If you’ve ever wondered exactly what “omega-3s” are and why they seem to be such a big deal in the health world, you’re not alone.

What Are They?

Omega-3s are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids commonly found in fish, yet not so commonly in the diet of the average American. While we don’t know everything about omega-3s yet, our bodies clearly crave them, and for good reason. Omega-3s have been linked to better heart health and fewer chronic diseases, and our bodies can’t build some cells without them. Let’s run down the most important facts about omega-3s:

Your Body Needs Omega-3s but Can’t Produce Them

This strange situation is especially important for children in the womb, who need omega-3s for brain growth. Some groups like the Inuit may have once obtained fatty acids in greater quantity by eating fish. As their diets shifted, they may have lost their ready supply of omega-3s.

There Are 3 Main Types of Omega-3s

Though your body doesn’t produce omega-3s on its own, it can synthesize two of the fatty acids it really needs—EPA and DHA—from the more common alphalinolenic acid, or ALA, found in leafy greens, nuts, flax, and some other plants. Scientists, however, believe more research is needed into ALA.

Your Heart May Benefit from Omega-3s

The fatty acids have been shown by numerous studies to lower high blood pressure, decrease triglyceride levels, slow the growth of atherosclerotic plaque, and decrease risk of arrhythmia. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week and, for those with documented heart conditions, taking omega-3 supplements.

You Can Obtain Quality Omega-3s from Fish Oil

Omega3s are found in greatest concentration in fatty fish, including mackerel, salmon, and tuna. Their natural oils can be distilled, deodorized and pollutants removed; you’ll find fish oil pills in many health stores. Cod liver oil is traditionally taken to boost levels of vitamins A and D. Be careful, you can actually overdose on both vitamins. Other fish oil supplements don’t necessarily have high levels of vitamins A & D. Besides, cod liver oil doesn’t taste very good to most people, especially compared to freshly grilled tuna.

You Can Obtain Some Omega-3s from Plants

Leafy vegetables, soy, walnuts, almonds, flax seed, flax seed oil, soy-based oils, and some seaweeds have ALA, a type of omega-3, but scientists are still researching the benefits of ALA as opposed to EPA and DHA. New findings, however, suggest plant-based omega-3s may be good for bone health.

Don’t Take More Than the Recommended Dosage

Consult your doctor for the best advice, but some experts recommend 500 milligrams per day for those without documented heart conditions and 1 gram per day for those who have heart trouble. Certainly, if you’re allergic to fish, pass on fish oil.

What About Mercury?

It’s considered one of the great ironies of modern health medicine, but the best way to get omega-3s is from fish, and fish are increasingly seen as a risky food due to high mercury levels. In particular, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel can contain more mercury than other seafood. Read up on which fish have the least mercury, and moderate how much you eat.

And Remember…

Research on the benefits of omega-3s has only recently picked up steam, and new studies are published frequently. Initial findings from recent studies, for example, suggest that omega-3s may enhance cognitive abilities and even improve memory. There are also new studies underway to determine whether the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s on the central nervous system may be useful to treat depression, especially among MS patients.

Whether you get your omega-3s from capsules or from more chewable forms, happy supplementing.

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