Most people get far too little omega-3s in their diet. In fact, research consistently indicates that the majority of Americans have just slightly more than half the amount of EPA and DHA in their tissues than they need for optimum brain and body health. This is partly due to a high dietary intake of unhealthy fats combined with an inadequate intake of EPA and DHA.
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).
Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in fish oil and certain marine algae. Because depression appears less common in nations where people eat large amounts of fish, scientists have investigated whether fish oils may prevent and/or treat depression and other mood disorders. Two omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — are thought to have the most potential to benefit people with mood disorders.
Higher visual acuity after DHA supplementation is a consistent finding in infants born preterm. For infants born at term, the results are less consistent and are better explained by differences in sensitivity of the visual acuity test (electrophysiologic tests being more sensitive than subjective tests) or by differences in the amount of DHA included in the experimental formula.
In lab experiments, animals given krill showed improved navigation skills. What this means is that they achieved higher levels of cognition and memory required to navigate complex territory.28 In addition, research shows that animals supplemented with krill oil showed significantly fewer signs of depression and resignation. This improvement in mood was equivalent to the effect of the prescription anti-depressant drug imipramine (Tofranil®).29
The strongest evidence for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease. These fats appear to help the heart beat at a steady clip and not veer into a dangerous or potentially fatal erratic rhythm. (1) Such arrhythmias cause most of the 500,000-plus cardiac deaths that occur each year in the United States. Omega-3 fats also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. (1)
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
Interestingly, the results are also consistent with our recent findings that somatic anxiety is associated with omega-3 PUFA deficits and the genetic risks of PUFA metabolic enzyme cytosolic phospholipase A2 in major depressive disorder62,63 and interferon α–induced neuropsychiatric syndrome.63,64 Brain membranes contain a high proportion of omega-3 PUFAs and their derivatives and most animal and human studies suggest that a lack of omega-3 PUFAs in the brain might induce various behavioral and neuropsychiatric disorders,16,65-70 including anxiety-related behaviors.12,18,19,32,49,71 Emerging evidence suggests that omega-3 PUFAs interfere with and possibly control several neurobiological processes, such as neurotransmitter systems, neuroplasticity, and inflammation,12,72 which is postulated to be the mechanism underlying anxiety and depression.
Those foods provide enormous amounts of other nutrients that are good for you. nSo it is way better to eat those foods than to take fish oil. With that said, some people find it very difficult to get vitamin A or vitamin D, and particularly for vitamin A, cod liver oil may be a very important source of that vitamin. Cod liver oil is a form of fish oil that happens to be high in the fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin A is best found in liver. It’s better in my opinion to eat liver once a week, but there are a lot of people out there who are not going to eat liver once a week. So if you are using cod liver oil to get the vitamins that you can’t get from food—and I should point out that vitamin A can also be derived from plant foods, but many people genetically or for other reasons don’t derive it very well from plant foods.
Nakamura, N., Hamazaki, T., Ohta, M., Okuda, K., Urakaze, M., Sawazaki, S., Yamazaki, K., Satoh, A., Temaru, R., Ishikura, Y., Takata, M., Kishida, M., and Kobayashi, M. Joint effects of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors and eicosapentaenoic acids on serum lipid profile and plasma fatty acid concentrations in patients with hyperlipidemia. Int J Clin Lab Res 1999;29(1):22-25. View abstract.
Some research indicates that people who eat more seafood may have a reduced risk of cognitive decline. However, omega-3 supplements haven’t been shown to help prevent cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease or to improve symptoms of these conditions. For example, a large NIH-sponsored study completed in 2015 indicated that taking EPA and DHA supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older adults. The people studied were participants in a larger eye disease study, and all of them had age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches in the United States, fish oil supplements are the nonvitamin/nonmineral natural product most commonly taken by both adults and children. The survey findings indicated that about 7.8 percent of adults (18.8 million) and 1.1 percent of children age 4 to 17 (664,000) had taken a fish oil supplement in the previous 30 days.
