Omega-3s and Sleep
Research by Ryan Fiorenzi
Updated March 14, 2019
Eating fish is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids (though you can get them from other sources), which are polyunsaturated fats. Their molecular structure contains more than one double bond, and the 3 refers to where in the structure the double bond occurs.
They're essential fats, which means that your body doesn't produce them naturally, you have to get them from your diet. There are 4 main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)-found in green, leafy vegetables, chia seeds, flax seeds, walnut and canola oils.
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)-found in fish oil, krill oil, and algae oil.
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)-found in oily fish, krill oil, and algae oil.
- eicosatetraeonic acid (ETA)-found in roe oil and green-lipped mussels.
The research on omega-3s impact on sleep has mostly been focused on children, and it suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may be able to help people sleep better. With the benefits of omega-3s on the brain, heart, and other organs, it's not surprising that it would have a positive impact on sleep.
Table of Contents
Do Omega-3s Improve Sleep?
A study from the University of Oxford gave 600 mg of DHA for 16 weeks to 362 children, 40% of whom had sleep issues. The children added 58 minutes of sleep/night to their sleep times, and less waking episodes.
The study had a second component that looked at the blood levels of omega 3 and omega 6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. They found that higher blood levels of DHA are significantly associated with better sleep, including less bedtime resistance, parasomnias (such as night terrors and sleepwalking), and sleep disturbances.
The lead author, Dr. Paul Montgomery, believes that lower ratios of DHA have been linked with lower levels of melatonin, which plays an important role in sleep.
Omega-3s also regulate your levels of norepinephrine, which is a stress hormone, and high levels will decrease REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
A study published in Scientific Reports found an association between regular fish consumption and high sleep quality among Chinese schoolchildren, and largely as a result of improved sleep, scored higher on IQ tests.
In a 2014 study from Norway, adult male participants who ate 300 g of Atlantic salmon 3 times per week for 6 months fell asleep faster.
Another study from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine found that red blood cell levels of DHA with obstructive sleep apnea severity.
What are the Highest Sources of Omega-3s?
The sources with the highest omega-3s come from eating fish, or from fish oil supplements. According to the University of California Berkeley Wellness, some of the fish that have high levels of omega 3s are:
- wild herring (Atlantic and Pacific)
- farmed Atlantic salmon
- wild King salmon
- wild Pacific and jack mackerel
- pink, sockeye, and chum canned salmon
- canned jack mackerel
- wild Atlantic and Spanish mackerel
- wild bluefin tuna
- canned sardines
- canned white albacore tuna
The drawback of eating a lot of fish is heavy metals. The general rule is the larger and older the fish, the higher the heavy metal content.
Non-Fish Sources of Omega-3s
ALA is found in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils. ALA can be converted to into EPA and then DHA, but only in small amounts.
Other sources of omega-3s include:
- game meat
- chia seeds
- mung beans
- brussel sprouts
- wild rice
- plant oils such as flax oil, soybean oil, and canola oil
- fortified foods such as yogurt, juices, milk, and soy beverages
Other Benefits of Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are important for the health of the brain, heart, bones, joints, and other organs. There's a long list of benefits, including, prevention of heart issues, cancer, Alzheimer's, dementia, age-related macular degeneration (which is a major cause of vision loss among older adults, and rheumatoid arthritis. It's important for infant development, looks to lessen symptoms of ADHD, childhood allergies, asthma, depression, and cystic fybrosis.
How Much Omega-3s do you Need?
The World Health Organization recommends taking 200-500 mg of combined EPA and DHA daily. Pregnant and nursing mothers, and those with more serious issues, such as anxiety, depression, cancer, or heart issues, may use up to 4,000 mg per day.
According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, there is no official recommended daily intake levels for omega-3s, except for ALA. Those recommended levels are:
- Birth to 12 months: .5 g
- 1-3 years: .7g
- 4-8 years: .9 g
- Boys 9-13: 1.2 g
- Girls 9-13: 1 g
- Males 14 & above: 1.6 g
- Females 14 & above: 1.1 g
- Pregnant women: 1.4 g
- Breastfeeding women: 1.3 g
The American Heart Association recommends 2 or more 3.5-ounce servings of fish each week.
Tips for Omega-3s
According to Healthline, there are several things to consider with omega-3 supplements:
- Omega-3s are prone to oxidation, so it's a good idea to refrigerate your supplements or at least keep them out of direct sunlight.
- Fish oils come in a few different forms, including ethyl esters (EE), triglycerides (TG), reformed triglycerides (rTG), free fatty acids (FFA) and phospholipids (PL). Your body doesn't absorb EEs very well, so it's recommended to use any of the other forms.
- Many fish oils are sold in 1,000 mg supplements. Make sure that it contains at least 500 mg of EPA and DHA.
- Look for the third-party testing seal from the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s.
- Dietary fats help the absorption of omega-3s, so take your supplements with a meal that has fat.
- According to Dr. Josh Axe, omega-3s don't have any known drug interactions, however, at very high levels, there may be interactions with birth control pills, high blood pressure medications, anticoagulents (reduce blood clotting), and Orlistat (a weight loss drug).