Brain function and vision rely on dietary intake of DHA to support a broad range of cell membrane properties, particularly in grey matter, which is rich in membranes. A major structural component of the mammalian brain, DHA is the most abundant omega−3 fatty acid in the brain. It is under study as a candidate essential nutrient with roles in neurodevelopment, cognition, and neurodegenerative disorders.
This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific product or service, or recommendation from an organization or professional society, does not represent an endorsement by ODS of that product, service, or expert advice.
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.
Why would someone foul a perfectly good box of rotini with omega 3 oils? This is based on the belief that omega 3 fatty acids reduce heart disease and vascular risk, probably through reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. This is a plausible claim, but as we see over and over again in medicine, plausibility (while nice) is insufficient as a basis for clinical claims.
Omega AD study, Irving et al. (54) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 1741 DHA (1.7 g/d) and EPA (0.6 g/d) for 6 mo, then for all subjects (supplementation group and placebo group) Supplementation was associated with positive weight gain and appetite in supplementation group at 6 mo, but not in the placebo group, and for both groups at 12 mo
As you likely know (and as I’ve been discussing for years), omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. They have been studied for the treatment and prevention of many diseases, several of which are related to inflammation, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. They have also been shown to be extraordinarily helpful in preventing and treating other brain conditions such as depression and other psychiatric disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and concussions.
This systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials conducted on participants with clinical anxiety symptoms provides the first meta-analytic evidence, to our knowledge, that omega-3 PUFA treatment may be associated with anxiety reduction, which might not only be due to a potential placebo effect, but also from some associations of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms. The beneficial anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs might be stronger in participants with specific clinical diagnoses than in those without specific clinical conditions. Larger and well-designed clinical trials should be performed with high-dose omega-3 PUFAs, provided as monotherapy and as adjunctive treatment to standard therapy.
To reach the required dose of EPA for treating certain conditions such as depression, CVD or CFS/ME you would need to take approximately 1-2 grams of ‘free EPA’ daily. Even with a concentrated omega-3 fish oil supplement, offering 180 mg excess EPA over DHA, this would require 10-20 capsules daily – significant in terms of volume and cost, and not efficient in terms of uptake in the body as our capacity for fat absorption is limited. The most effective and efficient way to ensure high EPA uptake in the body rapidly is to supplement with pure EPA for a minimum of 3-6 months.
Rogers, P. J., Appleton, K. M., Kessler, D., Peters, T. J., Gunnell, D., Hayward, R. C., Heatherley, S. V., Christian, L. M., McNaughton, S. A., and Ness, A. R. No effect of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (EPA and DHA) supplementation on depressed mood and cognitive function: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Nutr 2008;99(2):421-431. View abstract.
Although results from studies regarding the disease processes of AD seem to be promising, there are conflicting data regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acids in terms of cognitive function. Neuropsychiatric symptoms accompany AD from early stages and tend to increase with the progression of the disease (55). An analysis of 174 patients randomized to a placebo group or to a group with mild to moderate AD (MMSE score ≥15) treated with daily DHA (1.7 g) and EPA (0.6 g) found that at 6 mo, the decline in cognitive function did not differ between the groups. Yet, in a subgroup with very mild cognitive dysfunction (n = 32, MMSE score >27), they observed a significant reduction in the MMSE decline rate in the DHA+EPA-supplemented group compared with the placebo group (47). Another study that looked at DHA supplementation in individuals with mild to moderate AD used the Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale–Cognitive subscale, which evaluates cognitive function on a 70-point scale in terms of memory, attention, language, orientation, and praxis. This study found that DHA supplementation had no beneficial effect on cognition during the 18-mo trial period for the DHA group vs. placebo (56).
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.