^ Jump up to: a b Jensen, Craig L.; Voigt, Robert G.; Llorente, Antolin M.; Peters, Sarika U.; Prager, Thomas C.; Zou, Yali L.; Rozelle, Judith C.; Turcich, Marie R.; Fraley, J. Kennard; Anderson, Robert E.; Heird, William C. (2010). "Effects of Early Maternal Docosahexaenoic Acid Intake on Neuropsychological Status and Visual Acuity at Five Years of Age of Breast-Fed Term Infants". The Journal of Pediatrics. 157 (6): 900–05. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2010.06.006. PMID 20655543.
56. Davidson MH, Stein EA, Bays HE, et al. COMBination of prescription Omega-3 with Simvastatin (COMBOS) Investigators. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther. 2007;29:1354–1367. [PubMed]
Thanks for the informative article. You mentioned that those taking high doses of DHA should supplement it with trace amounts of GLA. What GLA source would you recommend, and how much per day? I will be taking around 3400 mg of epa and 2200 mg DHA per day. I've heard that Borage Oil is more potent in GLA than evening primrose, but that it can lead to increased clotting and increased risk of heart attack, stroke, etc due to increased thromboxane B2. The main reason I want to stay away from the primrose is because it is extremely rich in linoleic acid. Thanks.
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
A study published in Brain Research shows how far-reaching fish oil can be for people with diabetes. Researches found that fish oil can help reduce the risk of diabetics from developing cognitive deficit because it protects the hippocampus cells from being destroyed. The study also showed that fish oil could help reduce oxidative stress, which plays a central role in the development of diabetes complications, both microvascular and cardiovascular. (22)
Smithers, L. G., Collins, C. T., Simmonds, L. A., Gibson, R. A., McPhee, A., and Makrides, M. Feeding preterm infants milk with a higher dose of docosahexaenoic acid than that used in current practice does not influence language or behavior in early childhood: a follow-up study of a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(3):628-634. View abstract.
There was no significant association between the Hedges g and mean age (k, 17; P = .51), female proportion (k, 18; P = .32), mean omega-3 PUFA dosage (k, 19; P = .307), EPA to DHA ratio (k, 17; P = .86), dropout rate in the omega-3 PUFA group (k, 18; P = .71), duration of omega-3 PUFA treatment (k, 19; P = .14), Jadad score of randomization (k, 19; P = .10), Jadad score of blindness (k, 19; P = .57), or total Jadad score (k, 19; P = .18).
Science is dynamic, not static, and as scientific understanding advances scientists sometimes have to modify their positions. Dr. Kidd’s position on EPA and DHA has now changed due to advances in the clinical and basic scientific research. Though the brain carries predominantly DHA and very little EPA, clinical trial results clearly indicate EPA has benefit for mood and probably other higher brain functions. At the basic science level, it has become clear that both EPA and DHA, not DHA alone, are required for the brain to make new nerve cells. Dr. Kidd very closely monitors the research on EPA and… Read more »
Anxiety, the most commonly experienced psychiatric symptom, is a psychological state derived from inappropriate or exaggerated fear leading to distress or impairment. The lifetime prevalence of any anxiety disorder is reported to be approximately 1 in 3.1 Anxiety is often comorbid with depressive disorders2 and is associated with lower health-related quality of life3 and increased risk of all-cause mortality.4 Treatment options include psychological treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and pharmacological treatments, mainly with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.5 Individuals with anxiety and related disorders tend to be more concerned about the potential adverse effects of pharmacological treatments (eg, sedation or drug dependence) and may be reluctant to engage in psychological treatments that can be time-consuming and costly, as well as sometimes limited in availability.6 Thus, evidence-based and safer treatments are required, especially for anxious patients with comorbid medical conditions.
A 2012 study involved children from 6 to 12 years of age with ADHD who were being treated with methylphenidate and standard behavior therapy for more than six months. The parents of these children reported no improvement in behavior and academic learning using these standard treatments. The researchers randomly gave some of the children an omega-3 and omega-6 acid supplementation or a placebo. They found “statistically significant improvement” for the omega group in the following categories: restlessness, aggressiveness, completing work and academic performance. (5)
There are numerous omega-3 sources with varying proportions of EPA and DHA, and the balance of EPA and DHA in a supplement influences the actions of these fats in the body. For more information about the different types of omega-3 sources and which are most suited for your individual needs, read our page on the different types of omega-3 supplements
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
Your best way to achieve a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 is by getting your fish oil from wild-caught fish like salmon. However, I still think it is beneficial for some to supplement with a high-quality omega-3 fish oil or cod liver oil. Plus, cold water fish are frequently contaminated with mercury and pesticide residues, making it very difficult to safely achieve recommended levels.
