About the only exception are wild-caught Alaskan salmon and very small fish like sardines. The highest concentrations of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish like tuna, sea bass, and marlin. You may need to be especially cautious of canned tuna as well, as independent testing by the Mercury Policy Project found that the average mercury concentration in canned tuna is far over the "safe limits" of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
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.
Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc. have demonstrated EPA to be superior to DHA (5).
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Additional side effects of fish oil supplements which have been reported include headache, short-term memory loss, depression, somatic disorders, and increased risk of colon cancer, nasopharyngitis, worsening of asthma symptoms, hemolytic anemia, decreased physical activity, increased appetite, a general uncomfortable feeling or increased blood pressure. The percentage of users that develop these side effects is not known. If these side effects become severe it is recommended that you stop using fish oil supplements.
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.
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.
For example, large predatory fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and albacore tuna can contain high levels of methyl mercury, a toxin that would override any health benefit, especially for the developing brains of fetuses and young children as well as for adults, Dr. Nesheim and Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, noted in 2014 in an editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Levels of mercury and other contaminants in fish have since declined somewhat but are not negligible.)
Omega 3 is a type of fat. Small amounts of omega 3 fats are essential for good health, and they can be found in the food that we eat. The main types of omega 3 fatty acids are; alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is normally found in fats from plant foods, such as nuts and seeds (walnuts and rapeseed are rich sources). EPA and DHA, collectively called long chain omega 3 fats, are naturally found in fatty fish, such as salmon and fish oils including cod liver oil.
A 2012 study involved children from 6 to 12 years of age with ADHD who were being treated with methylphenidate and standard behavior therapy for more than six months. The parents of these children reported no improvement in behavior and academic learning using these standard treatments. The researchers randomly gave some of the children an omega-3 and omega-6 acid supplementation or a placebo. They found “statistically significant improvement” for the omega group in the following categories: restlessness, aggressiveness, completing work and academic performance. (5)
Henriksen, C., Haugholt, K., Lindgren, M., Aurvag, A. K., Ronnestad, A., Gronn, M., Solberg, R., Moen, A., Nakstad, B., Berge, R. K., Smith, L., Iversen, P. O., and Drevon, C. A. Improved cognitive development among preterm infants attributable to early supplementation of human milk with docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid. Pediatrics 2008;121(6):1137-1145. View abstract.
There is also evidence that mothers who use EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding may protect their children against allergies. This may be due to the fact that fish-oil supplementation has been associated with decreased levels of body cells associated with inflammation and immune response (26). In a study about food allergy and IgE-associated eczema, the period prevalence of food allergy was lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05), and the incidence of IgE-associated eczema was also lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05) (27).
Meta-analyses (research that combines and analyzes results of multiple studies) generally suggest that the omega-3s are effective, but the findings are not unanimous because of variability between doses, ratios of EPA to DHA, and other study design issues. The most effective preparations appear to have at least 60% EPA relative to DHA. While DHA is thought to be less effective as an antidepressant, it may have protective effects against suicide. Recent work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Emory University suggests that depressed individuals who are overweight and have elevated inflammatory activity may be particularly good candidates for EPA treatment.
As always with such trials, you can never prove zero benefit (or zero risk), but an essentially negative trial or meta-analysis sets statistical limits on the size of any remaining plausible effect. What we can now say with a fairly high degree of confidence is that any health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids is tiny, probably too small to warrant supplementing (or adding it to pasta).
As mentioned above, the omega-3 index has been suggested as a predictor of the risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular events. One study on a population in Seattle found that people with low omega-3 index levels were 10 times as likely to die from sudden cardiac death compared to people with higher omega-3 index levels (13). The NIH-funded Framingham study referenced above showed that the people with the highest omega-3 index levels had a 33% reduction in risk of death from any cause compared to the people with the lowest levels (2). In addition, a new study focused on individuals age 25 to 41 found that higher omega-3 index levels were associated with lower blood pressure in healthy adults (14).
