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Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.
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).
Human growth and intellectual development – DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increase 300 to 500 percent in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy. Adding DHA to a pregnant mother’s diet may be beneficial for the fetus’s brain development. Elderly people should also take EPA DHA, because as we get older, our bodies form less EPA and DHA, which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Taking EPA DHA also may help with mental abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
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).
A Cochrane meta-analysis published in June 2012 found no significant protective effect for cognitive decline for those aged 60 and over and who started taking fatty acids after this age. A co-author of the study said to Time, "Our analysis suggests that there is currently no evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplements provide a benefit for memory or concentration in later life".
Omega-3 [(n-3)] long-chain PUFA, including EPA and DHA, are dietary fats with an array of health benefits (1). They are incorporated in many parts of the body including cell membranes (2) and play a role in antiinflammatory processes and in the viscosity of cell membranes (3, 4). EPA and DHA are essential for proper fetal development and healthy aging (5). DHA is a key component of all cell membranes and is found in abundance in the brain and retina (6). EPA and DHA are also the precursors of several metabolites that are potent lipid mediators, considered by many investigators to be beneficial in the prevention or treatment of several diseases (7).
"All these diseases have a common genesis in inflammation," says Joseph C. Maroon, MD, professor and vice chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Co-author of Fish Oil: The Natural Anti-Inflammatory, Maroon says that in large enough amountsomega-3's reduce the inflammatory process that leads to many chronic conditions.
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.
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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.
Fish oil supplements vary in the amounts and ratios of DHA and EPA they contain. For example, salmon oil naturally contains more DHA than EPA; a supplement derived from algae may only contain DHA. Krill oil contains significant amounts of both EPA and DHA. Read the labels and remember whatever supplement you buy, it must have at least 600 mg of DHA.
An analysis based on data from the Norwegian Women and Cancer Study (NOWAC) with regards to the dangers of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in cod liver came to the conclusion that "in Norwegian women, fish liver consumption was not associated with an increased cancer risk in breast, uterus, or colon. In contrast, a decreased risk for total cancer was found."
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.
Heterogeneity was examined using the Q statistic and the corresponding P values,41 and the I2 statistic was used to evaluate the proportion of variation resulting from among-study differences. Any possible publication bias was detected with both funnel plots and Egger regression in the main part of the meta-analysis.42 By using Duval and Tweedie’s trim-and-fill test, we adjusted the effect sizes for potential publication bias if there was evidence of publication bias detected by this test in the Comprehensive Meta-analysis statistical software, version 3.43 To investigate the potential confounding effects of any outliers within the recruited studies, sensitivity testing was conducted with the 1-study removal method to detect the potential outliers.44
Krill oil is joining the toolkit for fighting arthritis, thanks to its exceptional anti-inflammatory properties resulting from its phospholipid form of omega-3s. A study in mice with experimental arthritis showed that krill oil supplements reduced arthritis scores and markedly diminished joint swelling. When examined under a microscope, the animals’ joints were remarkably free of inflammatory infiltrates of immune system cells.85
The effect of fish oil consumption on prostate cancer is controversial, as one study showed decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, whereas another reported increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA. Some evidence indicated an association between high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and an increased prostate cancer risk.
Hanwell, H. E., Kay, C. D., Lampe, J. W., Holub, B. J., and Duncan, A. M. Acute fish oil and soy isoflavone supplementation increase postprandial serum (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids and isoflavones but do not affect triacylglycerols or biomarkers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr 2009;139(6):1128-1134. View abstract.
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.
Gorjao, R., Verlengia, R., Lima, T. M., Soriano, F. G., Boaventura, M. F., Kanunfre, C. C., Peres, C. M., Sampaio, S. C., Otton, R., Folador, A., Martins, E. F., Curi, T. C., Portiolli, E. P., Newsholme, P., and Curi, R. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil supplementation on human leukocyte function. Clin Nutr 2006;25(6):923-938. View abstract.
Flaxseed (or linseed) (Linum usitatissimum) and its oil are perhaps the most widely available botanical source of the omega−3 fatty acid ALA. Flaxseed oil consists of approximately 55% ALA, which makes it six times richer than most fish oils in omega−3 fatty acids. A portion of this is converted by the body to EPA and DHA, though the actual converted percentage may differ between men and women.
Cancer. Research on the effects of fish oil in preventing cancer has produced conflicting results. Some population research suggests that eating fish or having higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil is linked to a lower risk of different cancers, including oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer. But other research suggests that eating fish does not reduce the risk of cancer.