It can be challenging to get the appropriate intake of EPA and DHA through diet alone, even though EPA and DHA are produced by water plants such as algae and are prevalent in marine animals. A shorter chain omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (ALA),6 is a prominent component of our diet as it is found in many land plants that are commonly eaten, but it does not provide the health benefits seen with EPA and DHA. Although it is possible for the body to convert ALA to EPA and DHA by enlongase and desaturase enzymes, research suggests that only a small amount can be synthesized in the body from this process (8). For example, 1 study suggested that only ∼2 to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA or DHA (9), and other studies found even less: Goyens et al. (10) found an ALA conversion of ∼7% for EPA, but only 0.013% for DHA; Hussein et al. (11) found an ALA conversion of only 0.3% for EPA and <0.01% for DHA.
Evidence linking fish oil and cancer has been all over the map. Some research suggests diets high in fatty fish or fish oil supplements might reduce the risk of certain cancers, including prostate cancer. Other research shows just the opposite, a link between eating a lot of oily fish or taking potent fish oil supplements and a 43% increased risk for prostate cancer overall, and a 71% increased risk for aggressive prostate cancer.
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Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but they are less frequent now thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities. Past concerns about omega-3s increasing the risk of bleeding have been largely disproven, but caution is still advised in people taking blood thinners or who are about to undergo surgery. As mentioned, caution is needed in people with bipolar disorder to prevent cycling to mania. Because omega-3s are important to brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3 in expectant mothers, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children. Fish consumption in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on safety or optimal dosing of omega-3s in pregnancy, expectant mothers should consider omega-3 supplements judiciously.
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The Nutrition Source does not recommend or endorse any products.
Dangour, A. D., Allen, E., Elbourne, D., Fasey, N., Fletcher, A. E., Hardy, P., Holder, G. E., Knight, R., Letley, L., Richards, M., and Uauy, R. Effect of 2-y n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on cognitive function in older people: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 2010;91(6):1725-1732. View abstract.
There are numerous omega-3 sources with varying proportions of EPA and DHA, and the balance of EPA and DHA in a supplement influences the actions of these fats in the body. For more information about the different types of omega-3 sources and which are most suited for your individual needs, read our page on the different types of omega-3 supplements
DHA is especially vital for infant and child brain and nervous system development, as well as visual function. In older children, high DHA levels have been shown to improve learning ability, while deficiencies have been linked to learning problems and ADHD. And in adults, some studies have shown that DHA helps protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Some studies suggest that people who get higher amounts of omega-3s from foods and dietary supplements may have a lower risk of breast cancer and perhaps colorectal cancer. More research is needed to confirm this possible link. Whether omega-3s affect the risk of other cancers is not clear. Clinical trials to examine this possibility are in progress.
Unsafe for children. Fish oil supplements are not considered safe for children. Too much of this fat in their system can lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain which could stunt healthy growth and development. Because of this, and the possible exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, methylmercury and other toxins which are found in some sources of fish, it is not recommended that women who are pregnant take excessive amounts of fish oil. Servings of fish should be limited to six ounces per week and they should refrain from using fish oil or other fatty acid supplement pills. Children should not consume more than two ounces of fish per week to avoid overexposure to these chemicals. Now you know although fish oil can benefit human beings a lot, fish oil side effects should never be neglected for the sake of your safety.
Several studies confirmed the benefit of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy in terms of proper development of the brain and retina. Of the 2 most important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, DHA is the more important for proper cell membrane function and is vital to the development of the fetal brain and retina (17). During the third trimester, vast amounts of DHA accumulate in fetal tissue (20). The 2 most infiltrated fetal areas include the retina and brain, which may correlate with normal eyesight and brain function (19). A study by Judge et al. (20) found that children whose mothers had taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 29) had significantly better problem-solving skills at 9 mo old (P = 0.017) than those whose mothers had not taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 15). Another study provided a cognitive assessment of children 2.5 y after maternal EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy from 20 wk of gestation until delivery (n = 33) compared with children in a placebo group (n = 39). Children in the EPA + DHA–supplemented group attained significantly higher scores for eye and hand coordination [mean score, 114 (SD 10.2] than those in the placebo group [mean score, 108 (SD 11.3)] (P = 0.021, adjusted P = 0.008) (19).
According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches in the United States, fish oil supplements are the nonvitamin/nonmineral natural product most commonly taken by both adults and children. The survey findings indicated that about 7.8 percent of adults (18.8 million) and 1.1 percent of children age 4 to 17 (664,000) had taken a fish oil supplement in the previous 30 days.
Subgroup meta-analysis of the anxiolytic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) based on different EPA percentages. The anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs were significant in the subgroup with an EPA percentage less than 60% (k, 11; Hedges g = 0.485; 95% CI, 0.017 to 0.954; P = .04) but not significant in the subgroups with an EPA percentage of at least 60% (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.092; 95% CI, –0.102 to 0.285; P = .35).
Bianconi, L., Calo, L., Mennuni, M., Santini, L., Morosetti, P., Azzolini, P., Barbato, G., Biscione, F., Romano, P., and Santini, M. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for the prevention of arrhythmia recurrence after electrical cardioversion of chronic persistent atrial fibrillation: a randomized, double-blind, multicentre study. Europace. 2011;13(2):174-181. View abstract.
