Omega 3 fatty acids may give a boost to sleep
Like you, my family and I do our best to eat healthfully—and that includes eating plenty of fish. In our house, we love wild-caught salmon, tuna steaks on the grill, and even the occasional just-caught lake trout tossed over a fire on family trips to the mountains. Besides being delicious, what do all these fish have in common? They’re great sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
These healthy fats deliver a wealth of health benefits, from lowering inflammation to boosting brain function and elevating mood.
Another really good reason to make omega-3s a priority in your diet? Better sleep.
A growing body of research shows diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids are linked to better-quality sleep, in both adults and children. There’s some pretty interesting science piling up that shows the benefits of omega 3s for sleep quality throughout our lifetimes.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They’re what’s known as essential fats. Your body can’t produce them; your supply of omega 3s must come from dietary and supplement sources.
There are three main kinds of omega 3s:
- EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid
- DHA, docosahexaenoic acid
- AHA, alpha-linolenic acid
EPA and DHA are found primarily in fish. AHA is found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils as well as some leafy green vegetables and grass-fed animal fats, such as grass-fed beef.
Fish particularly rich in DHA and EPA include:
- Salmon (especially wild-caught)
- Lake trout
Good sources of ALA include:
- Flax seed and flax seed oil
- Canola oil
- Soybean oil
In addition to consuming omega 3s through food, these essential fats are also available in supplement form.
The benefits of omega 3s for health
Omega 3s play an important role in cell function, so their benefits to health are widespread. One of the most powerful benefits of omega 3s to the body is their ability to reduce inflammation, which is linked to a range of diseases, from cardiovascular disease to cancer. Science shows the protections and benefits of omega 3s include:
Heart health. Omega 3s reduce blood pressure and heart rate, guard against arrhythmias, lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, raise levels of the “good” cholesterol HDL, and keep arteries free from developing plaque leading to arteriosclerosis.
Autoimmune conditions. Higher consumption of omega 3s may reduce risks of developing autoimmune diseases later in life. These fatty acids have been shown effective in treating autoimmune conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and others.
Healthy, youthful skin. The omega 3 fatty acids help skin stay hydrated, prevent acne, and guard against premature aging. They also may be an effective treatment for acne, psoriasis, and other skin conditions.
Cognitive protection. Research shows consuming more omega 3s is linked to reduced risks for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
How omega 3s help sleep
I’m especially interested in the ways that omega 3s may be able to improve sleep. In recent years, there’s been increasing attention to the potential benefits of omega 3s for sleep. Scientists still have plenty to learn about the ways omega 3s can affect sleep. Let’s take a look at what science is already telling us about the omega 3-sleep connection:
Omega 3s may improve sleep quality and sleep quantity in adults. Research suggests omega 3 fatty acids from regularly consuming fish may boost your sleep quality, help you fall asleep more quickly and improve your daytime performance. One study showed these improvements among a group of adult men who ate fatty fish three times a week for several months. Another boost to sleep that may come from including omega 3-rich fish in your diet? These types of fatty fish are also good sources of Vitamin D, which is important for sleep. I’ve written before about the link between Vitamin D and sleep and how Vitamin D deficiency is associated with disrupted sleep patterns. Fatty fish is one source of Vitamin D to consider, but don’t overlook the very best source–the sun!
DHA stimulates melatonin: Melatonin is a key hormone that facilitates sleep. Melatonin works with the body’s circadian rhythms to help the body prepare for sleep by sending signals to the body that it is time to rest, helping you relax, diminishing levels of other hormones that stimulate alertness, lowering body temperature and blood pressure. Research shows low levels of the omega 3 DHA cause melatonin deficiency—and that increasing levels of DHA cause melatonin levels to rise.
Omega 3s may help people with OSA. The ability of omega 3s to reduce inflammation may make these fatty acids especially helpful to people with obstructive sleep apnea. Research has shown that low levels of the omega 3 DHA are associated with greater severity of OSA, and that increasing levels of DHA reduces the risks for severe sleep apnea. We don’t have enough research to know yet, but scientists are exploring a causal link between omega 3 deficiency and the onset of obstructive sleep apnea. And the anti-inflammatory abilities of omega 3s may help to improve cardiovascular function and reduce the risks for cardiovascular problems in people with obstructive sleep apnea. (Remember, cardiovascular disease is a serious risk associated with obstructive sleep apnea.)
Omega 3s may aid sleep during pregnancy. Recent research showed a significant link between low levels of DHA and poor sleep in pregnant women. Scientists found the association between low DHA and poor sleep extended to include higher inflammation and shorter lengths of gestation. Omega 3 fatty acids have been identified by scientists as critically important to fetal development, particularly to the development of the brain and central nervous system.
Omega 3s are linked to better sleep in children. A growing body of research indicates the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids to children’s sleep. A 2014 study showed children who received supplemental omega 3 fatty acids slept almost an additional hour per night, and woke up an average of seven fewer times throughout their night’s sleep. A 2017 study of children ages 9-11 found frequent omega 3-rich fish consumption was linked to both improved sleep quality and higher IQ scores. As I mentioned above, children who are exposed to greater amounts of the omega 3 DHA in utero sleep better during infancy.
Omega 3s are essential to cognitive health at every age. From before birth to older age, omega 3s appear to have a critical role to play in supporting cognitive development and health, and guarding against cognitive decline and some neurodegenerative diseases. In addition to improving sleep, higher levels of maternal omega 3s during pregnancy are linked to better cognitive development in young children, including stronger language skills, IQ, and visual motor skills. In teens, omega 3 intake is linked to better academic performance and better overall cognitive performance, including a stronger vocabulary. Science indicates that consumption of omega 3s early in life and in adulthood also affects brain function related to behavior and mood, with higher levels of omega 3s perhaps resulting in less aggression and hostility.
And more consumption of omega 3s during middle and older age appear to protect us against cognitive decline and dementia. One study showed people who fell in the top 25 percent of DHA levels, as measured in blood tests, had a 47 percent lower risk of developing dementia.
The brain and other health benefits on their own are enough to make omega 3 foods a priority in your diet. Add the prospect of better sleep to the mix, and it’s an even better idea.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™