How Much Omega-3 Is Right for You and What Are the Best Sources?
January 04, 2016
By Dr. Mercola
Many Americans diets are lacking in healthy fats, and this includes the animal-based omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Although omega-3s are most well known for their role in heart health, they're important for so much more.
Your brain, bones, mental health and even your risk of cancer are all impacted by these beneficial fats. In the U.S., Americans spend about $1.2 billion on omega-3 fat supplements every year,1 although few are aware of what dose, and what sources, are best.
I firmly believe that getting the correct macronutrients, especially fat is, one of the the most important choices you can make in your diet. You need to have the absolute highest quality fats to build your cell membranes and optimize your mitochondrial function.
There is no one answer to this question, as how much omega-3s you need depends on your body size, age, health status, the type of omega-3 and more.
There is no set recommended standard dose of omega-3 fats, but some health organizations recommend a daily dose of 250 to 500 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA for healthy adults.
Keep in mind this applies to EPA and DHA, not to ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, a type of plant-based omega-3 found in flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp).
While your body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, it does so at a very low ratio, and only when sufficient enzymes (that many people are deficient in) are present. This means you'd need to consume far more ALA to reach optimal omega-3 levels (and even then may not reach therapeutic levels).
If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, your body will likely require additional omega-3 fats. The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada recommend pregnant and lactating women (along with all adults) consume at least 500 mg of omega-3s, including EPA and DHA, daily.
The European Commission recommends pregnant and lactating women consume a minimum of 200 mg of DHA, in particular, per day.2 Your diet also dictates how much omega-3 you need, especially if you consume a lot of omega-6 fats.
Most people are consuming far too many omega-6 fats compared to omega-3 fats. The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is 1:1, but the typical Western diet may be between 1:20 and 1:50. Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements states:3
"Most American diets provide more than 10 times as much omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. There is general agreement that individuals should consume more omega-3 and less omega-6 fatty acids to promote good health."To add insult to injury these additional omega-6 are nearly all industrially processed oils and many of them are heated converted a significant percentage of these fats into trans fats, or even worse cyclic aldehydes.
Certain health conditions also indicate an increased need for omega-3 fats. For instance:4
- Heart health: The American Heart Association recommends people with coronary heart disease consume 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA daily while those with high triglycerides may need 2,000 to 3,000 mg per day.5Research also shows people who took 850 mg of EPA and DHA daily for 3.5 years had a 25 percent lower risk of heart attack and a 45 percent lower risk of sudden death.6
- Depression: Higher doses of omega-3, from 200 mg to 2,500 mg daily, may help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.7
- Memory: In one study, elderly volunteers suffering from memory deficits saw significant improvement after taking 900 mg of DHA per day for 24 weeks, compared with controls.8Another study found significant improvement in verbal fluency scores after taking 800 mg of DHA per day for four months compared with placebo.9
- Pain and stiffness: Researchers found that 300 mg of krill oil per day significantly reduced inflammation, pain, stiffness and functional impairment after just 7 days, and even more profoundly after 14 days.10
You Need Less EPA and DHA When It Comes from Krill Oil
Many people equate omega-3 fats with fish oil, but you should know there are other options (including eating fish, such as sardines and anchovies). If you’re looking for a supplement form of animal-based omega-3s, however, consider krill oil over fish oil.
In a recent white paper, "Optimizing The Omega-3 Index with Krill Oil," Lena Burri, Ph.D., writes that "krill oil more effectively raises the Omega-3 Index compared to fish oil, even though krill oil delivers lower amounts of EPA and DHA on a gram per gram basis."11
In other words, you need less krill oil to gain optimal omega-3 levels than you do when taking fish oil. How can this be? The omega-3 in krill is attached to phospholipids that increase its absorption, which means you need less of it, and it won't cause belching or burping like many other fish oil products.
Additionally, it naturally contains astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant — almost 50 times more than is present in fish oil. This prevents the highly perishable omega-3 fats from oxidizing before you are able to integrate them into your cellular tissue. The white paper continued:12
"Most human intervention studies on omega-3 fatty acid-associated health benefits have been performed on fatty acids esterified as triglycerides obtained from fish or algae, while fewer studies are available on omega-3s in phospholipid form.
Unlike fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids enriched in phospholipid form are found in krill oil … Several animal and human studies on krill oil have suggested more potent benefits for human health when the omega-3 fatty acids are bound to phospholipids instead of triglycerides.
In particular, two clinical studies have shown that … [krill] can increase total plasma EPA and DHA more than fish oil after both four-week and seven-week supplementation periods."
Studies Suggest Krill Oil Works Better Than Fish Oil
All sources of omega-3 are not created equal. If you're looking for the most efficient, most potent form of omega-3s, consider krill first. One study revealed that while the metabolic effects of the two oils are "essentially similar," the krill oil is as effective as fish oil despite the fact that it contains less EPA and DHA.13
In that case, the EPA and DHA dose in the krill oil was nearly 63 percent less than that in the fish oil – but the beneficial effects were virtually the same. This finding corresponds with unpublished data suggesting that krill oil is absorbed up to 10 to 15 times as well as fish oil, which would explain this discrepancy.
