01. Is omega-3 too good to be true?
It’s hard to think of another substance that’s linked to such a vast range of health benefits as omega-3 fatty acids. But can you be sure you're getting the right amount for your needs, or if you're getting it from the right source?
In this article we look at:
The anti-inflammatory powers of omega-3s have been called upon to relieve conditions such as arthritis, diabetes and some cancers; ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and behavioural problems in children; depression, dementia and cognitive decline in older people; heart disease; inflammatory bowel disease; asthma; and skin, eye and bone health.
Sales of omega-3 supplements exceed $200m annually in Australia and are growing at a rate of more than 10% per year as people complement conventional medications or try them as a natural alternative. But despite 40 years of increasing consumption, this nutrient is courting controversy, with recent studies finding omega-3 supplementation may not be effective as it was thought to be.
What the experts say
There is a mind-boggling array of studies around omega-3s, some indicating therapeutic benefits, others showing promising but inconclusive results, and still others showing no benefit at all. The variation in results, says Professor Les Cleland, director of rheumatology at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, is because the studies are done with different populations and different numbers of people who have varying levels of health, using different doses of omega-3 taken over different time periods.
Research is also complicated by the as-yet-unanswered question as to whether benefits are the same when omega-3s are sourced from fresh fish or taken as supplements. There is, however, solid scientific evidence, says Cleland, that fish oil helps relieve pain for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers (but not osteoarthritis) without the side effects of anti-inflammatory medications.
Professor Manohar Garg, director of the Nutraceuticals Research Group at the University of Newcastle, adds that it also helps maintain cardiac health by reducing triglyceride levels and reducing inflammation. Reputable studies also show promising results for mental health disorders and prenatal infant eye/brain development. The experts agree that a regular intake of omega-3 is crucial for good health – and that, sadly, 90% of Australians aren’t getting enough.