Luo, J Rizkalla SW Vidal H Oppert JM Colas C Boussairi A Guerre-Millo M Chapuis AS Chevalier A Durand G Slama G. Moderate intake of n-3 fatty acids for 2 months has no detrimental effect on glucose metabolism and could ameliorate the lipid profile in type 2 diabetic men. Results of a controlled study. Diabetes Care. 1998;21(5):717-724. View abstract.
A healthy balance of dietary omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is a prerequisite for normal immune function, cognitive health, and cardiovascular health. Among other factors, sufficient dietary levels of EPA, DHA or other omega 3 fatty acids are also important in the regulation of normal blood lipoprotein and healthy cholesterol metabolism. Fish oil supplements can also lower elevated triglyceride levels, improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart disease.†
Belalcazar, L. M., Reboussin, D. M., Haffner, S. M., Reeves, R. S., Schwenke, D. C., Hoogeveen, R. C., Pi-Sunyer, F. X., and Ballantyne, C. M. Marine omega-3 fatty acid intake: associations with cardiometabolic risk and response to weight loss intervention in the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study. Diabetes Care 2010;33(1):197-199. View abstract.
Science is dynamic, not static, and as scientific understanding advances scientists sometimes have to modify their positions. Dr. Kidd’s position on EPA and DHA has now changed due to advances in the clinical and basic scientific research. Though the brain carries predominantly DHA and very little EPA, clinical trial results clearly indicate EPA has benefit for mood and probably other higher brain functions. At the basic science level, it has become clear that both EPA and DHA, not DHA alone, are required for the brain to make new nerve cells. Dr. Kidd very closely monitors the research on EPA and… Read more »
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
A scientific review published in 2013 looked at omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and prostate cancer prevention. Researchers concluded that there’s a great deal of evidence suggesting that omega-3s have antiproliferative effects – which means they inhibit cancer cell growth – in cancer cell lines, animal models and humans. In addition, the “direct effects on cancer cells” and indirect anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system fighting the cancer likely contribute to the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to inhibit tumor growth. (14)
Respected health care organizations proposed intake recommendations for oily fish of two servings per week for healthy adults, which equates to approximately a daily total of 500 milligrams (mg) EPA and DHA.‡ The recommendation encourages adults already with or at-risk of developing cardiovascular disease to talk to their primary healthcare professional about supplementing with amounts greater than 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Although there was significant heterogeneity among the included studies (Cochran Q, 178.820; df, 18; I2, 89.934%; P < .001), the sensitivity test suggested that the main significant results of the meta-analysis would not change after removal of any of the included studies. However, through direct inspection of the forest plot, we detected the potential influence of some outliers, such as the studies by Sohrabi et al56 and Yehuda et al.61 These 2 studies evaluated anxiety symptoms with a visual analog scale of anxiety and test anxiety severity, which are seldom used in psychiatric research and lack a definite report to prove their equivalent sensitivity and specificity to some other frequently used anxiety rating scales, such as depression, anxiety, and stress scales or the Hamilton anxiety rating scale. Therefore, these studies might have affected the interpretation of the current meta-analysis.
In recent years, many people – particularly those who strictly follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – have believed that they do not have to consume animal products to get omega-3s, as long as they are consuming high amounts of plant-based omega-3s. But, as I mentioned before, most of the health benefits that you can get from omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based EPA and DHA fats – not plant-based ALA. They are simply NOT interchangeable.
To date, no studies have assessed mortality or nonfatal MI in diabetic patients treated with fish oil.52–54 A recent comprehensive meta-analysis analyzed the effect of fish oil supplements on metabolic parameters when added to usual care in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus or impaired glucose tolerance.54 The meta-analysis included a total of 23 small, randomized trials with over 1000 patients that were assessed for lipid and insulin resistance parameters. At a mean follow-up of approximately 9 weeks, triglyceride reduction was accomplished but no significant changes were seen in total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol, HgA1c levels, fasting glucose levels, fasting insulin, or in body weight. The largest randomized trial to date assessed approximately 400 patients with impaired glucose tolerance or insulin-dependent diabetes mel-litus, and as reflected in the larger meta-analysis, found no effect of moderate to high doses of fish oil on diabetic parameters.55 There are insufficient randomized data to comment on the combination of fish oil and specific diabetes medications and related mortality and/or morbidity.
Guallar, E., Aro, A., Jimenez, F. J., Martin-Moreno, J. M., Salminen, I., van't Veer, P., Kardinaal, A. F., Gomez-Aracena, J., Martin, B. C., Kohlmeier, L., Kark, J. D., Mazaev, V. P., Ringstad, J., Guillen, J., Riemersma, R. A., Huttunen, J. K., Thamm, M., and Kok, F. J. Omega-3 fatty acids in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction: the EURAMIC study. Arterioscler.Thromb.Vasc.Biol 1999;19(4):1111-1118. View abstract.
Fatty predatory fish like sharks, swordfish, tilefish, and albacore tuna may be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but due to their position at the top of the food chain, these species may also accumulate toxic substances through biomagnification. For this reason, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting consumption (especially for women of childbearing age) of certain (predatory) fish species (e.g. albacore tuna, shark, king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish) due to high levels of the toxic contaminant mercury. Dioxin, PCBs and chlordane are also present. Fish oil is used as a component in aquaculture feed. More than 50 percent of the world's fish oil used in aquaculture feed is fed to farmed salmon.
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