Omega-3 is a group of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, perhaps most notably found in fatty fish. As science parses the biological actions of nutrients, it turns out that omega-3 fats do many good things for the body and the brain. Known as an "essential" fatty acid, meaning the body must take it in from food sources, omega-3 is important to human metabolism.
Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

6. Krauss-Etschmann S, Shadid R, Campoy C, Hoster E, Demmelmair H, Jimenez M, Gil A, Rivero M, Veszpremi B, Decsi T, et al. Effects of fish-oil and folate supplementation of pregnant women on maternal and fetal plasma concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid: a European randomized multicenter trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1392–400. [PubMed]
The differing actions of EPA and DHA, together with their competitive uptake, help to explain why studies that attempt to use standard fish oil therapeutically (where DHA and EPA are combined, in a natural ratio of approximately 1.5:1) are either less beneficial than expected, or even completely ineffective. Standard EPA/DHA fish oils are more suitable for everyday wellbeing, to compensate for a lack of fish in the diet and to meet a suggested intake.
Bell, J. G., Miller, D., MacDonald, D. J., MacKinlay, E. E., Dick, J. R., Cheseldine, S., Boyle, R. M., Graham, C., and O'Hare, A. E. The fatty acid compositions of erythrocyte and plasma polar lipids in children with autism, developmental delay or typically developing controls and the effect of fish oil intake. Br J Nutr 2010;103(8):1160-1167. View abstract.
Omega-3 fats may also impact the development of arthritis. As far back as 1959, studies were published about the effectiveness of cod liver oil on arthritic patients. In the 1959 study, 93 percent of participants “showed major clinical improvement.” (73) While there is no evidence that high omega-3 levels can prevent the development of arthritis, it seems clear that they can reduce inflammation that causes the typical bone and joint pain experienced in the disease. (74)

Nonetheless, large population studies with solid data both on the participants’ diets and causes of disease and death bolstered the beliefs that eating fish often was a heart-healthy practice linked to reduced rates of cardiovascular disease. For example, a comprehensive analysis conducted by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian and Eric Rimm of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that eating two servings of fatty fish a week — equal to about two grams of omega-3 fatty acids — lowered the risk of death from heart disease by more than a third and total deaths by 17 percent.
Secondary prevention fish oil studies demonstrate a significant reduction in MI. But unfortunately, both the observational and randomized trials were conducted in an era before the widespread use of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, and therefore, the incremental benefit is still unknown. Nevertheless, in patients receiving antiplatelet and anticoagulant therapy in addition to fish oil supplementation (even at doses as high as 4 g per day), no serious adverse complications have been reported.
Only fish and breast milk contain all the members of the omega-3 family, including its two main stars, EPA and DHA. Because Americans as a rule consume far too few omega-3s from fish or fish oil, it’s no surprise that the majority of Americans have low omega-3 index levels as well. A recent study of global omega-3 index levels found that an estimated 95% of Americans (with the exception of folks from Alaska) had an omega-3 index of 4 or below, putting them in the high risk category (5, 6, 7).

