Wright, S. A., O'Prey, F. M., McHenry, M. T., Leahey, W. J., Devine, A. B., Duffy, E. M., Johnston, D. G., Finch, M. B., Bell, A. L., and McVeigh, G. E. A randomised interventional trial of omega-3-polyunsaturated fatty acids on endothelial function and disease activity in systemic lupus erythematosus. Ann.Rheum.Dis. 2008;67(6):841-848. View abstract.
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.
So why is an excess of DHA detrimental and an excess of EPA useful? DHA has a larger structure with two extra carbons and two extra double bonds, so it literally takes up more space in cell membranes than EPA. On the one hand, this is important because DHA plays a structural role in maintaining the fluidity of cell membranes ( essential for the normal function of proteins, channels and receptors that are also embedded in the membrane), but if a cell membrane becomes too saturated with DHA it can become too fluid, which can have a negative effect on cell function. EPA, on the other hand, is constantly utilised and always in demand.
Maternal nutrition guidelines have always stressed a diet including sufficient caloric and protein requirements, but recently fatty acids have also been deemed important (17). This is partially due to the fact that EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with multiple benefits for the infant (Table 1). During pregnancy, the placenta transfers nutrients, including DHA, from the mother to the fetus (18). The amount of omega-3 fatty acid in the fetus is correlated with the amount ingested by the mother, so it is essential that the mother has adequate nutrition (19). The 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dietary guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should “consume 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week from a variety of seafood types” (12). Ingesting 8–12 oz of seafood per week, depending on the type of fish, is equivalent to ∼300–900 mg EPA+DHA per day. Unfortunately, this amount is not being met by most mothers in the United States and Canada, which means that infants many not be receiving adequate amounts of these vital nutrients in the womb (20).
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.
They also found that taking more long-chain omega 3 fats (including EPA and DHA), primarily through supplements probably makes little or no difference to risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities. Long-chain omega 3 fats probably did reduce some blood fats, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. Reducing triglycerides is likely to be protective of heart diseases, but reducing HDL has the opposite effect. The researchers collected information on harms from the studies, but information on bleeding and blood clots was very limited.
The FDA product label on Lovaza warns of potential bleeding complications with the coadministration of anticoagulants. This warning is based on observational studies that suggested a prolonged bleeding time in populations ingesting high levels of fish oil77 and on in vitro studies that demonstrated an effect on pro-thrombotic mediators such as a reduction in thromboxane A2 production78 and platelet activation factor.79 The same trend, however, has not been clearly demonstrated in measurements of clotting times or in factors of fibrinolysis.80 In addition, in randomized clinical trials of patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty, endarterectomy and diagnostic angiography, no adverse bleeding related events have been demonstrated.81 For example, in a trial of 500 patients randomized to pretreatment with 6.9 g of DHA and EPA preparation 2 weeks before balloon percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (where all the patients received 325 mg/d of aspirin and heparin bolus periprocedure), no difference was seen in bleeding complications.82 Similar results were seen in a trial of 610 patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, randomized to either placebo or 4 g/d of fish oil and then further randomized to aspirin or warfarin (dosed to an international normalized ratio [INR] goal of 2.5–4.2). At 1 year, the number of bleeding complications was not increased.15 The effect of fish oil on INR values has not been studied extensively, but a small, randomized trial showed that fish oil did not alter the Coumadin dosing regimen.83 There is very little evidence that a lower target INR is necessary in patients receiving chronic warfarin therapy and fish oil.
Omega-3s are important components of the membranes that surround each cell in your body. DHA levels are especially high in retina (eye), brain, and sperm cells. Omega-3s also provide calories to give your body energy and have many functions in your heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system (the network of hormone-producing glands).
Added inactive ingredients also contribute to product safety. Eight supplements in this study contained ‘natural’ flavors such as citrus-derived additives. One product, Coromega Omega-3, also contained benzoic acid, a popular antibacterial agent linked to carcinogenic risks when combined with vitamin C. Other controversial excipients included the artificial coloring agents FD&C Blue 1 and FD&C Red 40 as well as the whitening agent titanium dioxide.
One reason omega-3 fatty acids may be so beneficial to this many aspects of health could be that they help decrease system-wide inflammation. (49, 50, 51, 52, 53) Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and is related to the development of nearly every major illness, so by eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet, you give your body its best chance to fight disease like it was designed to do.
“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."
If you get your omega-3 index measured, you’ll know if your current efforts are sufficient. And this knowledge is especially important given that even health-conscious people are not always self-aware. One survey found that in a group of people with omega-3 index levels in the intermediate risk range, some 30% believed they were consuming enough omega-3s (11). One registered dietitian wrote a compelling story about exactly this experience. She discovered she was in the intermediate range, in spite of her intentions to eat enough fish.
Cashew nuts are a versatile, creamy nut, eaten on their own as a snack or used as a base for many vegan cheese substitutes. RXBAR, a healthy alternative to the standard sugar-loaded snack bar, uses cashews for several of its flavor varieties. And with delicious (and kid-friendly!) flavors like gingerbread, chocolate chip, or “Berry Blast,” these bars are a tasty way to add more cashews to any diet.
