The US National Institutes of Health lists three conditions for which fish oil and other omega-3 sources are most highly recommended: hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride level), preventing secondary cardiovascular disease, and hypertension (high blood pressure). It then lists 27 other conditions for which there is less evidence. It also lists possible safety concerns: "Intake of 3 grams per day or greater of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, although there is little evidence of significant bleeding risk at lower doses. Very large intakes of fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke."
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.
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.
As with other supplements, when it comes to quality, you get what you pay for. Life Time sources its omega-3 fish oil (both capsules and liquid) from sustainable fisheries off the coast of Chile. We only use oils from small, cold-water anchovy, sardine, and mackerel. It’s molecularly distilled to be sure it’s free of mercury, PCBs, and heavy metals. If your fish oil brand doesn’t name the species of fish it’s sourced from, or it lists larger, predatory species, the quality and purity of the oil could be less than optimal.
Fish oil supplements vary in the amounts and ratios of DHA and EPA they contain. For example, salmon oil naturally contains more DHA than EPA; a supplement derived from algae may only contain DHA. Krill oil contains significant amounts of both EPA and DHA. Read the labels and remember whatever supplement you buy, it must have at least 600 mg of DHA.
Omega-3s have been studied in various mood disorders, such as postpartum depression, with some promising results. In bipolar disorder (manic depression), the omega-3s may be most effective for the depressed phase rather than the manic phase of the illness. The omega-3s have also been proposed to alleviate or prevent other psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and attention deficit disorder. However, there is still not enough evidence to recommend the omega-3s in these conditions.
In some cases, fish oil pills may cause loose stools, nausea, diarrhea, and decreased appetite, fat in the stools, vomiting or constipation. These side effects can be minimized by taking a fish oil capsule that is coated, which is designed to help eliminate the "fish burps" many users complain about. Starting with low doses of the supplement and working up to a full dose can also help minimize side effects. You can also pair fish oil supplements with meals so that they enter your body more slowly, minimizing the risk of side effects occurring.
Findings In this systematic review and meta-analysis of 19 clinical trials including 2240 participants from 11 countries, improvement in anxiety symptoms was associated with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid treatment compared with controls in both placebo-controlled and non–placebo-controlled trials. The anxiolytic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids were also stronger in participants with clinical conditions than in subclinical populations.
There was a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs than in those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage less than 60% (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.485; 95% CI, 0.017-0.954; P = .04; Figure 4)35,49,52,54-61 but no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs and those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage of at least 60% (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.092; 95% CI, –0.102 to 0.285; P = .35) (Figure 4).33,34,36,47,48,50,51,53,60 There were no significantly different estimated effect sizes between these 2 subgroups by the interaction test (P = .13).
Stiefel, P., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., Gajon, E., Acosta, D., Garcia-Donas, M. A., Madrazo, J., Villar, J., and Carneado, J. Sodium transport kinetics, cell membrane lipid composition, neural conduction and metabolic control in type 1 diabetic patients. Changes after a low-dose n-3 fatty acid dietary intervention. Ann Nutr Metab 1999;43(2):113-120. View abstract.
Hernandez, D., Guerra, R., Milena, A., Torres, A., Garcia, S., Garcia, C., Abreu, P., Gonzalez, A., Gomez, M. A., Rufino, M., Gonzalez-Posada, J., Lorenzo, V., and Salido, E. Dietary fish oil does not influence acute rejection rate and graft survival after renal transplantation: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Nephrol.Dial.Transplant. 2002;17(5):897-904. View abstract.
Thanks to fatdog11 for that informative post about PCB’s in fish-oil supplements. Are these same toxicity levels found in fish themselves, or possibly are these levels so high only in highly concentrated fish-oil products? Also, can fatdog11 please inform us more about algae-derived omega-3. What are the DHA and EPA levels in these capsules? What is the cost, and where can they be purchased?
Of great clinical importance, EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with longer gestation and increased concentrations of EPA and DHA in fetal tissues (21). In 2005, preterm births accounted for 12.7% of all births in the United States, increasing the likelihood of health complications (22). Carrying a baby to term is very important because prematurity is the cause of various infant diseases and can lead to death; preterm delivery is an underlying factor for 85% of the deaths of normally formed infants (23). One mechanism by which EPA and DHA may decrease the incidence of preterm birth is by decreasing prostaglandin E2 and prostaglandin F2α production, therefore reducing inflammation within the uterus, which could be associated with preterm labor (21, 24). Several studies investigated EPA and DHA intake during pregnancy and its correlation with longer gestation. Conclusions were that EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy delayed the onset of delivery to term or closer to term; however, supplementation did not delay delivery to the point of being post-term (20, 23, 25). This supports the evidence that EPA+DHA ingestion leads to optimal pregnancy length. EPA+DHA supplementation reduced the HR of preterm delivery by 44% (95% CI: 14–64%) in those who consumed relatively low amounts of fish and 39% (95% CI: 16–56%) in those who consumed medium amounts of fish; however, a level of statistical significance was not met (P = 0.10) (23). The Judge et al. (20) study found that women who had DHA supplementation from gestation week 24 until full-term delivery carried their infants significantly (P = 0.019) longer than did the women in the placebo group. One study found that DHA supplementation after gestation week 21 led to fewer preterm births (<34 wk of gestation) in the DHA group compared with the control group (1.09% vs. 2.25%; adjusted RR, 0.49; 95% CI: 0.25–0.94; P = 0.03). Also, mean birth weight was 68 g heavier (95% CI: 23–114 g; P = 0.003) and fewer infants were of low birth weight in the DHA group compared with the control group (3.41% vs. 5.27%; adjusted RR, 0.65; 95% CI: 0.44–0.96; P = 0.03) (25).
Three randomized trials assessing more than 600 patients with known malignant ventricular arrhythmia were carried out under the protection of implanted cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) therapy.41–43 In all 3 of the trials, 75% of the patients had ischemic heart disease, survived ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation and were randomized to 1 to 3 g/d of fish oil. In the first trial of its kind, 402 patients with ICDs were randomized to either a fish oil or an olive oil supplement.41 Although statistical significance was not reached, after approximately 1 year the primary end-point of time to first ICD cardioversion for ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation or death from any cause was longer in the fish oil group. This finding was not replicated in a trial of 200 patients who were randomized to either fish oil or a placebo and followed for a median of approximately 2 years.42 In fact, time to first ICD cardioversion was not changed and the incidence of recurrent ventricular tachycardia and fibrillation was more common in the group assigned to fish oil. In the largest trial, 546 patients were randomized to supplemental fish oil or a placebo and were followed for a mean period of 1 year.43 The primary outcome of the rate of ICD cardioversion or all-cause mortality was not reduced. It was concluded in a recent meta-analysis of these trials that fish oil did not have a protective effect.44
Conflicts of interest comprise financial interests, activities, and relationships within the past 3 years including but not limited to employment, affiliation, grants or funding, consultancies, honoraria or payment, speaker's bureaus, stock ownership or options, expert testimony, royalties, donation of medical equipment, or patents planned, pending, or issued.
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.
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.