Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to a range of health benefits, from lowering inflammation to improving your mood. Now, a recent study suggests omega-3s might also be responsible for better gut health—particularly for middle-aged and senior women.

British researchers compared how different diets affect the gut microbiome, which is the community of microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts. In addition to influencing digestion, the microbiome has been linked to metabolism regulation and immune function. When it’s out of balance, you’re at greater risk for weight gain, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and other chronic issues.

Studying more than 876 female twins, with an average age of 65, researchers looked at the women’s dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids—found in foods like fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, eggs, and wild rice—and found a correlation between healthy microbiome composition and high intake of omega-3 sources.

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Although previous research has also suggested that omega-3 fats may affect the microbiome in positive ways, this recent study is one of the largest to use humans, according to Seattle-based dietician Travis King, RD, who says that makes the results more compelling than studies done on a small group of people, or on animals.

King notes that the study does have some limitations. For example, it looked at omega-3 fats that were already in the subjects’ blood. That means researchers didn’t determine whether gut health improved when people increased their intake through food versus through supplements.

Also, the “why” remains a mystery, King adds. “We don’t yet know exactly what would cause omega-3s to make the microbiome more diverse,” he says.

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But Kara Landau, RD, a dietician in New York City, thinks the wealth of research on the advantages of omega-3s for brain and heart health, as well as their role in reducing inflammation, may be enough to consider adding more omega-3-rich foods into your diet—and seeing if your gut responds as well.

“This study is a fantastic opening to an area of research that I’m sure will continue to grow,” she says. “Considering the evidence we already have of omega-3 benefits, and the importance of maintaining strong gut integrity, it makes sense to include more omega food sources to improve overall health and wellbeing.”

 

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