Omega-3 fatty acids and improved sleep

The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids

The benefits of increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake

We have been a bit hard on dietary supplements in previous posts, and fair enough. A decent diet and there is no need for pill popping. But there might be an exception, particularly if you go easy on fish. We are talking about omega-3 fatty acid supplements that we have written about before. And the list of beneficial effects are growing.

To recapitulate there are three omega−3 fatty acids that are important in human physiology: α-linolenic acid (18:3, n−3; ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5, n−3; EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6, n−3; DHA). They have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. Although the body can convert the short-chain omega−3 fatty acid ALA to long-chain forms (EPA, DHA), the efficiency is a low 5% in men, but greater in women.

New claim that omega-3 fatty acids can improve sleep

There are many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows strong evidence that the omega-3s EPA and DHA can help lower triglycerides and blood pressure. And there are studies showing that omega-3 fatty acids may help with other conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and many more. Now they have been shown to also be associated with improved sleep patterns. At least in children.

And we are talking about a randomised placebo-controlled study and not some suspect epidemiological study. The researchers explored whether 16 weeks of daily 600 mg supplements of algal sources would improve the sleep of 362 healthy 7-9 year old UK school children. The children were supposed to have normal sleep patterns, but were all struggling readers at a mainstream primary school. As it happened parents revealed that four in ten of the selected children in the study also suffered from regular sleep disturbances. They showed resistance at bedtime, anxiety about sleep and constant waking in the course of the night.

Previous studies have shown that blood levels of omega-3 DHA in this general population sample of 7-9 year olds were alarmingly low overall, and could be directly related to the children’s behaviour and learning difficulties.

Improvements to sleep with higher DHA levels (Photo: rlcalamusa1)

Improvements to sleep with higher DHA levels (Photo: rlcalamusa1)

The new results showed that higher blood levels of the long-chain omega-3 DHA (the main omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain) were significantly associated with better sleep, including less bedtime resistance, parasomnias and total sleep disturbance. Higher ratios of DHA in relation to the long-chain omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid were also associated with fewer sleep problems.

Various substances made within the body from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have long been known to play key roles in the regulation of sleep, with lower ratios of DHA linked with lower levels of melatonin. Maybe the behaviour and learning difficulties seen previously could be related to poor sleep.

To take or not to take the supplement

So should we recommend taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements? They seem to do a lot of good.

Not so fast! There is another brand new study showing no reduction in heart attack, stroke or heart failure among almost 1,100 people taking omega-3 supplements, compared to similar numbers of people taking other supplements or just an inactive placebo.

It has been conventional wisdom that saturated fats increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, which can cause plaques to form in  arteries and raise the risk of a heart attack or stroke, while omega-3 fatty acids were said to improve heart health because it increases your level of “good” HDL cholesterol. Good cholesterol is believed to help the body rid itself of bad cholesterol. While this is still true, neither effect seemed to make much difference for overall cardiac risk.

So in summary, it is clear that we need omega-3 fatty acids for numerous normal body functions, such as controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain.  And dieticians say that there’s no question that eating fish provides tremendous value in reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, but the use of a supplement – whether it’s a fish oil or any other nutrient – really needs to be handled carefully.

So we seem to be back to the old advice. Get your omega-3 fatty acids from food rather than dietary supplements if possible. If not, maybe the supplement can be justified.

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