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There have been numerous clinical trials looking mainly at death, stroke, and cardiac outcomes related to omega 3 consumption, either in food or in supplements. Now the Cochrane Library has published the largest systematic review of these studies to date. Unfortunately, the review shows little benefit from consuming omega 3 fatty acid. This is a fairly extensive review with good statistical power:
People with metabolic syndrome (the combination of central obesity, high blood pressure, disturbed lipid profile, and impaired glucose tolerance) are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other apparently “age-related” disorders. Because metabolic syndrome is closely associated with chronic low-grade inflammation, the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fats are especially important as a means of slowing or stopping the progression of this deadly disorder.
McNamara, R. K., Able, J., Jandacek, R., Rider, T., Tso, P., Eliassen, J. C., Alfieri, D., Weber, W., Jarvis, K., DelBello, M. P., Strakowski, S. M., and Adler, C. M. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):1060-1067. View abstract.
People with metabolic syndrome (the combination of central obesity, high blood pressure, disturbed lipid profile, and impaired glucose tolerance) are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other apparently “age-related” disorders. Because metabolic syndrome is closely associated with chronic low-grade inflammation, the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fats are especially important as a means of slowing or stopping the progression of this deadly disorder.
They also found that taking more long-chain omega 3 fats (including EPA and DHA), primarily through supplements probably makes little or no difference to risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities. Long-chain omega 3 fats probably did reduce some blood fats, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. Reducing triglycerides is likely to be protective of heart diseases, but reducing HDL has the opposite effect. The researchers collected information on harms from the studies, but information on bleeding and blood clots was very limited. 
Research conducted at the Louisiana State University has shown that fatty acids are effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Since fish oil is one of the best sources of essential fatty acids, including EPA and DHA, it helps in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. More research conducted at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) validates the usefulness of fish oil as a possible remedy for the disease. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends fish containing a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids to patients since it acts as a defense against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Three omega−3 fatty acids 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).[67] These three polyunsaturates have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. As with most naturally-produced fatty acids, all double bonds are in the cis-configuration, in other words, the two hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond; and the double bonds are interrupted by methylene bridges (-CH
Researchers are taking a hard look at a different sort of balance, this one between possible effects of marine and plant omega-3 fats on prostate cancer. Results from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and others show that men whose diets are rich in EPA and DHA (mainly from fish and seafood) are less likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than those with low intake of EPA and DHA. (6) At the same time, some-but not all-studies show an increase in prostate cancer and advanced prostate cancer among men with high intakes of ALA (mainly from supplements). However, this effect is inconsistent. In the very large Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, for example, there was no link between ALA intake and early, late, or advanced prostate cancer. (7)
In addition to depression, chronic stress leads to loss of volume of the hippocampus—and also causes enlargement of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates anxiety and anger.24 When rats were supplemented with omega-3s during exposure to stress, they showed lower corticosterone levels (a marker of stress), and improved learning on a maze—indicating that the omega-3s helped preserve memory and reduce anxiety.24
Fish oil has only a small benefit on the risk of premature birth.[43][44] A 2015 meta-analysis of the effect of omega−3 supplementation during pregnancy did not demonstrate a decrease in the rate of preterm birth or improve outcomes in women with singleton pregnancies with no prior preterm births.[45] A systematic review and meta-analysis published the same year reached the opposite conclusion, specifically, that omega−3 fatty acids were effective in "preventing early and any preterm delivery".[46]
Participants treated with a daily dose of 2000 mg or more of omega-3 PUFAs showed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms. In addition, participants receiving supplements containing less than 60% EPA showed a significant association, but not those receiving supplements containing 60% or more EPA. The depression literature supports the clinical benefits of EPA-enriched formulations (≥60% or ≥50%) compared with placebo for the treatment of clinical depression.9,13,73-75 This opposite effect of EPA-enriched formations on anxiety and depression is intriguing and possibly linked to a distinct underlying mechanism of omega-3 PUFAs. Exploration of the effects of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety symptoms is just beginning and studies assessing the dose response anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs have not yet been performed. Further phase 2 trials of anxiety symptoms among participants with neuropsychiatric illness or physical illness should aim to determine the optimal dose.
For patients without documented CAD, the American Heart Association 2006 Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations advise the consumption of at least 2 servings of fish per week, preferably fatty fish high in DHA and EPA.65 The guidelines also recommend a daily fish intake equivalent to 1 g/d of EPA and DHA for secondary prevention of CAD. Fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA are suggested as an alternative to fatty fish consumption for secondary prevention.

There have been numerous clinical trials looking mainly at death, stroke, and cardiac outcomes related to omega 3 consumption, either in food or in supplements. Now the Cochrane Library has published the largest systematic review of these studies to date. Unfortunately, the review shows little benefit from consuming omega 3 fatty acid. This is a fairly extensive review with good statistical power:
Because of the preliminary state of knowledge on the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety, we decided to include as many studies as possible and not to set further limitations on specific characteristics, such as length of study, diagnosis, omega-3 PUFA dosage, omega-3 PUFA preparation (EPA to DHA ratio), rated anxiety coding scale, or type of control. Therefore, we chose to make the inclusion criteria as broad as possible to avoid missing any potentially eligible studies. The inclusion criteria included clinical trials in humans (randomized or nonrandomized), studies investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms, and formal published articles in peer-reviewed journals. The clinical trials could be placebo controlled or non–placebo controlled. The target participants could include healthy volunteers, patients with psychiatric illness, and patients with physical illnesses other than psychiatric illnesses. The exclusion criteria included case reports or series, animal studies or review articles, and studies not investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms. We did not set any language limitation to increase the number of eligible articles. Figure 1 shows the literature search and screening protocol.

