6 Key Health Benefits Of Omega Fatty Acids & DHA

DHA, one of the two major omega-3 three fatty acids found in fish, has celebrity status in the supplement world. Fish oil supplements are now the third most popular nutritional supplement, after vitamins and minerals. (1) For years, it’s been taken as gospel that that fish oil and omega-3s are good for your heart. The only supplement the American Heart Association recommends is a fish oil supplement for those who don’t eat the recommended two or more servings of fish per week, which, let’s face it, applies to most people. Compared to the recommended 20 percent, seafood accounted for 5 percent of total consumption from the protein foods group in 2014, which was dominated by meat and poultry. (2)

But in recent years, omega-3’s reputation as an indispensable supplement has come under scrutiny. Fish oil’s role in cardiovascular disease has not been as firmly established as studies have suggested. (3) Plus, concerns have been raised about the viability of fish oil supplements in contrast to getting omegas directly from fish; contaminants in fish oil supplements; and the environmental cost of overfishing to meet the growing demand for fish oil. (4)

person getting fish oil from a supplement bottle

The only supplement the American Heart Association recommends is a fish oil supplement for those who don’t eat the recommended two or more servings of fish per week.

At this point, the evidence in favor of fish oil is far from conclusive. However, there is still a lot of positive data that supports the beneficial effect of taking a fish oil supplement. But a more nuanced appreciation of fish oil is in order: one supplement alone can’t do all the heavy lifting, and omega 3’s superstar status amongst supplements might be a titch overblown.

Research suggests that the addition of more whole food sources of fatty acids might be more effective than solely consuming omega 3s through isolated supplements. But dismissing fish oil as ineffective would be jumping to conclusions. DHA is still considered one of the most potent additions to your repertoire of supplements.

What is DHA?

Omega 3 fatty acids are a cluster of essential fats. The main kinds of essential fats are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood, and omega-enriched eggs, while ALA is found mainly in plant foods such as kale and spinach, seeds, such as chia, flax, and hemp, and seed oils such as flax and canola.

Our bodies can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but only in very small amounts. (5) Getting DHA from food and/or supplements is the only practical way of getting an adequate amount.

Taken together, DHA and EPA may help reduce inflammation and lessen your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease. DHA’s particular superpower lies in the fact that it’s an essential building block of the brain, eye, and sperm cell membranes—it supports brain function, male fertility, and eye health. (6) The following is a roundup of DHA’s most promising health benefits.

Omega-3 fatty acid health benefits

Protects your heart

Reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease is the most well-known benefit of taking an omega 3 supplement. It’s also the most controversial benefit because recent studies suggest the amount of omega-3s you would need to consume to make a significant difference is untenable. In one recent study, high doses of omega-3 fish oil supplement – four times the typical suggested dose—improved patients’ hearts’ function and reduced scarring in the undamaged muscle in patients who recently had a heart attack. (7)

But high doses of omega-3s requires doctor’s supervision, would be hard to swallow (roughly 8 pills a day) and may result in indigestion and gas. (8) But for other populations, a more modest dose may indeed be worth it.

A large multiyear study published in 2018 suggests omega-3 supplements may reduce the risk of heart attacks in people who eat little to no fish or those with African American heritage. For these two groups, a daily 1-gram supplement could provide a good balance between safety and efficacy. (9)

Improves ADHD symptoms

There is some evidence that fish oil can help improve ADHD symptoms. A systematic review of 16 studies found that omega-3/6 fatty acids 13 had a positive influence on ADHD symptoms in children. The benefits included improved regulation, learning, reading, and remembering. (10)

young woman stretching before running

DHA can help reduce inflammation in the body to help patients move freely.

Counters inflammation

Overall, the defining influence of omega-3 fats such as DHA is its anti-inflammatory effects. In particular, upping your DHA intake can help counter the excess of inflammatory omega-6 fats found in soybean and corn oil, typical fats found in processed foods. A 2018 study found that for people with rheumatoid arthritis, 2,100 mg of DHA daily for ten weeks reduced the number of swollen joints by 28 percent compared to a placebo. (11)

Boosts cognitive health

DHA is the main omega-3 fat in your brain. The brain actually owes its existence, molecularly speaking, to omega-3 fatty acids. Many but not all studies suggest that people who consume more omega-3s from food such as fish may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other declines in cognitive function. Note that many of these studies show eating fish, not consuming a fish oil supplement. A 2016 study suggested that eating just one seafood meal a week over 12 months period was linked with better memory and mental processing speed. (12)

Reduces the risk of depression

There are several theories on how omega-3s may help with depression. One theory is that omega-3s travel through the brain cell membrane and interact with mood-related molecules, such as serotonin, inside the brain. Another theory is the anti-inflammatory effects they have on nerve cells that may help alleviate depression. One 2016 study found that a higher intake of EPA and DHA was linked to a lower risk of developing depression. (13)

Supports eye health

DHA is the primary structural fatty acid of the gray matter of the retina. More research is needed to shed light on whether a DHA supplement or a diet rich in DHA may help slow the degeneration of the retina, including macular degeneration. (14) Recent studies suggest that a DHA supplement may also relieve dry eye and chronic inflammation of the eyelids. (15)

The bottom line

Because the research can be so contradictory regarding the benefits of omega-3s, it’s normal to feel confused about whether to supplement with DHA or not. If you’re unsure about whether a DHA supplement is right for you, talk with a healthcare practitioner who can assess your diet and give you an informed opinion.

You can also discuss possible interactions between omega-3 supplements and your medications. But don’t preemptively toss out your fish oil supplements. Taken at a recommended dosage—the NIH suggests no more than 2 grams a day of EPA and DHA combined in a supplement—omega-3s offer many benefits and do little, if any, harm. (16)

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