We’ve all seen it in grocery stores and in pharmacies, in the aisle with a wall of vitamins and supplements that can be confusing and intimidating with just the sheer numbers. The phrase ‘Omega-3 is good for you’ is easily thrown around in day-to-day conversation, but most might not understand the reasons why omega-3 is good for you.
Many scientific studies across several health disciplines have shown that a proper intake value of omega-3 has several beneficial effects on the body. Today we’ll be looking at omega-3 and its effects on our eyes.
What Is Omega-3?
For a term that is so commonly thrown around in our day-to-day vocabulary, there’s a lot the average person might not know about omega 3. Omega-3 is a type of essential fatty acid – a nutrient that our bodies need but does not produce naturally – and likely the most well known in the family of fatty acids. It can be naturally found in a wide array of plant and meat-based foods. There are actually eleven different types of Omega-3 acids, but really only three that are important for human physiology: α-linolenic acids, eicosapentaenoic acids and docosahexaenoic acids, or ALAs, EPAs and DHAs.
ALA is the most common type of omega-3 found in our diets, and is primarily gained from plant-based food. When absorbed, our bodies will convert ALA into EPAs or DHAs, however this conversation is inefficient and only results in a small percentage our bodies are able to use. What isn’t converted is stored in fats.
EPA is the acid the body uses to help with inflammation and has been linked to cardio-vascular health. Because only a small amount of EPA is made from converting ALA, a healthy diet should also include natural sources of EPA, mainly seafood and some grass-fed animal products.
DHA is the acid most relevant to our discussion today, as it is directly linked to skin and eye health, particularly to the cell membranes that comprise the retina and overall tear film production and quality. Like EPA, only very small amounts of it are made from ALA conversion and should be supplemented from natural sources such as fatty fish.
Recommendations for the amount of daily consumption varies between age groups and those who have preexisting conditions or concerns and those that do not, but on average the World Health Organization recommends a daily intake value between 200-500 mg for a healthy individual, particularly of EPA and DHA acids, though they also caution not to exceed 5000mg (or 5g) a day. The proper ration of EPA and DHA omega-3 acids versus ALA omega-3 acid should be at least 3-1 due to the poor conversion rate of ALA.
What Does Omega-3 Do For The Eyes?
Because DHA is linked to cell membrane properties – particularly ones that make up the brain and grey matter – it has some of the greatest effect on the health of our retinas and tear production processes.
Studies have shown that the anti-inflammation properties of omega-3 help with maintaining the proper function of the meibomian glands, keeping them from swelling and interrupting the production of the tear layer. Studies have also shown that maintaining a healthy level of omega-3 in your diet can relieve the symptoms of dry eye – gritty feeling in the eyes, excessive tearing, eye irritation – as well as lower the risk of developing more severe dry eye in the future. The threshold these studies used showed that on average two servings of fish per week was enough to show improvement.
Another condition that has been studied for its links to omega-3 intake is age-related macular degeneration (AMD or ArMD). Several studies completed through the late 90’s and early 2010’s explored the effects of supplemental omega-3 intake on patients who were already diagnosed with AMD or were at risk of developing it. The results of these studies showed that in combination with other supplemental vitamin and mineral intake slowed the progression of the disease in the patients who were at higher risk of having it advance to the next stages. These studies were inconclusive for showing if higher omega-3 intake prevents AMD from developing in the first place.
Currently researchers are exploring links between omega-3 and other conditions such as glaucoma and retinitis pigmentosa, but these studies are still early and smaller in scope and it will be several years before facts can be conclusively determined.
Where Can You Get Omega-3?
Let’s start with the natural sources first. Fish are arguably the best source of omega-3 that we have access to, but not every fish is equal in this regard. Small fish like anchovies, sardines, and mackerel, and larger fish such as salmon and herring are particularly rich in omega-3. These are considered fatty fish, and they earn their levels of omega-3 through their diet of algae and plankton rather than synthesizing it themselves. This is one of the reasons why farmed fish that are provided their natural diet are much richer with omega-3 than their feed-given counterparts.
Some of the food these fish eat can also be eaten by humans, and their benefits of omega-3 can be absorbed just as well. Algae and seaweed products are plant-based sources rich with omega-3 and can be useful for those with dietary restrictions that prevent the consumption of fish-based foods.
Other plant-based sources of omega-3 include several types of seeds and seed oils. Flax seeds and chia seeds rank among the highest concentration per gram. Soybeans and soybean oil also contain high quantities of omega-3 acids, as well as some nuts such as pecans, walnuts and butternuts.
When it comes to ensuring our bodies are getting appropriate amounts of EPA and DHA acids, the best natural sources are the sea-based ones: fatty fish, fish oils and sea plants. All other sources do have some levels of EPA and DHA, but the levels of ALA start to overtake them.
What About Supplements?
One easy and convenient way of ensuring our bodies get enough EPA and DHA omega-3 acids is with fish oil supplements. These supplements can come in both capsule and liquid form, and some are flavored to cover the natural fishy taste. Refrigerating the capsules without additional flavouring can also reduce the fishy taste to them, but some of the best brands on the market will be able to reduce the taste without requiring refrigeration or additional flavouring. The omega-3 contained in these supplements is chemically similar to that gained from eating fish but has been distilled to remove natural impurities. Typically, taking two capsules per day is sufficient when combined with a proper balanced diet. These supplements should be taken with food to aid with digestion and absorption and can take between sixty and ninety days before the positive effects are seen.
As with any supplement, it’s best to take them on the advice of your health care practitioner, as they may recommend a specific quantity to take. This is especially true for patients who are already taking medication, particularly blood thinners such as ASA or warfarin – these patients should speak to their doctor before taking any form of omega-3 supplementation. It’s important to remember that any supplement is not intended to replace gaining that nutrient from food sources entirely and this is true for omega-3 supplements; you should be earning the majority of your daily omega intake through a proper nutritional diet, and using omega-3 supplements on the advice of your health care practitioner to bolster those levels if they are lacking.
Which Omega-3 Supplement is Right For You?
It’s important to compare the levels of nutrients offered by supplement brands with one another, and to consider the levels recommended for your dietary needs. It’s also recommended to check that the supplement focuses on bolstering EPA and DHA, rather than relying on ALA conversion; the ratio should be approximately 2/3 of DHA/EPA combined versus the volume of the capsule. For example, the Nutrasea brand of omega-3 supplements is very high in DHA and EPA.
It’s also important to consider whether you should be taking a supplement that contains only omega-3, or ones that have other vitamins and nutrients incorporated. For example, studies have shown that when absorbed the effects of vitamin D and omega-3 work together to improve chemical cell membrane processes mentioned before in the brain. The PRN Omega for Dry Eye brand contains both high amounts of DHA and EPA omega-3 as well as vitamin D3.
The health benefits provided by omega-3 aren’t limited to just the eyes of course. Omega-3’s anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to help relieve some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. A higher dose of omega-3 has also been shown to improve heart health by reducing the levels of triglycerides – a fat that circulates through our blood that has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease – in our systems.
You should speak to your health care provider for more information about whether incorporating omega-3 supplements into your daily diet is right for you. At 360 Eyecare, we welcome patients who might have such questions and our optometrists are happy to make recommendations according to your unique eye care needs, so contact us at our Beaches or Rosedale offices to book your next eye exam today.