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 »
In 2016, AHRQ reviewed 143 studies that evaluated the effects of giving omega-3 supplements to pregnant or breastfeeding women or giving formulas with added DHA to infants. They found that when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their babies’ birth weight was slightly higher, but the risk of an undesirably low birth weight did not change. Also, when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their pregnancies lasted a little longer, but there was no effect on the risk of premature birth. Omega-3s were not found to have effects on any other aspects of the mothers’ or infants’ health or the infants’ long-term development. Aspects of the infants’ health that were not shown to be affected by omega-3s include growth after birth, visual acuity, long-term neurological and cognitive development, and the risks of autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and allergies.
Fortier, M., Tremblay-Mercier, J., Plourde, M., Chouinard-Watkins, R., Vandal, M., Pifferi, F., Freemantle, E., and Cunnane, S. C. Higher plasma n-3 fatty acid status in the moderately healthy elderly in southern Quebec: higher fish intake or aging-related change in n-3 fatty acid metabolism? Prostaglandins Leukot.Essent.Fatty Acids 2010;82(4-6):277-280. View abstract.
Gerber, J. G., Kitch, D. W., Fichtenbaum, C. J., Zackin, R. A., Charles, S., Hogg, E., Acosta, E. P., Connick, E., Wohl, D., Kojic, E. M., Benson, C. A., and Aberg, J. A. Fish oil and fenofibrate for the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia in HIV-infected subjects on antiretroviral therapy: results of ACTG A5186. J.Acquir.Immune.Defic.Syndr. 4-1-2008;47(4):459-466. View abstract.
Giacco, R., Cuomo, V., Vessby, B., Uusitupa, M., Hermansen, K., Meyer, B. J., Riccardi, G., and Rivellese, A. A. Fish oil, insulin sensitivity, insulin secretion and glucose tolerance in healthy people: is there any effect of fish oil supplementation in relation to the type of background diet and habitual dietary intake of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids? Nutr.Metab Cardiovasc.Dis. 2007;17(8):572-580. View abstract.
Peroxides can be produced when fish oil spoils. A study commissioned by the government of Norway concluded there would be some health concern related to the regular consumption of oxidized (rancid) fish/marine oils, particularly in regards to the gastrointestinal tract, but there is not enough data to determine the risk. The amount of spoilage and contamination in a supplement depends on the raw materials and processes of extraction, refining, concentration, encapsulation, storage and transportation. ConsumerLab.com reports in its review that it found spoilage in test reports it ordered on some fish oil supplement products.
Doses for depression range from less than 1 g/day to 10 g/day, but most studies use doses between 1 and 2 g/day. In my practice, I recommend 1 to 2 g/day of an EPA+DHA combination, with at least 60% EPA, for major depression. I am more cautious in patients with bipolar depression, because the omega-3s may bring on mania, as can most antidepressants. In these individuals, I recommend using omega-3 cautiously, and preferably in combination with a prescription mood stabilizer.
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).
A tremendous body of research has been conducted on these important nutrients since it was first discovered in the 1950s that fish oil offered many health benefits and that these benefits were attributable to a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. Despite the volumes of research on omega-3s, it is only in recent years (within the last 15 years or so) that the actions of EPA and DHA have come to be understood individually. Researchers now often investigate the actions of EPA and DHA individually rather than together, no longer simply under the generic label omega-3 as they are widely referred to.
Omega 3 fatty acids are monounsaturated fats that come from food sources—primarily cold water fish (eg, salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, and herring)—that contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Other fatty acids are derived from plant-derived sources of food—including nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (eg, flax, chia, sunflower)—that have primarily ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
Fish oil can be obtained from eating fish or by taking supplements. Fish that are especially rich in the beneficial oils known as omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, cod liver, whale blubber, and seal blubber. Two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Make sure to see separate listings on EPA and DHA, as well as Cod Liver Oil, and Shark Liver Oil.