DHA is vital for early brain development and maintenance, while EPA seems to be closely related to behavior and mood. Together, both molecules provide critical neuroprotective benefits.11 These neuroprotective effects are important for the prevention of age-related brain shrinkage (cortical atrophy). Aging adults with brain shrinkage often experience memory loss, cognitive decline, and an increase in depression.12-14
Carrero, J. J., Fonolla, J., Marti, J. L., Jimenez, J., Boza, J. J., and Lopez-Huertas, E. Intake of fish oil, oleic acid, folic acid, and vitamins B-6 and E for 1 year decreases plasma C-reactive protein and reduces coronary heart disease risk factors in male patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program. J.Nutr. 2007;137(2):384-390. View abstract.
Additional side effects of fish oil supplements which have been reported include headache, short-term memory loss, depression, somatic disorders, and increased risk of colon cancer, nasopharyngitis, worsening of asthma symptoms, hemolytic anemia, decreased physical activity, increased appetite, a general uncomfortable feeling or increased blood pressure. The percentage of users that develop these side effects is not known. If these side effects become severe it is recommended that you stop using fish oil supplements.
Jatoi, A., Rowland, K., Loprinzi, C. L., Sloan, J. A., Dakhil, S. R., MacDonald, N., Gagnon, B., Novotny, P. J., Mailliard, J. A., Bushey, T. I., Nair, S., and Christensen, B. An eicosapentaenoic acid supplement versus megestrol acetate versus both for patients with cancer-associated wasting: a North Central Cancer Treatment Group and National Cancer Institute of Canada collaborative effort. J.Clin.Oncol. 6-15-2004;22(12):2469-2476. View abstract.
Eicosatetraenoic Acid (ETA): ETA is a lesser-known omega-3 fatty acid that also contains 20 carbons, like EPA, but only four bonds instead of five. It is found richly inroe oil and green-lipped mussel and is only recently being recognized for its potent health benefits. Not only is it anti-inflammatory, like the other omega-3s, but ETA can also limit your body’s production of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA). In fact, ETA redirects the enzyme that normally creates ARA to convert it to EPA instead!
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).
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.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential nutrients that have potential preventive and therapeutic effects on psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression,7-15 as well as comorbid depression and anxiety in physically ill patients,16-19 patients with coronary heart disease,20,21 and pregnant women.22,23 Preclinical data support the effectiveness of omega-3 PUFAs as treatment for anxiety disorders. Song et al24,25 found that an EPA-rich diet could reduce the development of anxiety-like behaviors in rats as well as normalize dopamine levels in the ventral striatum. In addition, Yamada et al26 showed that a high dietary omega-3 to omega-6 PUFA ratio reduced contextual fear behaviors in mice and that these effects were abolished by a cannabinoid CB1 receptor antagonist.
People who eat seafood rich in EPA and DHA at least once a week are less likely to die of heart disease, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The fatty acids may also be helpful in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Fish oil has been rated as "Effective" by MedlinePlus for lowering high triglycerides, which can be a major risk factor for heart disease. Fish oil has been rated as "Likely Effective" for keeping healthy hearts free of disease. Although eating baked or broiled fish can reduce the risk of heart disease, fried fish or fish sandwiches not only cancel out any heart-healthy benefits, but may also contribute to heart disease, MedlinePlus notes.
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.
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.
Most Americans take in far more of another essential fat—omega-6 fats—than they do omega-3 fats. Some experts have raised the hypothesis that this higher intake of omega-6 fats could pose problems, cardiovascular and otherwise, but this has not been supported by evidence in humans. (4) In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, for example, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats wasn’t linked with risk of heart disease because both of these were beneficial. (5) Many other studies and trials in humans also support cardiovascular benefits of omega-6 fats. Although there is no question that many Americans could benefit from increasing their intake of omega-3 fats, there is evidence that omega-6 fats also positively influence cardiovascular risk factors and reduce heart disease.
