Humans are unable to place double bonds beyond position 9 on long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA), making the omega-3 FA synthesized in plants and in marine microalgae essential elements to the human diet.1 Fish contain high levels of 2 omega-3 FA, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; C20:5 n-3), and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]; C22:6 n-3)2,3 (Fig. 1). Many claims about the role of these omega-3 FA have been made in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. For instance, fish oil is seen as having a therapeutic role in coronary artery disease (CAD), heart failure, fatal and nonfatal arrhythmias, as well as offering an alternative or adjunct to the standard therapy for hypertriglyceridemia and diabetes. This review will highlight the potential mechanisms of fish oil on cardiovascular disease and provide an update of clinical trial results. The established uses in the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia and sources of omega-3 FA—both dietary and drug therapy—will be iterated, along with its potential application in combination with standard hypolipidemic agents. Finally, the limitations of current data will be addressed, as well as suggested recommendations for clinical use.
EPA is the precursor to DHA in the body and can be converted to DHA with the enzyme delta-6 desaturase, but this process is inefficient in many people (much like the inefficiency of short-chain omega-3s to long-chain). For those individuals taking pure EPA products as well as those taking our EPA-rich products, we still recommend eating oily fish at least once each week to provide a natural source of DHA. Fish provides a unique nutritional package, supplying the diet with important amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and antioxidants, including vitamins and minerals needed to process fats, so eating fish will also support the natural enzyme-dependent EPA to DHA conversion.
Dyerberg, J., Eskesen, D. C., Andersen, P. W., Astrup, A., Buemann, B., Christensen, J. H., Clausen, P., Rasmussen, B. F., Schmidt, E. B., Tholstrup, T., Toft, E., Toubro, S., and Stender, S. Effects of trans- and n-3 unsaturated fatty acids on cardiovascular risk markers in healthy males. An 8 weeks dietary intervention study. Eur.J.Clin.Nutr. 2004;58(7):1062-1070. View abstract.
First, always remember that it’s the omega-3s that count. When making your purchase, be sure to determine the amount of omega-3s per serving. Many doctors often recommend 1000 to 1200 mg of fish oil because that amount of fish oil contains the total amount of omega-3s the doctor wants you to consume. 1000 mg or 1200 mg of fish oil doesn’t equal 1000 or 1200 mg of omega-3s. A standard 1000 mg fish oil softgel provides around 300 mg of omega-3s (and even less of the important EPA and DHA), and to meet the 500 mg EPA and DHA recommendation, a minimum of two softgels would be necessary. Make sure to read the “Supplement Facts” label to determine the amount of EPA and DHA in a fish oil/omega-3 supplement.
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.
Sangiovanni, J. P., Agron, E., Meleth, A. D., Reed, G. F., Sperduto, R. D., Clemons, T. E., and Chew, E. Y. {omega}-3 Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and 12-y incidence of neovascular age-related macular degeneration and central geographic atrophy: AREDS report 30, a prospective cohort study from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;90(6):1601-1607. View abstract.
Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 38% of all deaths in the United States, many of which are preventable (28). Chronic inflammation is thought to be the cause of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease (29). EPA and DHA are thought to have antiinflammatory effects and a role in oxidative stress (30) and to improve cellular function through changes in gene expression (31). In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways, such as nuclear transcription factor κB signaling, eicosanoid synthesis, scavenger receptor activity, adipogenesis, and hypoxia signaling (31). Circulating markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), TNF α, and some ILs (IL-6, IL-1), correlate with an increased probability of experiencing a cardiovascular event (32). Inflammatory markers such as IL-6 trigger CRP to be synthesized by the liver, and elevated levels of CRP are associated with an increased risk of the development of cardiovascular disease (33). A study of 89 patients showed that those treated with EPA+DHA had a significant reduction in high-sensitivity CRP (66.7%, P < 0.01) (33). The same study also showed a significant reduction in heat shock protein 27 antibody titers (57.69%, P < 0.05), which have been shown to be overexpressed in heart muscle cells after a return of blood flow after a period of ischemia (ischemia-reperfusion injury) and may potentially have a cardioprotective effect (33).
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.
Grigg, L. E., Kay, T. W., Valentine, P. A., Larkins, R., Flower, D. J., Manolas, E. G., O'Dea, K., Sinclair, A. J., Hopper, J. L., and Hunt, D. Determinants of restenosis and lack of effect of dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid on the incidence of coronary artery restenosis after angioplasty. J Am Coll Cardiol. 3-1-1989;13(3):665-672. View abstract.
And in osteoarthritis, when a DHA/EPA formulation was added to chondroitin sulfate, people experienced more complete relief of symptoms such as stiffness and pain. One study found a significant increase in walking speed in people who supplemented with fish oil versus those who did not.79,80 As with the beneficial results seen in people with bone loss, these positive findings may have been the result of the decreased inflammatory destruction of joint cartilage.81
(How much omega-3 is necessary to increase one’s omega-3 index?  Studies show it can take between 1800 – 2000 mg of EPA/DHA daily to move a person’s index by 4 – 5 percentage points (12). Importantly, this is a much larger dose than you’d get swallowing one or two regular fish oil capsules and could well explain why many traditional omega-3 products fail to deliver results.)
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.