Omega 3 fatty acids—found in supplements and naturally in some foods like certain fish, and nuts and seeds—have long been touted for their health benefits, especially heart health. Yet, a lot is still unknown, including whether it's better to get your omega 3 fats from pills or in food—and the debate continues regarding how much they may actually help you avoid heart disease.
The chemical structures of EPA and DHA are very similar and they compete for uptake and processing resources. During digestion, the triglyceride molecules in standard fish oil are broken down into a mono glycerol and two free fatty acids, small enough to be absorbed into cells of the gut lining. More often than not, DHA is the fatty acid that remains attached to the glycerol backbone, meaning in essence that DHA gets a ‘free pass’ into the gut, while the remaining free fatty acids (more often EPA) must reattach onto a glycerol molecule or risk being oxidised and used as fuel. The implication of this is that DHA levels in our cells are often concentrated at the expense of EPA after absorption when taking EPA and DHA in the standard ratio of 1.5 to 1.
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.
Another recent study shows that fatty fish consumption can cut the risk of eye-diabetes complications. The researches tracked the seafood consumption of about 3,600 diabetic men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 for nearly five years. The researchers found that people who regularly consumed 500 milligrams each day of omega-3 fatty acid in their diets (equal to two servings of fatty fish per week) were 48 percent less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than those who consumed less. (23)
Animal studies show potent reduction of liver fat stores, glucose levels, and cholesterol levels in mice supplemented with krill oil while being fed a high fat diet.64,65 While many of these effects are seen with fish oil as well, studies show that krill oil, with its unique phospholipid structure, had the added benefit of increasing fat-burning in mitochondria while reducing new glucose production in the liver.66,67 As with so many other complex disease processes, utilizing multiple pathways to reduce disease is a highly effective strategy.67
Funding/Support: The work was supported in part by grant 17H04253, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; grant 30-A-17 from the National Cancer Center Research and Development Fund; grants MOST106-2314-B-039-027-MY, 106-2314-B-038-049, 106-2314-B-039-031, 106-2314-B-039-035, 104-2314-B-039-022-MY2, and 104-2314-B-039-050-MY3 from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan; grant HRI-EX105-10528NI from the National Health Research Institutes, Taiwan; and grants CRS-106-063, DMR-107-202, and DMR-107-204 from the China Medical University, Taiwan.
The three types of omega−3 fatty acids involved in human physiology are α-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both commonly found in marine oils. Marine algae and phytoplankton are primary sources of omega−3 fatty acids. Common sources of plant oils containing ALA include walnut, edible seeds, clary sage seed oil, algal oil, flaxseed oil, Sacha Inchi oil, Echium oil, and hemp oil, while sources of animal omega−3 fatty acids EPA and DHA include fish, fish oils, eggs from chickens fed EPA and DHA, squid oils, and krill oil. Dietary supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids does not appear to affect the risk of death, cancer or heart disease. Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes or any vascular disease outcomes.
We’ve already seen that fish oil can help with depression-like symptoms in rats, but what about people? A study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience evaluated the effects of fish oil supplementation on prefrontal metabolite concentrations in adolescents with major depressive disorder. Researchers found that there was a 40 percent decrease in major depression disorder symptoms in addition to marked improvements in amino acid and nutrition content in the brain, specifically, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. (21)
Children require DHA for growth and development, and the brain, CNS and retina rely heavily on the adequate supply of DHA during growth in the womb. Thus women should emphasise DHA in their diets when they become pregnant and continue to take this until they cease breastfeeding. Children continue to need DHA up until the age they start school, so if children under the age of five are taking an omega-3 supplement, it should contain DHA. The exception is for children with developmental problems – where pure EPA or high EPA omega-3 has been shown to be most effective for supporting cognitive function. We would still recommend, where possible, naturally derived sources of omega-3 such as oily fish to support a balanced EPA and DHA intake.
Omega-3 [(n-3)] long-chain PUFA, including EPA and DHA, are dietary fats with an array of health benefits (1). They are incorporated in many parts of the body including cell membranes (2) and play a role in antiinflammatory processes and in the viscosity of cell membranes (3, 4). EPA and DHA are essential for proper fetal development and healthy aging (5). DHA is a key component of all cell membranes and is found in abundance in the brain and retina (6). EPA and DHA are also the precursors of several metabolites that are potent lipid mediators, considered by many investigators to be beneficial in the prevention or treatment of several diseases (7).
Recently another Omega-3 fatty acid, DPA (Docosapentaenoic Acid) has been discussed more frequently in the scientific community, as a new and very potent Omega-3 fatty acid. Previously thought to work in through EPA and DHA we are now learning it has very distinct functions in the body. All three of these polyunsaturated fats play an important role in the functioning of our bodies.
The studies recruited men and women, some healthy and others with existing illnesses from North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Participants were randomly assigned to increase their omega 3 fats or to maintain their usual intake of fat for at least a year. Most studies investigated the impact of giving a long-chain omega 3 supplement in a capsule form and compared it to a dummy pill. Only a few assessed whole fish intake. Most ALA trials added omega 3 fats to foods such as margarine and gave these enriched foods, or naturally ALA-rich foods such as walnuts, to people in the intervention groups, and usual (non-enriched) foods to other participants.
Foods such as meat, eggs, fish and nuts contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which the body converts into endocannabinoids – cannabinoids that the body produces naturally, said Aditi Das, a University of Illinois professor of comparative biosciences and biochemistry, who led the study. Cannabinoids in marijuana and endocannabinoids produced in the body can support the body’s immune system and therefore are attractive targets for the development of anti-inflammatory therapeutics, she said.
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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.
^ Jump up to: a b Casula M, Soranna D, Catapano AL, Corrao G (August 2013). "Long-term effect of high dose omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for secondary prevention of cardiovascular outcomes: A meta-analysis of randomized, placebo controlled trials [corrected]". Atherosclerosis. Supplements. 14 (2): 243–51. doi:10.1016/S1567-5688(13)70005-9. PMID 23958480.
Hanwell, H. E., Kay, C. D., Lampe, J. W., Holub, B. J., and Duncan, A. M. Acute fish oil and soy isoflavone supplementation increase postprandial serum (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids and isoflavones but do not affect triacylglycerols or biomarkers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr 2009;139(6):1128-1134. View abstract.
Most brands of fish oil have been proven safe, free of detectable traces of mercury, and do not contain unsafe levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a toxin and pollutant believed to pose various health threats. To avoid contaminants in an unrefined supplement, it's best to choose a fish-oil supplement made from small, oily fish like anchovy, sardines or menhaden.
Gajos, G., Zalewski, J., Rostoff, P., Nessler, J., Piwowarska, W., & Undas, A. (2011, May 26). Reduced thrombin formation and altered fibrin clot properties induced by polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids on top of dual antiplatelet therapy in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention (OMEGA-PCI Clot). Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 111.228593. Retrieved from http://atvb.ahajournals.org/content/early/2011/05/26/ATVBAHA.111.228593.abstract
The Federal Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 recommends that adults eat 8 or more ounces of a variety of seafood (fish or shellfish) per week for the total package of nutrients seafood provides, and that some seafood choices with higher amounts of EPA and DHA be included. Smaller amounts of seafood are recommended for young children.
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.