Your concerns are very valid. The quality of commercially available omega-3 preparations can vary greatly. In our clinical trials we use preparations made by reputable manufacturers with high standards. We also have the preparations analyzed by 2 independent labs to confirm omega-3 content, impurities, and degree of oxidation, prior to initiating the study. While omega-3 fatty acids–like most nutrients–are ideally obtained through dietary practice, because many people may not enjoy omega-3 containing foods, supplements may be a good option for these individuals. Anyone who is interested in using an omega-3 preparation for treating a psychiatric condition should do so preferably under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
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.
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.
Hamazaki, K., Itomura, M., Huan, M., Nishizawa, H., Sawazaki, S., Tanouchi, M., Watanabe, S., Hamazaki, T., Terasawa, K., and Yazawa, K. Effect of omega-3 fatty acid-containing phospholipids on blood catecholamine concentrations in healthy volunteers: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. Nutrition 2005;21(6):705-710. View abstract.
“This systematic review did find moderate evidence that ALA, found in plant oils (such as rapeseed or canola oil) and nuts (particularly walnuts) may be slightly protective of some diseases of the heart and circulation. However, the effect is very small, 143 people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person developing arrhythmia. One thousand people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person dying of coronary heart disease or experiencing a cardiovascular event. ALA is an essential fatty acid, an important part of a balanced diet, and increasing intakes may be slightly beneficial for prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease."
Australian researchers published results of a study examining the effects of fish oil on weight loss in combination with diet and exercise in the May 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The results show that a combination of fish oil supplements and regular exercise can reduce body fat while also improving heart and metabolic health. The fish supplementation group had lowered triglycerides, increased HDL cholesterol and improved blood flow. Overall, adding fish oil to a current exercise program (and a overall healthy lifestyle) looks like it can decrease body fat as well as cardiovascular disease risk. (32)
The three types of omega-3s are APA, EPA and DHA. The first is a medium-chain fatty acid and must be converted into EPA before being synthesized by the body, and only about 1 percent of the APA consumed is able to be converted. EPA and DHA are already in a form ready to be synthesized (and are the subject of most scientific research regarding omega-3s).
Fish oil is also commonly used to treat conditions such as Rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, ADHD, menstrual pain, hardening of the arteries or kidney problems. These conditions can be improved by improving blood flow, which omega-3 fatty acids in the blood stream. There is also some evidence that fish oil may help with conditions such as chest pain, liver disease, migraine prevention, gum infections, breast pain, and muscle soreness due to exercise, skin rashes and stomach ulcers.
A scientific review in 2014 evaluated study findings on omega-3 intake in relation to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, the most prevalent cancer among women. The review found that EPA and DHA, as well as ALA, can differentially inhibit breast tumor development. According to this review, there is solid evidence to support the use of omega-3s as “a nutritional intervention in the treatment of breast cancer to enhance conventional therapeutics, or potentially lowering effective doses.” (16) Additionally, a 2016 study found that “very high fish consumption in early adulthood to midlife may be associated with decreased risk of breast cancer.” (17)
Children, in particular, seem to experience problems with sleep when they don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. In adults, low omega-3 levels are associated with obstructive sleep apnea. One reason for this may be that low omega-3s are linked to lower levels of melatonin, the hormone partly responsible for helping you to get to sleep in the first place.
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.
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.