In many cases, people are recommended to consume fish oil because it is an easy way to get additional omega-3 fatty acids into their diet. Omega-3 fats can be used to reduce swelling or to prevent blood clots which could cause major cardiovascular damage. There are many other conditions which can be decreased or improved with the use of fish oil. In most cases fish oil is used to help reduce high triglycerides which can cause serious conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
The evidence that fish oil consumption should be used for primary prevention of CAD is based on observational studies. The only randomized trial for primary prevention, the JELIS trial, showed a moderate relative risk reduction and was conducted in a very specific group. Nevertheless, to date, there has been no strong signal suggesting any serious adverse effects of having high DHA and EPA oils in the diet. We agree with the national guidelines that one should consume moderate amounts of fish oil— either in supplement or through the dietary intake of fatty fish with low mercury levels.
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.
Fish oil contamination even among “molecularly distilled” brands and those aimed at children is a widespread problem. One study in California tested 10 common brands and found PCBs — toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans — in all of them. Some had 70 times the PCBs of other ones and 240x the toxicity. In another study, researchers tested 13 over-the-counter children’s dietary supplements containing fish oil for PCBs. PCBs were detected in all products. Our family takes algae-derived omega-3 (DHA/EPA) capsules, which are bioequivalent to fish oil capsules. Algae are actually the source where fish get their omega-3 content, so we skip the contaminated middle man (or, fish, in this case) and the neurotoxins that come with them given how polluted our oceans are now. I highly recommend parents do their research on what studies show about fish oil contamination and not just trust the labels, as well as consider algae-derived omega-3 capsules as more healthful bioequivalent to fish oil.
Basil — a flavorful and easy-to-find herb — is a strong source of omega-3 fatty acids. Since basil is used primarily as a seasoning, however, you likely won’t get a full day’s supply of omega-3 from a standard serving. For best results, use whole basil leaves, and add them toward the end of your meal’s cooking time to preserve the plant’s nutrients. In addition to delivering omega-3s, basil teas like Buddha Tea’s Organic Holy Basil Tea also promote calm and reduce cell inflammation.
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.
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.
One meta-analysis concluded that omega−3 fatty acid supplementation demonstrated a modest effect for improving ADHD symptoms. A Cochrane review of PUFA (not necessarily omega−3) supplementation found "there is little evidence that PUFA supplementation provides any benefit for the symptoms of ADHD in children and adolescents", while a different review found "insufficient evidence to draw any conclusion about the use of PUFAs for children with specific learning disorders". Another review concluded that the evidence is inconclusive for the use of omega−3 fatty acids in behavior and non-neurodegenerative neuropsychiatric disorders such as ADHD and depression.
Our scientists also focused on each oil’s freshness, measured by the degree of oxidation. Oxidation occurs in two phases: primary (measured by peroxide values) and secondary (measured by p-anisidine values). Total oxidation is formalized into a quantitative score, TOTOX. While Labdoor conducted tests of both primary and secondary oxidation, advances in rancidity testing confirm that added flavors–particularly added citrus flavors prevalent in liquid formulations–skew p-anisidine values and result in false positive outcomes. Until analytical techniques measuring p-anisidine values that are able to account for added flavors are established, Labdoor will use peroxide values as the primary indicator of freshness. All products recorded measurable levels of oxidation, with the average product recording a peroxide values of 3.7 meq/kg. 14/51 products recorded peroxide levels at or above the upper limit (10 meq/kg).
If, however, we want to target the actions and benefits of either fat for more intensive support or clinical use, we need to alter the natural 1.5:1 EPA:DHA ratio found in most omega-3 sources such as fish oil – which is when concentrated supplements are especially useful. Certain forms of omega-3 called ethyl-ester and re-esterified triglyceride give nature a helping hand – allowing us to achieve targeted ratios of specific fatty acids at high concentration and physiologically active doses.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase platelet responsiveness to subtherapeutic anticoagulation therapies, including aspirin. Recently, it was noted that patient response to aspirin for anticoagulation therapy is widely variable (45), and, thus, the number of patients with a low response to aspirin or aspirin resistance is estimated to range from <1% to 45%, depending on many variables. However, in patients with stable coronary artery disease taking low-dose aspirin, EPA+DHA supplementation has been proven to be as effective as aspirin dose escalation to 325 mg/d for anticoagulation benefits (45). The antiplatelet drug clopidogrel has also been associated with hyporesponsiveness in some patients. This could be attributed to poor patient compliance, differences in genes and platelet reactivity, variability of drug metabolism, and drug interactions. More importantly, in 1 study, patients receiving standard dual antiplatelet therapy (aspirin 75 mg/d and clopidogrel 600-mg loading dose followed by 75 mg/d) were assigned to either EPA+DHA supplementation or placebo. After 1 mo of treatment, the P2Y12 receptor reactivity index (an indicator of clopidogrel resistance) was significantly lower, by 22%, for patients taking EPA+DHA compared with patients taking placebo (P = 0.020) (46).
