How This Nutrient Supports Both Heart & Brain Health Via Blood Flow*
Whether or not you consider yourself a health buff, you've still probably heard about the benefits of omega-3s. While these fatty acids (which actually work as bioactive lipids!) have been shown to improve heart health (particularly by promoting healthy blood pressure, triglyceride, and HDL or "good" cholesterol levels), an often overlooked benefit is their impact on blood flow and circulation.* The impact omega-3s have on blood flow is beneficial to not only heart health but brain function as well.*
Below, we'll break down what omega-3s are, what benefits they offer, and even some tips on the best ways to consume them.
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids that come in three main forms: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). While they aid in many critical biological pathways in the body, omega-3s have to be consumed through diet and supplementation to reach optimal levels because ALA is not produced organically in the body, and EPA and DHA are converted from ALA (but the process is extremely inefficient, which is why direct consumption of EPA and DHA is of paramount importance).
What are the benefits of omega-3s?
Omega-3s are helpful for a number of processes in the body throughout the life span. In addition to supporting growth and development from pregnancy through adolescence, omega-3s are equally important later in life.* They can help keep us sharp as we age (memory, mental acuity, etc.) and improve the health of our brain, eyes, and overall nervous system.*
Another way omega-3s support overall health and well-being is by facilitating circulation.* Omega-3s have been shown to promote blood flow and healthy triglyceride levels and also help keep blood vessels clear by reducing platelet aggregation.* This, of course, is beneficial for the body in a multitude of ways, considering our blood delivers nutrients, oxygen, hormones, bioactives, and more to our entire body. That said, optimal blood flow is especially important for heart and brain function.
How blood flow affects heart health.
Two of the main ways omega-3s support cardiovascular health is by helping maintain healthy levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol and triglycerides1.* These are major components on the lipid panel your health care practitioner orders (e.g., your annual wellness check blood work).
Additionally, omega-3s are shown to support normal endothelial function2 (i.e., the proper dilation of blood vessels, both their contraction and relaxation) and arterial compliance (a measure of arterial elasticity), which are factors that also contribute to proper blood flow and pressure.*
By supporting these cardiovascular functions, omega-3s help to improve circulation and overall heart health.* This recently led the FDA to issue a health claim3 related to marine omega-3s EPA and DHA and their ability to reduce the risk of hypertension (i.e., high blood pressure) and coronary heart disease (CHD).†
As mbg's vice president of scientific affairs, Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, explains, "The established and robust role of marine omega-3 fats in supporting cardiovascular health from multiple angles has broad implications for our nation since hypertension and CHD are widespread issues, and so is gross underconsumption of omega-3 fats EPA and DHA."†
How blood flow affects brain function.
It's quite obvious how good circulation improves heart health, but how does it support brain function, exactly? Well, proper blood flow provides brain cells with a constant supply of oxygen and glucose4, which they need to function optimally. This increased blood flow to the brain can result in different mood and cognitive health benefits5, such as improving cognitive function and memory6 as we age.*
Additionally, omega-3s have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which play a part in combating oxidative stress7 in the brain and throughout the rest of the body.* As it turns out, oxidative stress homeostasis and cerebral circulation are key indicators of cognitive function—and omega-3s support both to promote multiple dimensions of brain health.*
Where can you find sources of omega-3s?
First off, you probably think of fish—particularly oily fish, such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and tuna—when you think of omega-3s. This is absolutely fair, as higher-fat fish have some of the highest concentrations of omega-3s (EPA and DHA, to be exact). The American Heart Association8 recommends eating fatty fish at least twice a week to consume adequate levels of omega-3s (something 90% of Americans are failing to do).
If you're not a big fan of fish or you're a strict vegan, you can also consume omega-3s (specifically plant-based ALA) through seeds, nuts, and plant oils. When it comes to seeds, hemp and flax have particularly high concentrations of ALA. If you're looking for the nut highest in omega-3s, cashews are particularly packed with the good stuff.
Luckily, in addition to eating food sources rich in omega-3s, supplementation is a smart strategy to ensure you achieve healthy omega-3 levels daily and throughout life.* What dose should you strive for? "To maximize cardioprotective benefits, aim for 1 gram or more of EPA plus DHA, each and every day. That's the equivalent of eating an omega-3-rich fish each day of the week. I take a high-potency omega-3 supplement to ensure my daily input of these critically important fats,"* Ferira explains.
Fish oil and other omega-3 supplements high in DHA are also a great option for pregnant women, as DHA is important for fetal growth and development9, but many women choose to avoid eating bigger fish (such as salmon and tuna) due to their mercury content.*
Omega-3s improve blood flow and subsequently support overall brain function and heart health.* Choosing a high-quality, pure, sustainably sourced omega-3 supplement—such as mindbodygreen's (health-expert-vetted) omega-3 potency+—is a simple and effective way to ensure you're supporting your heart and brain by maintaining healthy omega-3 levels each day.*
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
Brittany Loggins is a freelance writer covering health, wellness, and all things lifestyle. She spent time on staff at CBSNews.com and TODAY.com, where she wrote about everything from breaking news to the best scented candles. Brittany is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a Bachelor’s degree in consumer journalism—and you can still find her cheering on the Bulldogs every single chance she gets.