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in idiopathic male infertility. Asian J Androl. 2012;14(4):514-515.

10. von Schacky C. Importance of EPA and DHA Blood Levels in Brain Structure and Function. Nutrients. 2021;13(4):1074. Published 2021 Mar 25.

11. Higher RBC EPA + DHA Corresponds with Larger Total Brain and Hippocampal Volumes. American Academy of Neurology. URL. Accessed May 17, 2022.

12. Troesch B, Eggersdorfer M, Laviano A, et al. Expert Opinion on Benefits of Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA) in Aging and Clinical Nutrition. Nutrients. 2020;12(9):2555. Published 2020 Aug 24.

13. Huang TH, Wang PW, Yang SC, Chou WL, Fang JY. Cosmetic and Therapeutic Applications of Fish Oil's Fatty Acids on the Skin. Mar Drugs. 2018;16(8):256. Published 2018 Jul 30.

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