There’s more good news when it comes to fish oil and eye health, and it’s just not just for diabetic this time. Fish oil has been shown to reverse age-related eye disorders. In March 2014, French researchers evaluated 290 patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and they discovered that dietary oil fish and seafood intake were significantly lower in AMD patients. Due to the high EPA and DHA levels in fish oil, it was concluded that this kind of nutritional intervention could especially benefit those at high risk for neovascular age-related macular degeneration. (24)
Higher visual acuity after DHA supplementation is a consistent finding in infants born preterm. For infants born at term, the results are less consistent and are better explained by differences in sensitivity of the visual acuity test (electrophysiologic tests being more sensitive than subjective tests) or by differences in the amount of DHA included in the experimental formula.
AD is a devastating disease for which there are limited treatment options and no cure. Memory loss is an early indicator of the disease, which is progressive, and leads to the inability of the patient to care for him- or herself and eventually to death (47). Currently, the number of individuals with AD is estimated to be 26.6 million and is expected to increase to 106.2 million by 2050 (48). There have been many studies conducted regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and AD (Table 2). DHA is present in large amounts in neuron membrane phospholipids, where it is involved in proper function of the nervous system, which is why it is thought to play a role in AD (49). A case-control study consisting of 148 patients with cognitive impairment [Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score <24] and 45 control patients (MMSE score ≥24) showed that serum cholesteryl ester-EPA and -DHA levels were significantly lower (P < 0.05 and P < 0.001, respectively) in all MMSE score quartiles of patients with AD compared with control values (49). Another study found that a diet characterized by higher intakes of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salad dressing, nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables, fruits, dark and green leafy vegetables), and a lower intake of foods low in omega-3 fatty acids (high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat, butter) was strongly associated with a lower AD risk (50). Image analysis of brain sections of an aged AD mouse model showed that overall plaque burden was significantly reduced by 40.3% in mice with a diet enriched with DHA (P < 0.05) compared with placebo. The largest reductions (40–50%) were seen in brain regions that are thought to be involved with AD, the hippocampus and parietal cortex (51). A central event in AD is thought to be the activation of multiple inflammatory cells in the brain. Release of IL-1B, IL-6, and TNF α from microglia cells may lead to dysfunction of the neurons in the brain (52). In 1 study, AD patients treated with EPA+DHA supplementation increased their plasma concentrations of EPA and DHA, which were associated with reduced release of inflammatory factors IL-1B, IL-6, and granulocyte colony–stimulating factor from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (53).
In a 2009 letter on a pending revision to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association recommended 250–500 mg/day of EPA and DHA. The Guidelines were revised again for 2015-2020; included is a recommendation that adults consume at least eight ounces of a variety of types of fish per week, equating to at least 250 mg/day of EPA + DHA. The Food and Drug Administration recommends not exceeding 3 grams per day of EPA + DHA from all sources, with no more than 2 grams per day from dietary supplements.
Studies have also found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are associated with improved survival rates for heart attack victims. A study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took a high dose of fish oil each for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation. (20)
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).
High blood pressure. Fish oil seems to slightly lower blood pressure in people with moderate to very high blood pressure. Some types of fish oil might also reduce blood pressure in people with slightly high blood pressure, but results are inconsistent. Fish oil seems to add to the effects of some, but not all, blood pressure-lowering medications. However, it doesn't seem to reduce blood pressure in people with uncontrolled blood pressure who are already taking blood pressure-lowering medications.