Omega-3 fatty acids are frequently in the news regarding their health benefits (or doubts in some cases). Two types of omega-3s in particular - eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docohexaenoic acid (DHA) – are known to be essential fatty acids. “Essential” refers to the fact that our cells need these fatty acids in order to function normally. But the body cannot make them from other fats, which means it’s “essential” we supply them in our diet or through supplementation.
A, Subgroup meta-analysis of the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) based on an underlying specific clinical diagnosis or not. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was not significant in the subgroup of participants without specific clinical conditions (k, 5; Hedges g, –0.008; 95% CI, –0.266 to 0.250; P = .95) but was significant in the subgroup of participants with specific clinical diagnoses (k, 14; Hedges g, 0.512; 95% CI, 0.119-0.906; P = .01). Furthermore, the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms of omega-3 PUFAs were significantly stronger in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without specific clinical conditions (P = .03). B, Subgroup meta-analysis of the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs based on different mean omega-3 PUFA dosages. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was not significant in subgroups of mean omega-3 PUFA dosages less than 2000 mg/d (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.457; 95% CI, –0.077 to 0.991; P = .09) but was significant in the subgroup of mean omega-3 PUFA dosage of at least 2000 mg/d (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.213; 95% CI, 0.031-0.395; P = .02).
Meanwhile, blood levels of DHA and EPA are very transitory, reflecting what an individual consumed only recently, while of course prostate cancer has a markedly longer progression. The study was not designed to isolate omega oil :: prostate cancer relationships, so conclusion would be weak. Seems likely to me that when faced with a serious disease, men suddenly begin to try living “right” in a hurry.
The GISSI-Heart Failure trial was the first blinded, randomized trial to assess the efficacy of fish oil supplements in patients with heart failure.51 The trial enrolled 7046 subjects with heart failure; 60% with New York Heart Association class II symptoms and 40% with a history of MI. The majority of patients were on a standard heart failure regimen, including angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, beta-blockers, and spironolactone, but only 22% were on a statin. At an average of 3.9 years, the coprimary end points of death and death or hospital admission for cardiovascular reasons were reduced by approximately 9% with fish oil supplementation. Sudden cardiac death, a secondary end-point, showed a statistically nonsignificant relative risk reduction of 7% with fish oil. There was also a reduction in 2 other arrhythmia-related secondary end-points: first hospitalization for ventricular arrhythmia and presumed arrhythmic death.
More than 30 clinical trials have tested different omega-3 preparations in people with depression. Most studies have used omega-3s as add-on therapy for people who are taking prescription antidepressants with limited or no benefit. Fewer studies have examined omega-3 therapy alone. Clinical trials typically use EPA alone or a combination of EPA plus DHA, at doses from 0.5 to 1 gram per day to 6 to 10 grams per day. To give some perspective, 1 gram per day would correspond to eating three salmon meals per week.
For dry eye: Fish oil supplements providing EPA 360-1680 mg and DHA 240-560 mg have been used for 4-12 weeks. Some people used the specific product (PRN Dry Eye Omega Benefits softgels). A specific combination product containing EPA 450 mg, DHA 300 mg, and flaxseed oil 1000 mg (TheraTears Nutrition, Advanced Nutrition Research; Caruso’s Natural Health UltraMAX fish oil, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) has been used once daily for 90 days.
A 2008 meta-study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found fish oil supplementation did not demonstrate any preventative benefit to cardiac patients with ventricular arrhythmias. A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, covering 20 studies and 68,680 patients, found that Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplementation did not reduce the chance of death, cardiac death, heart attack or stroke.
"Fish is still the mainstay of the diet in many parts of the world where there is very little heart disease," he says. "I think when you replace higher fat foods and highly processed foods with fish there is going to be some benefit.'' So it may be that by substituting fish for red meats, bacon and luncheon meats, and similar high-fat foods, you are making a change that will lead to improving your health outcomes, he says.
What about blood clotting? Circulating cells called platelets are critical in causing your blood to clot. When platelets are activated, they aggregate and cause clots. If these clots occur in particularly sensitive regions of your body, they can lead to a heart attack or stroke. EPA reduces platelet activation, an early step in platelet aggregation to help to reduce clotting. One study found that EPA was superior to DHA in decreasing platelet activation, a precursor to blood clotting.1
Arsenault, L. N., Matthan, N., Scott, T. M., Dallal, G., Lichtenstein, A. H., Folstein, M. F., Rosenberg, I., and Tucker, K. L. Validity of estimated dietary eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid intakes determined by interviewer-administered food frequency questionnaire among older adults with mild-to-moderate cognitive impairment or dementia. Am J Epidemiol 7-1-2009;170(1):95-103. View abstract.
“This systematic review did find moderate evidence that ALA, found in plant oils (such as rapeseed or canola oil) and nuts (particularly walnuts) may be slightly protective of some diseases of the heart and circulation. However, the effect is very small, 143 people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person developing arrhythmia. One thousand people would need to increase their ALA intake to prevent one person dying of coronary heart disease or experiencing a cardiovascular event. ALA is an essential fatty acid, an important part of a balanced diet, and increasing intakes may be slightly beneficial for prevention or treatment of cardiovascular disease."
Other suspected health benefits of omega-3s and fish are less well established and need further study. They include suggestions of a reduced risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and possibly advanced prostate cancer, all related to eating fish rather than taking supplements. Some observational studies have associated omega-3s to a lower risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as age-related macular degeneration.
AD is a devastating disease for which there are limited treatment options and no cure. Memory loss is an early indicator of the disease, which is progressive, and leads to the inability of the patient to care for him- or herself and eventually to death (47). Currently, the number of individuals with AD is estimated to be 26.6 million and is expected to increase to 106.2 million by 2050 (48). There have been many studies conducted regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and AD (Table 2). DHA is present in large amounts in neuron membrane phospholipids, where it is involved in proper function of the nervous system, which is why it is thought to play a role in AD (49). A case-control study consisting of 148 patients with cognitive impairment [Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score <24] and 45 control patients (MMSE score ≥24) showed that serum cholesteryl ester-EPA and -DHA levels were significantly lower (P < 0.05 and P < 0.001, respectively) in all MMSE score quartiles of patients with AD compared with control values (49). Another study found that a diet characterized by higher intakes of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salad dressing, nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables, fruits, dark and green leafy vegetables), and a lower intake of foods low in omega-3 fatty acids (high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat, butter) was strongly associated with a lower AD risk (50). Image analysis of brain sections of an aged AD mouse model showed that overall plaque burden was significantly reduced by 40.3% in mice with a diet enriched with DHA (P < 0.05) compared with placebo. The largest reductions (40–50%) were seen in brain regions that are thought to be involved with AD, the hippocampus and parietal cortex (51). A central event in AD is thought to be the activation of multiple inflammatory cells in the brain. Release of IL-1B, IL-6, and TNF α from microglia cells may lead to dysfunction of the neurons in the brain (52). In 1 study, AD patients treated with EPA+DHA supplementation increased their plasma concentrations of EPA and DHA, which were associated with reduced release of inflammatory factors IL-1B, IL-6, and granulocyte colony–stimulating factor from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (53).
The three types of omega−3 fatty acids involved in human physiology are α-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both commonly found in marine oils. Marine algae and phytoplankton are primary sources of omega−3 fatty acids. Common sources of plant oils containing ALA include walnut, edible seeds, clary sage seed oil, algal oil, flaxseed oil, Sacha Inchi oil, Echium oil, and hemp oil, while sources of animal omega−3 fatty acids EPA and DHA include fish, fish oils, eggs from chickens fed EPA and DHA, squid oils, and krill oil. Dietary supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids does not appear to affect the risk of death, cancer or heart disease. Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes or any vascular disease outcomes.
Several large studies have linked higher blood levels of long-chain omega-3s with higher risks of prostate cancer. However, other research has shown that men who frequently eat seafood have lower prostate cancer death rates and that dietary intakes of long-chain omega-3s aren’t associated with prostate cancer risk. The reason for these apparently conflicting findings is unclear.
