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

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).
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.
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.

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.

Wohl, D. A., Tien, H. C., Busby, M., Cunningham, C., Macintosh, B., Napravnik, S., Danan, E., Donovan, K., Hossenipour, M., and Simpson, R. J., Jr. Randomized study of the safety and efficacy of fish oil (omega-3 fatty acid) supplementation with dietary and exercise counseling for the treatment of antiretroviral therapy-associated hypertriglyceridemia. Clin.Infect.Dis. 11-15-2005;41(10):1498-1504. View abstract.
The number, location, and orientation of the double bonds determine the health effects of fatty acids on the body. One aspect of this is their effect on triglycerides and LDL and HDL types of cholesterol, which in turn affect how much cholesterol gets deposited on the inside of blood vessels. There are also subtypes of LDL and HDL which are also likely important to their health effects.
Several large trials have evaluated the effect of fish or fish oils on heart disease. In the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardio (known as the GISSI Prevention Trial), heart attack survivors who took a 1-gram capsule of omega-3 fats every day for three years were less likely to have a repeat heart attack, stroke, or die of sudden death than those who took a placebo. (2) Notably, the risk of sudden cardiac death was reduced by about 50 percent. In the more recent Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS), participants who took EPA plus a cholesterol-lowering statin were less likely to have a major coronary event (sudden cardiac death, fatal or nonfatal heart attack, unstable angina, or a procedure to open or bypass a narrowed or blocked coronary artery) than those who took a statin alone. (3)

Jump up ^ Naliwaiko, K.; Araújo, R.L.F.; Da Fonseca, R.V.; Castilho, J.C.; Andreatini, R.; Bellissimo, M.I.; Oliveira, B.H.; Martins, E.F.; Curi, R.; Fernandes, L.C.; Ferraz, A.C. (2004). "Effects of Fish Oil on the Central Nervous System: A New Potential Antidepressant?". Nutritional Neuroscience. 7 (2): 91–99. doi:10.1080/10284150410001704525. PMID 15279495.
When it comes to fat, there's one type you don’t want to cut back on: omega-3 fatty acids. Two crucial ones -- EPA and DHA -- are primarily found in certain fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), another omega-3 fatty acid, is found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds. Not only does your body need these fatty acids to function, but also they deliver some big health benefits.
The Lyon Diet Heart Study, performed shortly after the DART study, was a prospective trial of 607 survivors of MI who were randomized to either a Mediterranean diet or a regular Western diet.49 At a mean follow-up of 27 months, the primary end point of death from cardiovascular causes and nonfatal deaths had a 73% relative risk reduction—a positive effect that continued at follow up assessment at a mean of 46 months.50 FA analysis of plasma lipids showed that in the patients randomized to a Mediterranean diet, there was a higher concentration of alpha-linolenic acid as well as EPA. Fish, however, was consumed in similar amounts by both the Western and Mediterranean diet groups. The higher blood level of EPA in the Mediterranean diet arm was attributed to its synthesis from alpha-linolenic acid, which was 60-times higher than the plasma concentration of EPA. In addition, the risk reduction that occurred in this trial could not be attributed to one particular diet intervention because as the consumption of fruits and vegetables increased, the consumption of monounsaturated fat increased, while saturated fat and cholesterol were decreased.
Because patients with depression experience rapid shrinking of their hippocampus, many strategies for relieving depression focus on increasing new brain cell growth in that specific area of the brain.23 There’s now evidence that increasing omega-3 intake, especially DHA, may be an effective way of treating or preventing depression, partly by protecting the hippocampus from further shrinkage.23

There is some evidence that omega−3 fatty acids are related to mental health,[47] including that they may tentatively be useful as an add-on for the treatment of depression associated with bipolar disorder.[48] 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.[48] There is also preliminary evidence that EPA supplementation is helpful in cases of depression.[49] 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.[50] This link to inflammation regulation has been supported in both in vitro[51] and in vivo studies as well as in meta-analysis studies.[33] 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.[52]
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.