Omega 3 fatty acids—found in supplements and naturally in some foods like certain fish, and nuts and seeds—have long been touted for their health benefits, especially heart health. Yet, a lot is still unknown, including whether it's better to get your omega 3 fats from pills or in food—and the debate continues regarding how much they may actually help you avoid heart disease.
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.

Additional side effects of fish oil supplements which have been reported include headache, short-term memory loss, depression, somatic disorders, and increased risk of colon cancer, nasopharyngitis, worsening of asthma symptoms, hemolytic anemia, decreased physical activity, increased appetite, a general uncomfortable feeling or increased blood pressure. The percentage of users that develop these side effects is not known. If these side effects become severe it is recommended that you stop using fish oil supplements.
An 18-month study was published in 2014 that evaluated how borage seed oil — rich in GLA — and fish oil rich fared against each other in treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It was discovered that all three groups (one taking fish oil, one taking borage oil and one taking a combination of the two) “exhibited significant reductions” in disease activity, and no therapy outperformed the others. For all three, “meaningful clinical responses” were the same after nine months. (11)
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.
While fish for dinner is one way to get EPA and DHA, most people don’t eat the suggested two to three servings of oily fish per week to reap the benefits of omega-3s. What’s more, there are extremely few food sources, aside from fish, that naturally provide EPA and DHA. With all the benefits that can come from fish oil, it’s no surprise that these supplements are increasing in popularity.
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
One day I was cooking pasta when the kitchen started to fill with the odor of fish. I happen to hate fish, so this was not a pleasant experience. It was also a mystery, since I never cook fish. A little detective work discovered that the offensive odor was coming from the pasta. Apparently I didn’t notice the “Now with Omega 3” label on the box when I purchased it. My daughter and I still refer to this as the “fish pasta incident”.
Ample evidence from animal studies supports regular supplementation with omega-3 oils as a means of lowering long-term cardiovascular risk. This may be due to omega-3 fatty acids’ effects on reducing inflammation, lowering triglycerides, reducing blood pressure, improving endothelial function, inducing new blood vessel formation after heart attack or stroke, and favorable modification of obesity-related inflammatory molecules.35-39
The human body does not produce significant amounts of EPA or DHA on its own, so you must get these important nutrients from the foods you eat and the supplements you consume. If you’re looking to get the heart health benefits of omega-3s, go straight to the source of EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are naturally found in marine sources, including fatty fish – salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring – shellfish, and marine algae.
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.
The GISSI-Prevenzione trial40 showed similar findings. In this open-label trial, 11,324 post-MI patients were followed for 3.5 years after randomization to either 1 g/d of omega-3 FA, vitamin E, both, or none. In the 2836 patients assigned to only omega-3 FA, the primary end point of death, nonfatal MI or stroke, was reduced by 10%. This decreased risk occurred despite a minimal triglyceride-lowering effect because of the relatively low dose of omega-3 FA. Of note, the GISSI-Prevenzione trial was done prior to the pervasive use of lipid-lowering agents. Only about 40% of patients were on any form of lipid-lowering therapy.
High triglycerides. Most research shows that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. Some fish oil supplements including Lovaza, Omtryg, and Epanova have been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides.
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