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)
If you’re not able to get enough fish oil benefits through your diet, fish oil supplements can be a good option. Fish oil side effects can include belching, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, loose stools, rash and nosebleeds, but in my experience, taking a high-quality fish oil supplement can reduce the likelihood of any unwanted side effects. It’s also a good idea to take fish oil with meals to reduce side effects.
Fish oil is very beneficial for pregnant women because the DHA present in it helps in the development of the eyes and brain of the baby. It also helps to avoid premature births, low birth weight, and miscarriages. Research conducted in Denmark, which involved 8,729 pregnant women, concluded that a diet with low amounts of fish resulted in a higher risk of premature or preterm babies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 3 g/day of EPA and DHA combined, including up to 2 g/day from dietary supplements. Higher doses are sometimes used to lower triglycerides, but anyone taking omega-3s for this purpose should be under the care of a healthcare provider because these doses could cause bleeding problems and possibly affect immune function. Any side effects from taking omega-3 supplements in smaller amounts are usually mild. They include an unpleasant taste in the mouth, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea, headache, and smelly sweat.
Fish oil is also extremely beneficial for pregnant women and their children. Throughout pregnancy and also while breastfeeding, a woman’s omega-3 needs are even higher than usual. According to the American Pregnancy Association, most U.S. women are deficient in EPA and especially DHA going into pregnancy and get even more depleted during pregnancy, as the placenta supplies the fetus with DHA from the mother’s tissue. Omega-3 DHA is a critical building block of the fetal brain, eyes and nervous system. Once the baby is born, omega-3s continue to be vital to healthy brain development and immune function. (30)
The chemical structure of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Eicosapentaenoic acid consists of 20 carbons (C20) with 5 double bonds, and the last unsaturated carbon is located third from the methyl end (n-3). Do-cosahexaenoic acid consists of 22 carbons (C22) with 6 double bonds, and also with the3 last unsaturated carbon located third from the methyl end (n-3). Adapted with permission from Frishman et al, eds. Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapeutics. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2003.3
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)
It seems that infancy and childhood are some of the most important periods of time in a person’s life to get plenty omega-3s in their diet, probably because of the amount of long-chain fatty acids found in the brain and retina. It’s crucial for developing babies and children to get a good amount of DHA and EPA so their brains and eyes develop fully and properly. (78)
Fish oil supplements came under scrutiny in 2006, when the Food Standards Agency in the UK and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported PCB levels that exceeded the European maximum limits in several fish oil brands, which required temporary withdrawal of these brands. To address the concern over contaminated fish oil supplements, the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) Program, a third-party testing and accreditation program for fish oil products, was created by Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc. in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
^ Jump up to: a b Hooper L, Thompson RL, Harrison RA, Summerbell CD, Ness AR, Moore HJ, Worthington HV, Durrington PN, Higgins JP, Capps NE, Riemersma RA, Ebrahim SB, Davey Smith G (2006). "Risks and benefits of omega−3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review". BMJ. 332 (7544): 752–60. doi:10.1136/bmj.38755.366331.2F. PMC 1420708. PMID 16565093. Retrieved 2006-07-07.[permanent dead link]
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Cochrane lead author, Dr. Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia, UK said: “We can be confident in the findings of this review which go against the popular belief that long-chain omega 3 supplements protect the heart. This large systematic review included information from many thousands of people over long periods. Despite all this information, we don’t see protective effects.
When taking fish oil, more is not always better. Remember that you want it to stay in a balanced ratio with omega-6 fats. For most people, I recommend a 1,000-milligram dose of fish oil daily as a good amount and the most scientifically studied dosage. I highly recommend not taking more than that unless directed to under the supervision of a doctor.
The GISSI-Heart Failure trial was the first blinded, randomized trial to assess the efficacy of fish oil supplements in patients with heart failure.51 The trial enrolled 7046 subjects with heart failure; 60% with New York Heart Association class II symptoms and 40% with a history of MI. The majority of patients were on a standard heart failure regimen, including angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, beta-blockers, and spironolactone, but only 22% were on a statin. At an average of 3.9 years, the coprimary end points of death and death or hospital admission for cardiovascular reasons were reduced by approximately 9% with fish oil supplementation. Sudden cardiac death, a secondary end-point, showed a statistically nonsignificant relative risk reduction of 7% with fish oil. There was also a reduction in 2 other arrhythmia-related secondary end-points: first hospitalization for ventricular arrhythmia and presumed arrhythmic death.
"Fish is still the mainstay of the diet in many parts of the world where there is very little heart disease," he says. "I think when you replace higher fat foods and highly processed foods with fish there is going to be some benefit.'' So it may be that by substituting fish for red meats, bacon and luncheon meats, and similar high-fat foods, you are making a change that will lead to improving your health outcomes, he says.
High triglycerides. Most research shows that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. Some fish oil supplements including Lovaza, Omtryg, and Epanova have been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides.