A tremendous body of research has been conducted on these important nutrients since it was first discovered in the 1950s that fish oil offered many health benefits and that these benefits were attributable to a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. Despite the volumes of research on omega-3s, it is only in recent years (within the last 15 years or so) that the actions of EPA and DHA have come to be understood individually. Researchers now often investigate the actions of EPA and DHA individually rather than together, no longer simply under the generic label omega-3 as they are widely referred to.
EPA and DHA are vital nutrients and may be taken to maintain healthy function of the following: brain and retina: DHA is a building block of tissue in the brain and retina of the eye. It helps with forming neural transmitters, such as phosphatidylserine, which is important for brain function. DHA is found in the retina of the eye and taking DHA may be necessary for maintaining healthy levels of DHA for normal eye function.
Research conducted by Professor Peter Howe at the University of South Australia has shown that fish oil improves the efficacy of exercise in attempts to reduce weight. Volunteers who were given fish oil in their diet showed greater weight loss as compared to those who did not regularly consume it. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help to promote the weight loss, so a combination of physical workout and intake of this oil helps in reducing body fat significantly faster.
Humans can convert short-chain omega−3 fatty acids to long-chain forms (EPA, DHA) with an efficiency below 5%. The omega−3 conversion efficiency is greater in women than in men, but less studied. Higher ALA and DHA values found in plasma phospholipids of women may be due to the higher activity of desaturases, especially that of delta-6-desaturase.
Schilling, J., Vranjes, N., Fierz, W., Joller, H., Gyurech, D., Ludwig, E., Marathias, K., and Geroulanos, S. Clinical outcome and immunology of postoperative arginine, omega-3 fatty acids, and nucleotide-enriched enteral feeding: a randomized prospective comparison with standard enteral and low calorie/low fat i.v. solutions. Nutrition 1996;12(6):423-429. View abstract.
What's more, ALA is just a precursor to EPA and DHA. You need certain enzymes to elongate and desaturate ALA so it can become long-chained omega-3s. Unfortunately, this does not work in some people, particularly those who are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, leading to very low conversion rates – only 1 percent of ALA is converted to EPA/DHA. In some, the conversion can even dip as low as 0.1 to 0.5 percent!
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Chemical compounds called cannabinoids are found in marijuana and also are produced naturally in the body from omega-3 fatty acids. A well-known cannabinoid in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, is responsible for some of its euphoric effects, but it also has anti-inflammatory benefits. A new study in animal tissue reveals the cascade of chemical reactions that convert omega-3 fatty acids into cannabinoids that have anti-inflammatory benefits – but without the psychotropic high.
Children, in particular, seem to experience problems with sleep when they don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. In adults, low omega-3 levels are associated with obstructive sleep apnea. One reason for this may be that low omega-3s are linked to lower levels of melatonin, the hormone partly responsible for helping you to get to sleep in the first place.
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.
The FDA recommends that consumers do not exceed more than three grams per day of EPA and DHA combined, with no more than 2 grams from a dietary supplement. This is not the same as 3000 mg of fish oil. A 1000 mg pill typically has only 300 mg of omega-3; 10 such pills would equal 3000 mg of omega-3. According to the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies, supplementation of 5 grams of EPA and DHA combined does not pose a safety concern for adults. Dyerberg studied healthy Greenland Inuit and found an average intake of 5.7 grams of omega-3 EPA per day; among other effects these people had prolonged bleeding times, i.e., slower blood clotting.
DHA is one of the most prevalent fatty acids in the brain. This could partly explain why our brains do better with a greater supply. A Rush Institute for Healthy Aging study analyzed fish-eating patterns of more than 800 men and women, ages 65 to 94. Those eating fish at least once a week were much less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who turned up their nose at it.
DHA is especially vital for infant and child brain and nervous system development, as well as visual function. In older children, high DHA levels have been shown to improve learning ability, while deficiencies have been linked to learning problems and ADHD. And in adults, some studies have shown that DHA helps protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Keck, P. E., Jr., Mintz, J., McElroy, S. L., Freeman, M. P., Suppes, T., Frye, M. A., Altshuler, L. L., Kupka, R., Nolen, W. A., Leverich, G. S., Denicoff, K. D., Grunze, H., Duan, N., and Post, R. M. Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials of ethyl-eicosapentanoate in the treatment of bipolar depression and rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Biol.Psychiatry 11-1-2006;60(9):1020-1022. View abstract.
For dry eye: Fish oil supplements providing EPA 360-1680 mg and DHA 240-560 mg have been used for 4-12 weeks. Some people used the specific product (PRN Dry Eye Omega Benefits softgels). A specific combination product containing EPA 450 mg, DHA 300 mg, and flaxseed oil 1000 mg (TheraTears Nutrition, Advanced Nutrition Research) has been used once daily for 90 days.
The randomized trials assessing the efficacy of fish oil supplementation on secondary prevention of CAD lend further evidence to the findings that fish oil may protect from sudden cardiac death.36 The Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART),37 one of the first randomized trials of fish oil in CAD, has been interpreted as potential support for fish oil’s role in sudden death reduction because the primary outcome of all-cause mortality occurred within 2 months of the trial’s onset.38 After such a short time span, it was believed that atherosclerosis would not be altered and therefore another mechanism was reducing mortality. This was further supported by the fact that nonfatal MIs were not reduced. Although the actual modes of death other than CAD-related deaths were not documented, it has been postulated to be secondary to a reduction in sudden death.39 The Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardico-Prevenzione40 (GISSI-Prevenzione) trial, a larger randomized trial of fish oil in CAD, has also been interpreted as evidence for fish oil’s protection against sudden death. Sudden death, however, was not a primary end point. Rather, the reduction in fatal events was driven by a reduction in cardiovascular death, which included coronary death, cardiac death, and sudden death.
It is also believed that women who do not have a sufficient intake of EPA and DHA in their diet suffer from depression after childbirth, as there is a transfer of some amount of brain mass from the mother to the child in the last stages of pregnancy. Thus, it is very beneficial to consume fish oil either by eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, tablets, capsules, or pills during pregnancy for the overall development of the child and the well-being of the mother. However, it should be noted that fish oil obtained from the liver of the fish, example – cod liver oil, should not be consumed during pregnancy as cod liver oil is high in retinol and vitamin A, which are usually known to cause birth defects.
RA causes chronic pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. Some clinical trials have shown that taking omega-3 supplements may help manage RA when taken together with standard RA medications and other treatments. For example, people with RA who take omega-3 supplements may need less pain-relief medication, but it is not clear if the supplements reduce joint pain, swelling, or morning stiffness.
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.
Funding/Support: The work was supported in part by grant 17H04253, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; grant 30-A-17 from the National Cancer Center Research and Development Fund; grants MOST106-2314-B-039-027-MY, 106-2314-B-038-049, 106-2314-B-039-031, 106-2314-B-039-035, 104-2314-B-039-022-MY2, and 104-2314-B-039-050-MY3 from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan; grant HRI-EX105-10528NI from the National Health Research Institutes, Taiwan; and grants CRS-106-063, DMR-107-202, and DMR-107-204 from the China Medical University, Taiwan.
"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.
Tanaka, K., Ishikawa, Y., Yokoyama, M., Origasa, H., Matsuzaki, M., Saito, Y., Matsuzawa, Y., Sasaki, J., Oikawa, S., Hishida, H., Itakura, H., Kita, T., Kitabatake, A., Nakaya, N., Sakata, T., Shimada, K., and Shirato, K. Reduction in the recurrence of stroke by eicosapentaenoic acid for hypercholesterolemic patients: subanalysis of the JELIS trial. Stroke 2008;39(7):2052-2058. View abstract.
Results of studies investigating the role of LCPUFA supplementation and LCPUFA status in the prevention and therapy of atopic diseases (allergic rhinoconjunctivitis, atopic dermatitis and allergic asthma) are controversial; therefore, at the present stage of our knowledge (as of 2013) we cannot state either that the nutritional intake of n−3 fatty acids has a clear preventive or therapeutic role, or that the intake of n-6 fatty acids has a promoting role in context of atopic diseases.
A study in 2013, (Stafford, Jackson, Mayo-Wilson, Morrison, Kendall), stated the following in its conclusion: "Although evidence of benefits for any specific intervention is not conclusive, these findings suggest that it might be possible to delay or prevent transition to psychosis. Further research should be undertaken to establish conclusively the potential for benefit of psychological interventions in the treatment of people at high risk of psychosis."`
Omega 3 is a type of fat. Small amounts of omega 3 fats are essential for good health, and they can be found in the food that we eat. The main types of omega 3 fatty acids are; alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is normally found in fats from plant foods, such as nuts and seeds (walnuts and rapeseed are rich sources). EPA and DHA, collectively called long chain omega 3 fats, are naturally found in fatty fish, such as salmon and fish oils including cod liver oil.
“The review provides good evidence that taking long-chain omega 3 (fish oil, EPA or DHA) supplements does not benefit heart health or reduce our risk of stroke or death from any cause. The most trustworthy studies consistently showed little or no effect of long-chain omega 3 fats on cardiovascular health. On the other hand, while oily fish is a healthy food, it is unclear from the small number of trials whether eating more oily fish is protective of our hearts.
Maximizing the benefits you get from omega-3s is highly dependent on how they are absorbed and transported throughout your body. Although these fatty acids are water soluble, they cannot be easily transported into your blood in their free form. Therefore, they need to be packaged in lipoprotein vehicles for them to be better absorbed into your bloodstream.
The most extensive data of the effect of fish oil on lipoprotein subfractions are based on trials performed before the widespread use of statins. This data were aggregated over a decade ago in a meta-analysis of 16 randomized trials including over 1500 patients.17 In this analysis, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) was increased by an average of 5% and high-density lipoprotein was marginally changed. Although a shift toward less atherogenic, larger and more buoyant LDL particle composition has been shown,74 this has been offset by the observation that the number of apolipoprotein B 100 particles increases and may be more susceptible to oxidation.75 Increased conversion of remnant particles (intermediate density lipoprotein) to LDL has also been observed.76
De Truchis, P., Kirstetter, M., Perier, A., Meunier, C., Zucman, D., Force, G., Doll, J., Katlama, C., Rozenbaum, W., Masson, H., Gardette, J., and Melchior, J. C. Reduction in triglyceride level with N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in HIV-infected patients taking potent antiretroviral therapy: a randomized prospective study. J.Acquir.Immune.Defic.Syndr. 3-1-2007;44(3):278-285. View abstract.
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 various enzymes (COX and LOX) that make inflammatory eicosanoids can accommodate both AA and EPA, but again due to the greater spatial size of DHA, these enzymes will have difficulty in converting DHA into eicosanoids. This makes DHA a poor substrate for these key inflammatory enzymes. Thus DHA again has little effect on cellular inflammation whereas EPA can have a powerful impact.
Participants treated with a daily dose of 2000 mg or more of omega-3 PUFAs showed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms. In addition, participants receiving supplements containing less than 60% EPA showed a significant association, but not those receiving supplements containing 60% or more EPA. The depression literature supports the clinical benefits of EPA-enriched formulations (≥60% or ≥50%) compared with placebo for the treatment of clinical depression.9,13,73-75 This opposite effect of EPA-enriched formations on anxiety and depression is intriguing and possibly linked to a distinct underlying mechanism of omega-3 PUFAs. Exploration of the effects of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety symptoms is just beginning and studies assessing the dose response anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs have not yet been performed. Further phase 2 trials of anxiety symptoms among participants with neuropsychiatric illness or physical illness should aim to determine the optimal dose.