An animal study involving the omega-3 ETA discovered that subjects experienced a drop in overall inflammation similar to that caused by NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), but without the dangerous gastrointestinal side effects. The study authors also pointed out that eicosapentaenoic acid seems to be even more potent than the conventional omega-3s found in fish oil supplements (EPA/DHA). (56)
Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to play a role in atherosclerosis and peripheral arterial disease (PAD). It is thought that both EPA and DHA improve plaque stability, decrease endothelial activation, and improve vascular permeability, thereby decreasing the chance of experiencing a cardiovascular event (41). It was found that EPA supplementation is associated with significantly higher amounts of EPA in the carotid plaque than placebo (P < 0.0001), which may lead to decreased plaque inflammation and increased stability (42). PAD, a manifestation of atherosclerosis, is characterized by buildup of plaque in the arteries of the leg and can eventually lead to complete blockage of the arteries. EPA+DHA supplementation has been shown to improve endothelial function in patients with PAD by decreasing plasma levels of soluble thrombomodulin from a median value of 33.0 μg/L to 17.0 μg/L (P = 0.04) and improve brachial artery flow–mediated dilation from 6.7% to 10.0% (P = 0.02) (43). Patients who had PAD and were supplemented with EPA experienced a significantly lower major coronary event HR than those who did not take EPA (HR: 0.44; 95% CI: 0.19–0.97; P = 0.041) (44).
I've done a lot of research on fish oil and Body Vega meets all of the important criteria. They have recommended levels of EPA and DHA and it is molecularly distilled, pharmaceutical grade. The price is reasonable and there are no fishy burps. I tried another brand in the past that met the criteria, but got tired of the fishy burps. I switched to Body Vega a few months ago and have been pleased. So yes, you can find an excellent fish oil without tasting it 30 minutes later. Another good thing about this fish oil compared to one I've tried in the past is that you only need 2 daily capsules compared to 3 with the other brand I tried.
However, this difference in the length of the carbon chain gives these two types of omega-3s significant characteristics. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid. The long-chain fatty acids are more important for cellular health. Another omega-3 fat, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) can also be better synthesized by your body by elongating EPA.
Special attention should also be given to the fact that most women have major deficiencies of omega-3. A 1991 study at the Mayo Clinic focused on 19 "normal" pregnant women consuming "normal diets," and it showed that all were deficient in omega-3 fats. Another study compared Inuit (Eskimo) women to Canadian women, and it revealed omega-3 deficiency in the milk of the Canadian nursing moms.
For several years now, the fish oil and Alzheimer’s disease connection has been studied with consistent results. The essential fatty acids vital for brain function that are found in fish oil can not only slow cognitive decline, but can help prevent brain atrophy in older adults. A study published in the FASEB Journal looked at the health effects of four- to 17-month dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. The findings once again confirm the potential for fish oil to be used as a weapon to fend off the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. (8)
Although there are no randomized data on fish oil consumption and protection from sudden death, observational studies have linked omega-3 FA with the prevention of sudden death. In a population-based, case-control study of sudden cardiac death victims, the mean red blood cell membrane omega-3 FA level of the lowest quartile, when compared with the mean level of the third quartile, was associated with a relative risk reduction of 70%.33 A similar finding was appreciated in a nested, prospective, case-control study of the Physician Health Study cohort of 22,000 healthy males. In the 119 patients that succumbed to sudden death, baseline omega-3 FA blood levels were significantly lower than in matched controls.34 Finally, in an analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study, a cohort study of 84,688 women, an inverse association was shown between fish consumption and CAD-related death. The investigators concluded that the reduction in CAD deaths was likely due to a reduction in sudden deaths, as there was no difference in the rate of MI when comparing high and low fish consumption.35
Another small study had all volunteers consume the same exact control diet and substituted fish oil for visible fats (things like butter and cream). The volunteers consumed six grams of fish oil each day for three weeks. They found that body fat mass decreased with the intake of fish oil. The researchers conclude that dietary fish oil reduces body fat and stimulates the use of fatty acids for the production of energy in healthy adults. (33a)
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.