It’s becoming increasingly evident that many common chronic conditions can be prevented through modifiable lifestyle factors, but did you know that essential fatty acid deficiency is also among the top causes of chronic illness ? Essential fatty acids are termed “essential” because the body isn’t able to produce them on its own, rather, these need to come from our diet.
Fish oil, which is derived from oily fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, and halibut, is composed primarily of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Other foods such as flax seeds or borage oil, composed of alpha-linolenic acid and gamma-linolenic acid, serve as precursors for omega-3s and can contribute to the balance of essential fatty acids. Another essential fatty acid is omega-6, which ideally should be consumed in a 2:1 ratio of omega-3s to omega-6, however, the standard American diet can be nearly 10x as high in omega-6s, which can lead to inflammation as well as further omega-3 deficiency .
Several health benefits have been associated with fish oil supplementation and increased omega-3 consumption, such as decreased inflammation, decreased the risk of heart disease, decreased eczema, improvement in ADHD, anxiety, and depression, as well as preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia . Because the brain is composed of 60% fat, the nervous system relies on phospholipids as building blocks, and they’re necessary for eye and neuronal development and function, too.
1. Decreased Inflammation
Omega-3 fatty acids can promote anti-inflammatory effects as EPA is converted to anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, while omega-6s can contribute to increased inflammation, hence, a balanced ratio between the two is key. Additionally, omega-3s are known for helping decrease inflammation, which in turn can prevent blood clotting, preserve brain health, and prevent depression. They’re even capable of causing noticeably reduced levels of pain and swelling due to inflammatory conditions like arthritis . Inflammation is said to be at the root of many chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease. Specifically, foods that have shown to promote inflammation include, each of which can contribute to increased omega-6s:
- Corn and soybean oils
- Pasteurized, conventional dairy
- Refined carbohydrates
- Conventional meat
- Sugars of all kinds
- Trans fats
Foods that help reduce inflammation and prevent oxidative stress:
- Fiber-rich and antioxidant-rich foods such as flaxseed, cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale, dark leafy greens, artichokes, onions, peas, salad greens, mushrooms, sea vegetables and squashes
- Fruits (all kinds, especially berries and citrus and other lower-glycemic fruits)
- Herbs and spices, especially turmeric (curcumin) and raw garlic (also basil, chili peppers, cinnamon, curry powder, ginger, rosemary and thyme)
- Legumes and beans
- Healthy fats (rich in omega-3s) found in nuts, seeds, avocados, wild-caught fish, coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil
One study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took higher doses of fish oil for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually “improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation” .
2. Improved Skin & Hair Health
EPA and DHA found in fish oil can contribute to improved skin and hair health by increasing the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins necessary for the skin such as Vitamin A, E, and K. Without enough of these essential fatty acids, the skin can become dry, contributing to dandruff, eczema, thinning hair, and even sunspots. Skin health is also related to inflammation, and it’s often said that the “skin is the mirror to the gut,” reflecting the overall health of what’s happening on the inside of the body.
3. Improved Mood and Attention
Fish oil supplementation has been shown to increase nutrient and amino acid content in specific regions of the brain that relate to mood . Additionally, the European Journal of Neuroscience published a study in 2013 showing that fish oil significantly reduced anxiety-like and depression-like behavior changes induced in rats. The study also concludes that these findings indicate the importance of supplementing with fish oil at “critical periods of brain development.” 
4. Supports Brain & Nervous System Function
Essential fatty acids are necessary building blocks of the brain and central nervous system (CNS), specifically DHA. The brain is also the most energy-demanding part of the body and makes up 74% of a newborn’s total energy each day!  Having enough fat in the diet is crucial for a number of functions in the body, and of course, they’re all governed by the brain!
5. Supports Child Development
During fetal development, the baby’s nutrition comes directly from their mom, including the necessary fats, including DHA and EPA. Once the baby is born, omega-3s continue to be vital to healthy brain development and immune function. Additionally, EPA and DHA intake can help support healthy labor and delivery outcomes. During infancy, the primary source of omega-3’s and high concentrations of DHA comes primarily from breastmilk but can vary from mother to mother based on their diet and intake of omega-3’s and omega-6s. During childhood, a diet rich in omega-3s such as from wild caught salmon, egg yolks, flax seeds, walnuts, and coconut can provide these nutrients as well as supplementation with a highly concentrated fish oil.
For more information on supplementing with fish oil, speak to your provider about your options and dosing for both children and adults.
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2. University of Maryland Medical Center: Alternative Medicine
3. ω-3 Supplementation increases amyloid-β phagocytosis and resolvin D1 in patients with minor cognitive impairment
4. 11 Benefits of Cod Liver Oil: The Anti-Inflammatory Disease Fighter
5. Effect of Omega-3 Acid Ethyl Esters on Left Ventricular Remodeling After Acute Myocardial Infarction: The OMEGA-REMODEL Randomized Clinical Trial
6. Effects of fish oil supplementation on prefrontal metabolite concentrations in adolescents with major depressive disorder: a preliminary 1H MRS study
7. Fish oil improves anxiety‐like, depressive‐like and cognitive behaviors in olfactory bulbectomised rats
8. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): An Ancient Nutrient for the Modern Human Brain/