Separate research published in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition compared the efficiency of krill oil and fish oil in reducing triglyceride levels.14 Over a six-week period, rats divided into three groups had their diets supplemented with one of the following:
In less than three weeks, both oils had markedly reduced the enzyme activity that causes the liver to metabolize fat, but the krill oil had a far more pronounced effect, reducing liver triglycerides significantly more.
- 2.5 percent krill oil
- 2.5 percent fish oil
- No supplement
The higher potency of krill oil allows it to decrease triglyceride levels in a shorter period of time compared to fish oil.
Overall, after six weeks of supplementation cholesterol levels in the krill oil group declined by 33 percent compared to 21 percent in the fish oil group. Further, liver triglycerides were reduced by twice as much in the krill oil group compared to the fish oil group, by 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
This is particularly important, as fasting triglyceride levels are a powerful indication of your body's ability to have healthy lipid profiles. To put this into further context, after being on a statin drug combined with daily exercise for several months, participants in one 1997 study saw an average reduction in their cholesterol levels of 20 percent – less than the benefit seen from krill oil.15
Omega-3 Fats for Heart Health, Mental Health and Much More
If you're not yet aware of why consuming adequate amounts of omega-3s is so important, they play a key role in overall health. Omega-3 fats improve your cell's response to insulin, neurotransmitters and other messengers. They also help the repair process when your cells are damaged.
Further, omega-3s may help your heart by lowering your triglycerides, while omega-3s have also been proven to benefit your brain, slowing memory loss and improving conditions like ADHD, inflammatory conditions like arthritis and pain, depression and much more.
A major reason krill oil has such impressive benefits is that it powerfully reduces inflammation in your body, which is at the root of many chronic diseases. For instance, a recent study published in Bipolar Disorders found people with bipolar disorder had lower levels of EPA.16
The researchers speculated that low omega-3 levels may impact the condition due to their role in brain-cell communication and inflammation, which is thought to play a role in bipolar disorder.17 The researchers are now studying whether adding omega-3s to bipolar patients' diets helps to improve symptoms.
Omega-3s are also incredibly important during pregnancy. Research has linked inadequate intake of omega-3 fats in pregnant women to premature birth, increased risk of preeclampsia, and low birth weight, in addition to hyperactivity in children.
Adding EPA and DHA to the diet of pregnant women has also been found to benefit visual and cognitive development in the baby, while also reducing the risk of allergies in infants. The following 17 health benefits of omega-3s have also been backed up by science:18
Fight depression and anxiety Improve eye health Promote brain health during pregnancy and early life Reduce risk factors for heart disease (triglycerides, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood clots, plaque and inflammation) Reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome Fight inflammation Fight autoimmune diseases Improve mental disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and more) Fight age-related mental decline and Alzheimer's disease Help prevent cancer Reduce asthma in children Reduce the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) Improve bone and joint health Alleviate menstrual pain Improve sleep Boost skin health Reduce symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children
Omega-3s May Support Weight Loss, Boost Longevity
A recent review of animal studies using krill products highlighted their diverse uses. The studies showed "improved outcomes of krill oil supplementation for obesity, depression, myocardial infarction, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and more."19,20
The researchers mentioned that the choline in krill oil may also be playing a role in its beneficial effects. A recent study in mice also revealed that omega-3 fats appear useful for weight loss.21 Mice fed fish oil along with their diet gained significantly less weight than those not fed fish oil. The fish-oil group also had lower insulin and fasting glucose levels, and they burned more calories, possible due to an increase in beneficial brown fat.22
Separate research, a study involving 4,000 people in Sweden, revealed that those with higher levels of EPA and DHA had a 20 percent lower risk of premature death during the 15-year study period compared to those with low levels.23 As reported by NewHope360:24
"In the U.S., men only get 50 percent and women only get 40 percent of their daily omega-3s, according to the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s. And, most of us don't even know how harmful that deficiency may be. Seventy-seven percent of adults are unaware that low omega-3s can be harmful to health, according to a GOED survey."
Are You Ready to Increase Your Intake of Omega-3 Fats?
Making sure you're getting enough omega-3 in your diet, either from wild Alaskan salmon, sardines and anchovies, or a high-quality omega-3 supplement like krill oil, is absolutely crucial for your optimal health.
While a helpful form of omega-3 can be found in flaxseed, chia, hemp, and a few other foods, the most beneficial form of omega-3 — DHA and EPA, which are essential to fighting and preventing both physical and mental disease — can only be found in fish and krill.
Because, nearly all fish, from most all sources, are severely contaminated with environmental pollutants like toxic mercury, you have to be very careful about the types of seafood you consume when trying to increase your omega-3 fats. A general guideline is that the closer to the bottom of the food chain the fish is, the less contamination it will have accumulated.
Sardines, in particular, are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fats, with one serving containing more than 50 percent of your recommended daily value.25 Other good options include anchovies, herring and wild-caught Alaskan salmon. You're probably aware that if you don't eat a lot of fish, you can supplement your diet with omega-3 fats by taking fish oil, but as mentioned you can also get your omega-3s from krill oil, and it may, in fact, be preferable to do so.