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)
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.
van der Meij, B. S., Langius, J. A., Smit, E. F., Spreeuwenberg, M. D., von Blomberg, B. M., Heijboer, A. C., Paul, M. A., and van Leeuwen, P. A. Oral nutritional supplements containing (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids affect the nutritional status of patients with stage III non-small cell lung cancer during multimodality treatment. J.Nutr. 2010;140(10):1774-1780. View abstract.
Samsonov, M. A., Vasil'ev, A. V., Pogozheva, A. V., Pokrovskaia, G. R., Mal'tsev, G. I., Biiasheva, I. R., and Orlova, L. A. [The effect of a soy protein isolate and sources of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids in an anti-atherosclerotic diet on the lipid spectrum of blood serum and immunological indicators in patients with ischemic heart disease and hypertension]. Vopr.Med Khim. 1992;38(5):47-50. View abstract.
There’s more good news when it comes to fish oil and eye health, and it’s just not just for diabetic this time. Fish oil has been shown to reverse age-related eye disorders. In March 2014, French researchers evaluated 290 patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and they discovered that dietary oil fish and seafood intake were significantly lower in AMD patients. Due to the high EPA and DHA levels in fish oil, it was concluded that this kind of nutritional intervention could especially benefit those at high risk for neovascular age-related macular degeneration. (24)
It’s no surprise that fish — particularly cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies — are rich in omega-3s. It’s called fish oil for a reason, right? Mackerel, for instance, may have more than 3300 mg of omega-3 per serving — that’s more than 6 times the recommended per day dose for healthy adults. Not a huge fish connoisseur? Try some of the quick, simple recipes in Cooking with Fish Like a Pro, an accessible collection of fish recipes to suit every palate.
There is some evidence that omega−3 fatty acids are related to mental health, including that they may tentatively be useful as an add-on for the treatment of depression associated with bipolar disorder. Significant benefits due to EPA supplementation were only seen, however, when treating depressive symptoms and not manic symptoms suggesting a link between omega−3 and depressive mood. There is also preliminary evidence that EPA supplementation is helpful in cases of depression. The link between omega−3 and depression has been attributed to the fact that many of the products of the omega−3 synthesis pathway play key roles in regulating inflammation (such as prostaglandin E3) which have been linked to depression. This link to inflammation regulation has been supported in both in vitro and in vivo studies as well as in meta-analysis studies. The exact mechanism in which omega−3 acts upon the inflammatory system is still controversial as it was commonly believed to have anti-inflammatory effects.
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)
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The Department of Ecology of the State of Washington has ranked various seafood based on its EPA and DHA concentrations. The highest-ranking seafood is mackerel, excluding King mackerel, that has a concentration of 1,790 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per 100 grams, followed by salmon at 1,590; bluefin tuna has between 1173 and 1504 milligrams; sardines contain 980 milligrams; albacore tuna has 862 milligrams; bass has 640 milligrams; tuna has 630 milligrams; trout and swordfish have 580 milligrams; and walleye has 530 milligrams. Other seafood, which includes sea bass, clams, lobster, scallops, catfish, cod, pollock, crayfish and scallops contains between 200 and 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per 100 grams. Breaded fish products rank lowest on the list with only 0.26 milligram per 100 grams.
For those who can’t or choose not to eat fatty fish, or who have certain health issues, supplementation is a way to increase omega-3 levels. “There are some conditions that might respond well to supplementation, such as depression or cardiovascular risk factors, including elevated triglycerides,” explains Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, LDN. If you're ooking to increase your omega-3 levels, Click here for six tips to finding the right supplement.
As you likely know (and as I’ve been discussing for years), omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. They have been studied for the treatment and prevention of many diseases, several of which are related to inflammation, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. They have also been shown to be extraordinarily helpful in preventing and treating other brain conditions such as depression and other psychiatric disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and concussions.
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).
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".
Fish oil can be obtained from eating fish or by taking supplements. Fish that are especially rich in the beneficial oils known as omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, cod liver, whale blubber, and seal blubber. Two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Make sure to see separate listings on EPA and DHA, as well as Cod Liver Oil, and Shark Liver Oil.