The healthy benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are widely publicized. But did you know that Omega 3s are necessary for basic human health? They are referred to as “essential” fatty acids (EFAs) because they are crucial to normal growth, development and brain function—yet our bodies can’t produce them. They must be obtained through the foods we eat.

There’s a lifelong need for Omega 3 fatty acids, which are also referred to as PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids). They are highly concentrated in the brain and are important to good cognitive function, memory, behavior and neurological performance. Too little Omega-3 during pregnancy can lead to the development of vision and nerve issues in infants. At the other end of the age spectrum, reduced intake of omega-3 fatty acids is linked to increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Essential to general health, individuals who consume too little Omega-3 EFAs may exhibit symptoms such as fatigue, mood swings, depression, impaired memory, dry skin, poor circulation and heart problems.

Research indicates that Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and arthritis. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, there are many other conditions that may find relief or benefit from the intake of Omega 3s. These include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, bipolar disorder, skin disorders, asthma, macular degeneration and more.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are primarily responsible for the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids. Dietary sources include cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, albacore tuna and herring; krill and algae are also good sources of EPA and DHA. Another Omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is available from vegetarian sources including hemp seeds, flax seeds, soybeans, rapeseeds, pumpkin seed, walnuts and their oils. ALA must be converted in the body to EPA and DHA but some individual’s bodies are not effective at making this conversion. Fish oil, krill and flax oil Omega-3 supplements are available, typically in the form of soft gels. If you use fish oil supplements be sure to choose from among those that have been processed—typically molecularly distilled—to remove heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium.

It is recommended that supplements provide no more than 3 grams of EPA and DHA combined per day. Over doing consumption of Omega-3s can contribute to blood thinning and gastric upset. It’s also important to balance your intake of Omega-3s and Omega-6s. Most American diets contain too much Omega-6 in ratio to Omega-3, which can contribute to inflammation and other health concerns. Before the addition of any supplement, it is advisable to check with your healthcare professional, especially if you take medications.