Sorgi, P. J., Hallowell, E. M., Hutchins, H. L. & Sears, B. (2007, January 17). Effects of an open-label pilot study with high-dose EPA/DHA concentrates on plasma phospholipids and behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutrition Journal 6(16). Retrieved from http://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-6-16
Abnormal cholesterol or fat levels in the blood (dyslipidemia). There is conflicting evidence about the effects of fish oil on cholesterol and fat levels in the blood. Some research shows that taking fish oil can lower triglyceride levels, low density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol, and increase high density lipoprotein (HDL or "good") cholesterol in people with abnormal cholesterol levels. However, other research shows that taking fish oil daily does not have this effect.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Lipids and Glycemic Control in Type II Diabetes and the Metabolic Syndrome and on Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Renal Disease, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, and Osteoporosis. AHRQ Publication No. 04-E012-1; 2004. Available at: https://archive.ahrq.gov/downloads/pub/evidence/pdf/o3lipid/o3lipid.pdf. (Accessed February 7, 2017).
In short, there is no single optimal EPA:DHA ratio. If we are really healthy, with an optimal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (from a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in grains and vegetable oils) and have an active, stress-free lifestyle, relying on standard fish oil in the natural 1.5:1 EPA:DHA ratio or simply consuming oily fish is completely adequate.
Today the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved form of dietary omega-3 FA supplement is Lovaza (omega-3-acid ethyl esters; GlaxoSmithKline), which contains 375 mg of DHA and 465 mg of EPA per 1 g capsule. The myriad of dietary supplements of fish oil, including Kosher capsules, vary from comparable content to insignificant amounts, and for the most part can include other fats and cholesterols. In comparison, to achieve approximately 1 g of EPA and DHA in a meal, 12 ounces of canned light tuna, 2 to 3 ounces of sardines, 1.5 to 2.5 ounces of farmed Atlantic salmon, or 20 ounces of farmed catfish must be consumed (Table 1).65 Unfortunately, potentially high levels of harmful pollutants offset this source of omega-3 FA. The FDA action level for unacceptably high mercury content in fish is 1.0 μg/g. The mercury level in most fish is at or below 0.1 μg/g, but tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel have high levels of mercury. The majority of fish species also contain <100 ng/g of polychlorinated biphenyls, which is below the FDA action level of 2000 ng/g. Dioxins, which do not have FDA action levels, are present in the majority of marine life.66
Omega AD study, Freund-Levi et al. (47) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 1741 DHA (1.7 g/d) and EPA (0.6 g/d) Decline in cognitive function did not differ between supplemented group and placebo group at 6 mo. However, patients with very mild cognitive dysfunction (n = 32, MMSE score >27) in the EPA+DHA-supplemented group had a significant reduction in MMSE score decline rate at 6 mo
In fact, fish oil is even dipping its way into mainstream medicine. In September 2018, Amarin Corporation, the biopharmaceutical developer of pharmaceutical-grade fish oil Vascepa, released preliminary findings of its double-blind clinical trial. In the study, researchers tracked more than 8,000 adults for a median 4.9 years. The mix of study participants had either established cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes and another cardiovascular disease risk factor, along with persistently elevated triglycerides.
To reap all the omega-3 benefits, it may be difficult for some people to eat the required amounts of oily fish, particularly with the well-known dangers of farmed fish, which are more readily available to most Americans. That’s why some people consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement in addition to a well-rounded diet. I’ll discuss supplements in a moment, though.
Only fish and breast milk contain all the members of the omega-3 family, including its two main stars, EPA and DHA. Because Americans as a rule consume far too few omega-3s from fish or fish oil, it’s no surprise that the majority of Americans have low omega-3 index levels as well. A recent study of global omega-3 index levels found that an estimated 95% of Americans (with the exception of folks from Alaska) had an omega-3 index of 4 or below, putting them in the high risk category (5, 6, 7).
Fish oils seem to decrease blood pressure. Taking fish oils along with medications for high blood pressure might cause your blood pressure to go too low.