Animal studies show potent reduction of liver fat stores, glucose levels, and cholesterol levels in mice supplemented with krill oil while being fed a high fat diet.64,65 While many of these effects are seen with fish oil as well, studies show that krill oil, with its unique phospholipid structure, had the added benefit of increasing fat-burning in mitochondria while reducing new glucose production in the liver.66,67 As with so many other complex disease processes, utilizing multiple pathways to reduce disease is a highly effective strategy.67
The question is whether the observed cardiovascular benefits often found among fish eaters is due solely to the oils in fish or to some other characteristics of seafood or to still other factors common to those who eat lots of fish, like eating less meat or pursuing a healthier lifestyle over all. Whatever the answer, it does not seem to be fish oil supplements.
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.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye disease that can cause vision loss in older people. Two major National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored studies, called Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2), showed that dietary supplements containing specific combinations of vitamins, antioxidants, and zinc helped slow the progression of AMD in people who were at high risk of developing the advanced stage of this disease. AREDS2, which had more than 4,000 participants and was completed in 2013, also tested EPA and DHA. The results showed that adding these omega-3s to the supplement formulation didn’t provide any additional benefits. Other, smaller studies of omega-3 supplements also haven’t shown them to have a beneficial effect on the progression of AMD.
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One of the most well-known benefits of omega-3s are the way they positively affect risk factors associated with heart disease. That’s one reason the American Heart Association is very clear about encouraging people to get enough in their diets. (8) Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death worldwide, but communities who eat diets rich in fish have remarkably low instances of these diseases, which is at least partially due to their high omega-3 consumption. (9, 10)
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)
Dioxins and PCBs may be carcinogenic at low levels of exposure over time. These substances are identified and measured in one of two categories, dioxin-like PCBs and total PCBs. While the U.S. FDA has not set a limit for PCBs in supplements, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED) has established a guideline allowing for no more than 3 picograms of dioxin-like PCBs per gram of fish oil. In 2012, samples from 35 fish oil supplements were tested for PCBs. Trace amounts of PCBs were found in all samples, and two samples exceeded the GOED‘s limit. Although trace amounts of PCBs contribute to overall PCB exposure, Consumerlab.com claims the amounts reported by tests it ordered on fish oil supplements are far below those found in a single typical serving of fish.
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.
According to independent laboratory[which?] tests, the concentrations of EPA and DHA in supplements can vary from between 8 and 80% fish oil content. The concentration depends on the source of the omega-3s, how the oil is processed, and the amounts of other ingredients included in the supplement. A 2012 report claims 4 of 35 fish oil supplements it covered contained less[quantify] EPA or DHA than was claimed on the label, and 3 of 35 contained more[quantify] A ConsumerLab.com publication in 2010 claims 3 of 24 fish oil supplements it covered contained less[quantify] EPA and/or DHA than was claimed on the label. However, the bioavailability of EPA and DHA from both capsular and emulsified fish oils has been shown to be high.
Lok CE, Moist L, Hemmelgarn BR, Tonelli M, Vazquez MA, Dorval M, Oliver M, Donnelly S, Allon M, Stanley K; Fish Oil Inhibition of Stenosis in Hemodialysis Grafts (FISH) Study Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation on graft patency and cardiovascular events among patients with new synthetic arteriovenous hemodialysis grafts: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2012;307(17):1809-16. View abstract.
First, EPA inhibits the enzyme that produces arachidonic acid. Second, EPA impedes the release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes (where it is stored) and its metabolization once it is released. Without this release and metabolization, your body can’t make eicosanoids. The result is lower risk of the inflammation that would have been caused by all that arachidonic acid going to eicosanoids.
McNamara, R. K., Able, J., Jandacek, R., Rider, T., Tso, P., Eliassen, J. C., Alfieri, D., Weber, W., Jarvis, K., DelBello, M. P., Strakowski, S. M., and Adler, C. M. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases prefrontal cortex activation during sustained attention in healthy boys: a placebo-controlled, dose-ranging, functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):1060-1067. View abstract.
Fish oil seems to be a subject of controversy. Some people swear by it, and there are thousands of clinical trials out now trying to study what the latest and greatest thing about the supplement is. The Natural Standard does a really good job collecting and gathering data for those who are interested in delving through what fish oil may or may not be doing to us. Definitive answers, however, may take a little while to get.
To our knowledge, this is the first systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs in individuals with anxiety symptoms. The overall findings revealed modest anxiolytic effects of omega-3 PUFAs in individuals with various neuropsychiatric or major physical illnesses. Although participants and diagnoses were heterogeneous, the main finding of this meta-analysis was that omega-3 PUFAs were associated with significant reduction in anxiety symptoms compared with controls; this effect persisted vs placebo controls. Furthermore, the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms of omega-3 PUFA were significantly higher in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions.
Davidson, M. H., Stein, E. A., Bays, H. E., Maki, K. C., Doyle, R. T., Shalwitz, R. A., Ballantyne, C. M., and Ginsberg, H. N. 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(7):1354-1367. View abstract.
Recent studies have shown that the consumption of fish oil (or, more specifically, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) can improve fertility in both men and women. DHA, which is a byproduct of omega-3 fatty acids, plays a key role in the mobility of sperm and health of sperm in men. Low blood levels of DHA have been linked to decreased fertility. Animal studies have found that the DHA in fish is vital to changing dysfunctional round-headed sperm into strong swimmers with cone-shaped heads packed with egg-opening proteins. (29)
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)
Secondary prevention fish oil studies demonstrate a significant reduction in MI. But unfortunately, both the observational and randomized trials were conducted in an era before the widespread use of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, and therefore, the incremental benefit is still unknown. Nevertheless, in patients receiving antiplatelet and anticoagulant therapy in addition to fish oil supplementation (even at doses as high as 4 g per day), no serious adverse complications have been reported.
A Pregnancy Prerequisite: Omega-3 fatty acids directly affect brain development, making it crucial for expectant mothers. Additionally, research indicates they decrease a mother's risk of depression. When the mother doesn't have enough of these essential fatty acids, the baby borrows from her. Some prenatal vitamins now include omega-3s, so be sure to check the label or grab a handful of walnuts each day.
Dry eye disease occurs when tears don’t provide enough moisture, causing eye discomfort and vision problems. Some studies show that getting more omega-3s from foods or supplements—mainly EPA and DHA—helps relieve symptoms of dry eye disease. But a large, recent study found that the symptoms of people with dry eye disease who took fish oil supplements of 2,000 mg EPA plus 1,000 mg DHA daily for 1 year did not improve any more than those who took a placebo (a dummy pill). More research on the effects of omega-3s on dry eye disease is needed.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, eating 8 to 12 ounces per week of fish and other seafood may improve your baby’s health. However, it is important to choose fish that are higher in EPA and DHA and lower in mercury. Examples are salmon, herring, sardines, and trout. It is not clear whether taking dietary supplements containing EPA and DHA during pregnancy or breastfeeding affects a baby’s health or development. However, some studies show that taking these supplements may slightly increase a baby’s weight at birth and the length of time the baby is in the womb, both of which may be beneficial. Breast milk contains DHA. Most commercial infant formulas also contain DHA.
Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but they are less frequent now thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities. Past concerns about omega-3s increasing the risk of bleeding have been largely disproven, but caution is still advised in people taking blood thinners or who are about to undergo surgery. As mentioned, caution is needed in people with bipolar disorder to prevent cycling to mania. Because omega-3s are important to brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3 in expectant mothers, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children. Fish consumption in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on safety or optimal dosing of omega-3s in pregnancy, expectant mothers should consider omega-3 supplements judiciously.