What is Omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential to human health for certain vital functions and benefits. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is essential for the eye, nerve and membrane development. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are important for the production of prostaglandins, a hormone-like substance, that usually help to regulate blood pressure, inflammation, neurological functions, hormones production etc. in human body.
“The human body itself cannot produce these essential fats such as ALA, EPA and DHA, hence will need to obtain these nutrients from diet. ALA it is typically found in plant-based oils (e.g. flaxseed, canola, soybean oils), nuts and flaxseeds. DHA and EPA are the long-chain fatty acids that can be synthesized from ALA in human body, however the conversion is slow and limited. Therefore, it is recommended to source EPA and DHA from seafood, mainly oily fish (e.g. salmon, tuna etc.) and shellfish (e.g. crab, oysters),” says Ms Joey Ho, Dietitian from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital (KKH), a member of the SingHealth group.
“For vegetarians and those who do not like to eat seafoods, they can obtain such valuable fatty acids from nuts and seeds, soy products and green leafy vegetables. Besides dietary options, omega-3 supplements can be easily found on the market with different concentrations of EPA and DHA,” she adds.
Various research shows that consuming oily fish and other types of seafood as part of a healthy balanced diet may improve heart health, prevent coronary heart disease related death and stroke. For healthy individuals with low risk of heart disease, the consumption of oily fish at least twice a week as part of a healthy balanced diet will be sufficient to obtain adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
A meta-analysis1 published in 2019 suggests that omega-3 supplementation may lower the risk of myocardial infarction, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease death. For individuals who do not consume fish, research2 suggests that 1 g/day of omega-3 supplements may have protective effect. For individuals with elevated triglyceride (TG) level and history of cardiovascular disease, research3 suggests that 4 g/day of high dose omega-3 supplements are considered safe and may be useful in reducing risk of death from heart disease or having heart attack, stroke and chest pain. However, it is recommended to consult a doctor before starting any omega-3 supplements, especially for those with other health conditions and are taking certain medications.
Apart from the cardiovascular health benefits, there are also a few positive effects of omega-3 fatty acids on other aspects of women’s health.
Health benefits of omega-3 for women
The strongest health benefit of omega-3 is related to heart health. This includes helping to maintain a regular heart rhythm, reducing blood pressure, lowering blood fat levels and slowing down the rate at which our arteries get clogged up. Besides these general health benefits, omega-3 is particularly favourable for women for the following reasons:
#1: It can ease menstrual pain
Most women would have experienced menstrual cramps and abdominal discomfort on a monthly basis, this condition is known as dysmenorrhea, which is usually caused by strong contractions of uterus triggered by prostaglandins.
Two randomised controlled trials conducted in 2012 and 2018 suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective to ease the menstrual pain due to its anti-inflammatory properties and one of the studies found that it also helped to reduce the usage of ibuprofen which is commonly used as a pain killer.
However, another two systematic reviews published in 2016 and 2019 conclude that currently there is only limited low-quality evidence to support the effectiveness of fish oil for dysmenorrhea.
#2: It alleviates rheumatoid arthritis
Women are two to three times at risk to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) than men and it usually happens during middle age. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when body’s immune system attacks the lining of the joints in different areas, resulting in inflammation and pain.
Two systematic reviews published in 2012 and 2017 suggest that fish oil supplements may help to alleviate joint swelling, pain and morning stiffness because of its anti-inflammatory effects and subsequently decreased usage of NSAIDs. However, the dosage of EPA and DHA to achieve such anti-inflammatory effect is still unclear, therefore further research is needed.
When it comes to fat, omega-3 is one that you should not avoid. Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids to function and the health benefits far exceed your fear of gaining weight. However, omega-3 cannot be made by your body, so you need to eat foods that are rich in omega-3 such as salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds. If you are not a fish or nuts and seeds eater, omega-3 supplements are available.
In general, omega-3 helps to reduce risks of heart diseases and cancer. However, women benefit more as omega-3 protects against certain conditions that affect only women such as menstrual pain, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
More omega-3 benefits are listed below:
#3: It helps to prevent osteoporosis
Women are generally at higher risk of osteoporosis than men, especially after menopause due to the drop of estrogen level. Two systematic reviews published in 2012 and 2019 reported potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on bone mineral density, one of the reviews suggests that this effect may be enhanced concurrently with calcium supplementation. However, the therapeutic dosage of fish oil to achieve such effect is still unclear, therefore a higher quality and larger scale study would be beneficial to determine the long-term health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
#4: It keeps you in a happy mood
Omega-3 can fend off depression too. Recent reviews found omega-3 supplements to be effective against major depression (but not anxiety disorders). However, researchers are of the opinion that more large-scale, well-controlled studies are needed to find out the optimal dosage as well as the long-term benefits of using omega-3 in treating depression.
#5: It may reduce cancer risk
Over the years, the number of people diagnosed with cancer has increased globally. In Singapore, the top three cancers that affect women are breast, colorectal and lung cancers.
Gynaecological cancers such as cervical, ovarian and endometrial cancers are also amongst the top ten cancers commonly diagnosed in Singaporean women. Gynaecological cancers can develop before menopause but the risk increases with age, especially after menopause.
Research has also outlined the common risk factors that may increase individual’s chance of developing cancer, such as diet, obesity, use of alcohol, smoking, family history of certain cancers etc. Most public health guidelines recommend maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and adopting healthy diet, all of which contribute to reducing the risks of developing cancers in general.
- Healthy weight
Excessive energy consumed from food and drink is stored as fat in human body. Majority of overweight or obese women are found to have high body fatness, which causes insulin resistance, leading to high level of circulating insulin that indirectly promote cancer growth, especially endometrial and breast cancers. Increasing level of circulating estrogen in overweight or obese women is also known to increase risk of developing breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers. Overall, these metabolic syndromes associated with high body fatness and chronic inflammation create a potential environment for cancer growth. Apart from cancers, overweight or obese people are at higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, maintaining healthy weight is one of the key factors to reduce your cancer risk.
- Physical activity
Strong evidence suggests that regular physical activity may reduce the risk of endometrial, breast and colorectal cancers as exercise helps to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce body fatness, decrease circulating estrogen levels and chronic inflammation. Therefore, being physically active is pivotal to helping achieve a healthy weight and thereby reducing cancer risks.
- Healthy eating
Increasing the consumption of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables has been shown to be protective against most types of cancers, especially colorectal cancer. Such foods contain high amounts of anti-tumorigenic agents, various antioxidants (Vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids, selenium, zinc etc.), phytoestrogens as well as dietary fibre. The combination of these dietary components has been found to have positive effects on reducing cancers’ risk in general. Additionally, the consumption of such high fibre food also results in better glycemic response, which in turn helps to improve insulin resistance and protects against obesity-related cancers.
Add omega-3 to your diet!
Say the word “omega-3” and salmon comes to mind. Well, you don’t have to eat the same fish three times a week. The foods listed below are also good sources of omega-3:
|Fish & seafood||Wild salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna, scallops, krill|
|Nuts||Walnuts, Brazil nuts and soy nuts|
|Plants||Algae, flaxseeds or flaxseed oil, cauliflower, hummus, collard greens|
If you are overweight, watch out for food such as nuts and oils as they are high in calories and may contribute to excessive weight gain.
And if you want to be sure you’re getting enough omega-3, you may consider taking a supplement containing fish oil, krill oil or high-DHA algae oil.
However, before you start taking any supplements, always consult your family doctor for specific recommendations or warnings based on your health status as omega supplements can thin your blood and increase the risk of bleeding when taken in high doses.