“Lipid peroxidation induced by DHA enrichment modifies paracellular permeability in Caco-2 cells: protective role of taurine.” We conclude that hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite may be involved in the DHA-induced increase in paracellular permeability and that the protective role of taurine may be in part related to its capacity to counteract the effects of hydrogen peroxide.

Your best way to achieve a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 is by getting your fish oil from wild-caught fish like salmon. However, I still think it is beneficial for some to supplement with a high-quality omega-3 fish oil or cod liver oil. Plus, cold water fish are frequently contaminated with mercury and pesticide residues, making it very difficult to safely achieve recommended levels.

Keck, P. E., Jr., Mintz, J., McElroy, S. L., Freeman, M. P., Suppes, T., Frye, M. A., Altshuler, L. L., Kupka, R., Nolen, W. A., Leverich, G. S., Denicoff, K. D., Grunze, H., Duan, N., and Post, R. M. Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials of ethyl-eicosapentanoate in the treatment of bipolar depression and rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Biol.Psychiatry 11-1-2006;60(9):1020-1022. View abstract.
^ Jump up to: a b c Aung T, Halsey J, Kromhout D, Gerstein HC, Marchioli R, Tavazzi L, Geleijnse JM, Rauch B, Ness A, Galan P, Chew EY, Bosch J, Collins R, Lewington S, Armitage J, Clarke R (March 2018). "Associations of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplement Use With Cardiovascular Disease Risks: Meta-analysis of 10 Trials Involving 77 917 Individuals". JAMA Cardiology. 3 (3): 225–34. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2017.5205. PMC 5885893. PMID 29387889.
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
Birch, E. E., Carlson, S. E., Hoffman, D. R., Fitzgerald-Gustafson, K. M., Fu, V. L., Drover, J. R., Castaneda, Y. S., Minns, L., Wheaton, D. K., Mundy, D., Marunycz, J., and Diersen-Schade, D. A. The DIAMOND (DHA Intake And Measurement Of Neural Development) Study: a double-masked, randomized controlled clinical trial of the maturation of infant visual acuity as a function of the dietary level of docosahexaenoic acid. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):848-859. View abstract.
Hooper, L., Thompson, R. L., Harrison, R. A., Summerbell, C. D., Ness, A. R., Moore, H. J., Worthington, H. V., Durrington, P. N., Higgins, J. P., Capps, N. E., Riemersma, R. A., Ebrahim, S. B., and Davey, Smith G. Risks and benefits of omega 3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review. BMJ 4-1-2006;332(7544):752-760. View abstract.
Because of the preliminary state of knowledge on the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety, we decided to include as many studies as possible and not to set further limitations on specific characteristics, such as length of study, diagnosis, omega-3 PUFA dosage, omega-3 PUFA preparation (EPA to DHA ratio), rated anxiety coding scale, or type of control. Therefore, we chose to make the inclusion criteria as broad as possible to avoid missing any potentially eligible studies. The inclusion criteria included clinical trials in humans (randomized or nonrandomized), studies investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms, and formal published articles in peer-reviewed journals. The clinical trials could be placebo controlled or non–placebo controlled. The target participants could include healthy volunteers, patients with psychiatric illness, and patients with physical illnesses other than psychiatric illnesses. The exclusion criteria included case reports or series, animal studies or review articles, and studies not investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms. We did not set any language limitation to increase the number of eligible articles. Figure 1 shows the literature search and screening protocol.
Fish or seafood allergy: Some people who are allergic to seafood such as fish might also be allergic to fish oil supplements. There is no reliable information showing how likely people with seafood allergy are to have an allergic reaction to fish oil. Until more is known, advise patients allergic to seafood to avoid or use fish oil supplements cautiously.
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