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.
Several large studies have linked higher blood levels of long-chain omega-3s with higher risks of prostate cancer. However, other research has shown that men who frequently eat seafood have lower prostate cancer death rates and that dietary intakes of long-chain omega-3s aren’t associated with prostate cancer risk. The reason for these apparently conflicting findings is unclear.
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In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
Some research indicates that people who eat more seafood may have a reduced risk of cognitive decline. However, omega-3 supplements haven’t been shown to help prevent cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease or to improve symptoms of these conditions. For example, a large NIH-sponsored study completed in 2015 indicated that taking EPA and DHA supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older adults. The people studied were participants in a larger eye disease study, and all of them had age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are common toxins in seafood. Although the U.S. banned the use of PCBs and DDT in 1976, these and other chemicals are still used in half the world's commercial chemical processes. Substances like these can hang around in the air, soil, and water for many years. They end up in the bodies of fish and animals.
First, EPA inhibits the enzyme that produces arachidonic acid. Second, EPA impedes the release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes (where it is stored) and its metabolization once it is released. Without this release and metabolization, your body can’t make eicosanoids. The result is lower risk of the inflammation that would have been caused by all that arachidonic acid going to eicosanoids.
On September 8, 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave "qualified health claim" status to EPA and DHA omega−3 fatty acids, stating, "supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA [omega−3] fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease". This updated and modified their health risk advice letter of 2001 (see below).
"All these diseases have a common genesis in inflammation," says Joseph C. Maroon, MD, professor and vice chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Co-author of Fish Oil: The Natural Anti-Inflammatory, Maroon says that in large enough amountsomega-3's reduce the inflammatory process that leads to many chronic conditions.
Scaly, itchy skin (eczema). Fish oil might help PREVENT eczema, but research is not consistent. Some early research suggests that mothers who take fish oil supplements during pregnancy reduce the risk of severe eczema in their infants. Also, population research suggests that children who eat fish at least once weekly from 1 to 2 years of age have a lower risk of developing eczema. But other research, including recent studies, suggests that neither supplementation during pregnancy nor supplementation during infancy reduces the risk of eczema. Overall, research suggests that fish oil does not help TREAT eczema once it has developed.
Thanks for the informative article. You mentioned that those taking high doses of DHA should supplement it with trace amounts of GLA. What GLA source would you recommend, and how much per day? I will be taking around 3400 mg of epa and 2200 mg DHA per day. I've heard that Borage Oil is more potent in GLA than evening primrose, but that it can lead to increased clotting and increased risk of heart attack, stroke, etc due to increased thromboxane B2. The main reason I want to stay away from the primrose is because it is extremely rich in linoleic acid. Thanks.
Sala-Vila A, Díaz-López A, Valls-Pedret C, et al.; Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) Investigators. Dietary marine ?-3 fatty acids and incident sight-threatening retinopathy in middle-aged and older individuals with type 2 diabetes: Prospective investigation from the PREDIMED trial. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134(10):1142-1149. View abstract.
Unintended weight loss is a problem that many patients with AD may face, and EPA+DHA supplementation has had a positive effect on weight gain in patients with AD. In a study using EPA+DHA supplementation, patients' weight significantly increased by 0.7 kg in the EPA+DHA treatment group at 6 mo (P = 0.02) and by 1.4 kg at 12 mo (P < 0.001) and was observed mainly in patients with a BMI <23 at the study start (54). This means that those patients with a lower BMI preferentially gained weight compared with those patients already with a higher BMI.
Cochrane lead author, Dr. Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia, UK said: “We can be confident in the findings of this review which go against the popular belief that long-chain omega 3 supplements protect the heart. This large systematic review included information from many thousands of people over long periods. Despite all this information, we don’t see protective effects.
Further, according to subgroup results based on the presence of specific clinical diagnoses or not, the association of omega-3 PUFA treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly higher in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. Among 6 studies included in a meta-analysis of the effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms, the analysis showed a nearly null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms in healthy participants.73 Although the reason for the null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety and depressive symptoms remains unclear, certain pathophysiological conditions might be required for omega-3 PUFAs to exert an association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms.
These conversions occur competitively with omega−6 fatty acids, which are essential closely related chemical analogues that are derived from linoleic acid. They both utilize the same desaturase and elongase proteins in order to synthesize inflammatory regulatory proteins. The products of both pathways are vital for growth making a balanced diet of omega−3 and omega−6 important to an individual's health. A balanced intake ratio of 1:1 was believed to be ideal in order for proteins to be able to synthesize both pathways sufficiently, but this has been controversial as of recent research.
Hamazaki, K., Syafruddin, D., Tunru, I. S., Azwir, M. F., Asih, P. B., Sawazaki, S., and Hamazaki, T. The effects of docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil on behavior, school attendance rate and malaria infection in school children--a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial in Lampung, Indonesia. Asia Pac.J Clin Nutr 2008;17(2):258-263. View abstract.
Today, some doctors are starting to measure the omega-3 index levels of their patients, just like they do with cholesterol levels. However, if your doctor does not offer this, several companies provide a quick and easy blood test you can conduct yourself, including OmegaQuant. This company is run by by Dr. William Harris, one of the scientists who initially developed the concept of the omega-3 index.
Full citation: Abdelhamid AS, Brown TJ, Brainard JS, Biswas P, Thorpe GC, Moore HJ, Deane KHO, AlAbdulghafoor FK, Summerbell CD, Worthington HV, Song F, Hooper L. Omega 3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD003177. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003177.pub3.
De Truchis, P., Kirstetter, M., Perier, A., Meunier, C., Zucman, D., Force, G., Doll, J., Katlama, C., Rozenbaum, W., Masson, H., Gardette, J., and Melchior, J. C. Reduction in triglyceride level with N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in HIV-infected patients taking potent antiretroviral therapy: a randomized prospective study. J.Acquir.Immune.Defic.Syndr. 3-1-2007;44(3):278-285. View abstract.
For those who do not eat seafood, another way exists for you to get a healthy dose of EPA and DHA each day. Fish oil supplements, which are rich in EPA and DHA, can be made from a variety of fish, with the most common ones being halibut, tuna, salmon, cod liver, mackerel and herring. On average, one 3.5 ounce serving of fatty fish contains about 1 gram of omega-3s, which can be obtained through fish oil supplements, according to MedlinePlus.
Secondly, when we consume EPA, it inhibits the production of AA from DGLA and also competes with AA for uptake into cell membranes and can therefore lower the amount of AA in membranes by literally saturating the cell – in essence, it takes up more of the available ‘space’ and displaces AA. When there is less AA present, there is a reduced capacity for it to produce inflammatory products.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Fish oil is LIKELY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Taking fish oil during pregnancy does not seem to affect the fetus or baby while breast-feeding. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, and nursing mothers should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (also called golden bass or golden snapper), as these may contain high levels of mercury. Limit consumption of other fish to 12 ounces/week (about 3 to 4 servings/week). Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when dietary sources are consumed in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury.