Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Jacek Chabraszewski/Shutterstock


Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Omega-3 is a group of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, most notably found in cold-water fish. Known as an essential fatty acid, omega plays a key role in everything from the immune response to brain function and metabolism, but it must be obtained from food sources, because the body does not naturally create it. Omegas exist in nature in three forms, one derived from land plants and two derived from marine sources.

    Why You Need Omega-3s
    Valeria Boltneva Pexels

    Omega-3 is highly concentrated in the brain; it is critical to the formation and maintenance of nerve cell membranes. Research shows that in the nervous system, omega-3s foster the development of brain circuitry and the speedy processing of information. Fatty acids play an important role in stabilizing mood and staving off cognitive decline. Low levels of omega-3s are linked to poor memory and even depression. Here's a look at the brain benefits:

    • Builds nerve cell membranes maintain the fluidity of nerve cell membranes
    • Allows activation of receptor systems, including the visual receptor system
    • Makes many bioactive compounds like the anti-inflammatory resolvins and other neuroprotectants
    • Supports energy metabolism
    • Modulates sodium, potassium, and calcium channels, affecting cell excitability in brain and heart
    • Modulates apoptosis, or programmed cell death
    • Provides vascular protection against stroke and dementia.

    And the body benefits:

    • Lower blood triglyceride
    • Reduce blood pressure
    • Maintain heart function
    • Regulate blood pressure
    • Counter Inflammation
    • Diminish back and joint pain
    • Protect mood
    • Preserve memory
    Why are omega-3s especially crucial for the brain?

    Omega-3 fatty acids give membranes fluidity and elasticity, allowing brain cells to easily pass neurotransmitters, hormones, and proteins back and forth. The human brain is approximately 66 percent fat, and about 20 percent of that fat is omega-3. Cells can turn omega-3 fatty acids into powerful anti-inflammatory molecules, allowing the brain to heal from trauma, infection, and oxidation or metabolic damage.

    What are the different forms of omega-3s?

    The omega-3 family encompasses numerous fatty acids, but three primary forms are eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, docosahexaenoic acid, DHA, and alpha-linolenic acid, ALA. It's important to get omega-3s from food, those found in plants as well as those found in fatty fish and algae.

    article continues after advertisement
    Maximizing Omega-3s In Your Diet
    Frolicsomepl/Pixabay / Used with permission

    The human body is inefficient at making these fatty acids. Therefore, everyone needs to consume these fats regularly. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females, according to the National Institutes of Health.

    Specific foods contain EPA and DHA, eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, docosahexaenoic acid, DHA, these are found primarily in fish. Coldwater and fatty fish are higher in omega-3s, but here is a shortlist.

    • Salmon
    • Mackerel
    • Sardines
    • Tuna
    • Anchovies
    • Herring
    • Trout
    • Seaweed

    And specific foods contain alpha-linolenic acid, ALA. Plant foods like nuts and seeds are high in ALA, but some vegetables also contain it.

    • Flaxseed
    • Chia
    • Walnuts
    • Cashews
    • Soy foods
    • Pumpkin seeds
    • Canola
    • Brussel sprouts
    • Spinach
    • Broccoli
    • Basil
    Do plants contain EPA or DHA?

    Plant foods do not contain EPA or DHA. The only omega-3 found in plant foods is ALA, which is difficult for the human body to transform into EPA and DHA. Most studies estimate that less than 10 percent of ALA, and in some cases as little as 0 percent, is converted into EPA and DHA in the human body.

    Are eggs a source of EPA and DHA?

    No, eggs are very low in EPA and DHA. Eggs that are marketed as being higher in omega-3 are actually higher in ALA. Remember that this form of omega-3 is very difficult for the human body to use.

    Essential Reads