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.
Sala-Vila A, Díaz-López A, Valls-Pedret C, et al.; Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) Investigators. Dietary marine ?-3 fatty acids and incident sight-threatening retinopathy in middle-aged and older individuals with type 2 diabetes: Prospective investigation from the PREDIMED trial. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134(10):1142-1149. View abstract.
Several studies suggest that people suffering symptoms of depression and/or anxiety see improvement after adding an omega-3 supplement to their routine, even in double-blinded, randomized, controlled trials. (29, 30, 31, 32, 33) At least one study comparing a common depression medication found omega-3 supplements to be just as effective in combating depression symptoms. (34)
Khandelwal, S., Demonty, I., Jeemon, P., Lakshmy, R., Mukherjee, R., Gupta, R., Snehi, U., Niveditha, D., Singh, Y., van der Knaap, H. C., Passi, S. J., Prabhakaran, D., and Reddy, K. S. Independent and interactive effects of plant sterols and fish oil n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on the plasma lipid profile of mildly hyperlipidaemic Indian adults. Br.J.Nutr. 2009;102(5):722-732. View abstract.
The most widely available dietary source of EPA and DHA is oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, menhaden, and sardines. Oils from these fish have a profile of around seven times as much omega−3 as omega−6. Other oily fish, such as tuna, also contain n-3 in somewhat lesser amounts. Consumers of oily fish should be aware of the potential presence of heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants like PCBs and dioxins, which are known to accumulate up the food chain. After extensive review, researchers from Harvard's School of Public Health in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2006)  reported that the benefits of fish intake generally far outweigh the potential risks. Although fish are a dietary source of omega−3 fatty acids, fish do not synthesize them; they obtain them from the algae (microalgae in particular) or plankton in their diets. In the case of farmed fish, omega-3 fatty acids is provided by fish oil; In 2009, 81% of the global fish oil production is used by aquaculture.
After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. The evidence is somewhat conflicting in some reports, but there is some evidence to suggest breast and prostate cancers may be potentially slowed (or the risk reduced) in people who eat a lot of oily fish and possibly those who supplement with omega-3. (66, 67, 68)
Since 2004, scientists have been suggesting that the omega-3 index be used as a way to measure a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, in a similar way to how cholesterol levels are used today (1). A recent study funded by the National Institutes for Health even indicated that the omega-3 index could be a better predictor of death risk than serum cholesterol levels (2).
Both omega−6 and omega−3 fatty acids are essential: humans must consume them in their diet. Omega−6 and omega−3 eighteen-carbon polyunsaturated fatty acids compete for the same metabolic enzymes, thus the omega−6:omega−3 ratio of ingested fatty acids has significant influence on the ratio and rate of production of eicosanoids, a group of hormones intimately involved in the body's inflammatory and homeostatic processes, which include the prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes, among others. Altering this ratio can change the body's metabolic and inflammatory state. In general, grass-fed animals accumulate more omega−3 than do grain-fed animals, which accumulate relatively more omega−6. Metabolites of omega−6 are more inflammatory (esp. arachidonic acid) than those of omega−3. This necessitates that omega−6 and omega−3 be consumed in a balanced proportion; healthy ratios of omega−6:omega−3, according to some authors, range from 1:1 to 1:4. Other authors believe that a ratio of 4:1 (4 times as much omega−6 as omega−3) is already healthy. Studies suggest the evolutionary human diet, rich in game animals, seafood, and other sources of omega−3, may have provided such a ratio.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): This plant-based omega-3 is found in green, leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds and canola, walnut and soybean oils (although those rancid oils are not ones I generally recommend). ALA is known as a short-chain omega-3, meaning your body has to convert it into longer-chained EPA and DHA to synthesize it. This process is rather inefficient and only about one percent of the ALA you consume is converted to the long-chain version your body needs (although this percentage is slightly higher for women).
ODS seeks to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, supporting research, sharing research results, and educating the public. Its resources include publications (such as Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know), fact sheets on a variety of specific supplement ingredients and products (such as vitamin D and multivitamin/mineral supplements), and the PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset
Dry eye. Higher intake of fish oil from the diet has been linked to a lower risk of dry eye in women. But the effects of fish oil in people with dry eye are inconsistent. Some research shows that fish oil reduces dry eye symptoms such as pain, blurred vision, and sensitivity. But fish oil doesn’t seem to improve other signs and symptoms of dry eye such as tear production and damage to the surface of the eye. Taking fish oil also doesn’t improve signs and symptoms of dry eye when used with other dry eye treatments.
Some high-quality omega-3 supplements will have lower amounts than EPA/DHA but accompany them with digestive enzymes. While it looks counterintuitive on a nutrition label, this is often done because there is debate about how much of the omega-3’s you actually absorb from supplements when taken alone. By coupling omega-3’s with a digestive enzyme blend, you are likely able to absorb more of the nutrient without having to consume as many grams.
Dr. Holub has provided the questions and answers for several emails he has received over the years regarding omega-3 fatty acids for health. If you have a question regarding omega-3, it is likely that Dr. Holub has answered it either here in this section, or elsewhere on the site (e.g. check the scientific overview section for general questions regarding omega-3). To quickly find your answer, please use our search bar located in the top right section of this page. After searching our site, and you still cannot find the answer to your question, we invite you to ask Dr. Holub a question here.
Omega-3s have been studied for other conditions, with either inconclusive or negative results. These conditions include allergies, atopic eczema (an allergic skin condition), cystic fibrosis, diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), intermittent claudication (a circulatory problem), nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and osteoporosis.
Jump up ^ Bloch MH, Qawasmi A (October 2011). "Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for the treatment of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptomatology: systematic review and meta-analysis". Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 50 (10): 991–1000. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2011.06.008. PMC 3625948. PMID 21961774.
Fish oil is also used for diabetes, prediabetes, asthma, a movement and coordination disorder called dyspraxia, dyslexia, eczema, autism, obesity, weak bones (osteoporosis), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis, psoriasis, an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, gum disease, Lyme disease, sickle cell disease, and preventing weight loss caused by some cancer drugs.