Fish oil is very beneficial for pregnant women because the DHA present in it helps in the development of the eyes and brain of the baby. It also helps to avoid premature births, low birth weight, and miscarriages. Research conducted in Denmark, which involved 8,729 pregnant women, concluded that a diet with low amounts of fish resulted in a higher risk of premature or preterm babies.
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.
For those who do not eat seafood, another way exists for you to get a healthy dose of EPA and DHA each day. Fish oil supplements, which are rich in EPA and DHA, can be made from a variety of fish, with the most common ones being halibut, tuna, salmon, cod liver, mackerel and herring. On average, one 3.5 ounce serving of fatty fish contains about 1 gram of omega-3s, which can be obtained through fish oil supplements, according to MedlinePlus.
Researchers are taking a hard look at a different sort of balance, this one between possible effects of marine and plant omega-3 fats on prostate cancer. Results from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and others show that men whose diets are rich in EPA and DHA (mainly from fish and seafood) are less likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than those with low intake of EPA and DHA. (6) At the same time, some-but not all-studies show an increase in prostate cancer and advanced prostate cancer among men with high intakes of ALA (mainly from supplements). However, this effect is inconsistent. In the very large Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, for example, there was no link between ALA intake and early, late, or advanced prostate cancer. (7)
Healthy cells require a delicate balance of EPA and DHA and the body employs clever mechanisms to support this natural equilibrium. DHA levels are self-regulated through inhibiting the activity of the enzyme delta-6 desaturase – the very enzyme that supports the conversion of EPA into DHA – to ensure levels of DHA do not become too high. It is therefore possible to have too much preformed DHA, if our supplement intake exceeds the body’s needs.
Retinol (Vitamin A) B vitamins: Thiamine (B1) Riboflavin (B2) Niacin (B3) Pantothenic acid (B5) Pyridoxine (B6) Biotin (B7) Folic acid (B9) Cyanocobalamin (B12) Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) Ergocalciferol and Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D) Tocopherol (Vitamin E) Naphthoquinone (Vitamin K) Calcium Choline Chromium Cobalt Copper Fluorine Iodine Iron Magnesium Manganese Molybdenum Phosphorus Potassium Selenium Sodium Sulfur Zinc
The biggest cause of omega-3 deficiency is the overconsumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 comes from things like fried foods, fast foods and boxed foods that contain vegetables oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. When you consume too much omega-6, it can decrease your body’s ability to metabolize healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (36)
In a 2009 joint study by the USDA and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, grass-fed beef was compared with grain-finished beef. The researchers found that grass-finished beef is higher in moisture content, 42.5% lower total lipid content, 54% lower in total fatty acids, 54% higher in beta-carotene, 288% higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium, 193% higher in total omega−3s, 117% higher in CLA (cis-9, trans-11 octadecenoic acid, a cojugated linoleic acid, which is a potential cancer fighter), 90% higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA), lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease, and has a healthier ratio of omega−6 to omega−3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84). Protein and cholesterol content were equal.
The short answer is no. There are many websites which advise people to stop eating vegetable oils and switch to fish oil in order to increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil is a good source of omega-3 essential fatty acids and should be consumed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one should completely replace vegetable oils with fish oil.
However, since the dosage of fish oil required for an ideal effect in the improvement of a patient is unknown, the Arthritis Center in the Department of Rheumatology at John Hopkins University considers including omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil in the treatment of arthritis as controversial. The University also cautions that arthritis patients must be wary of all the other side effects that can come from using fish oil. You can read more about arthritis on the web page of the Arthritis Foundation and the Arthritis Center.
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.
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are common toxins in seafood. Although the U.S. banned the use of PCBs and DDT in 1976, these and other chemicals are still used in half the world's commercial chemical processes. Substances like these can hang around in the air, soil, and water for many years. They end up in the bodies of fish and animals.
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)
The systematic review suggests that eating more ALA through food or supplements probably has little or no effect on cardiovascular deaths or deaths from any cause. However, eating more ALA probably reduces the risk of heart irregularities from 3.3 to 2.6%. The review team found that reductions in cardiovascular events with ALA were so small that about 1000 people would need to increase consumption of ALA for one of them to benefit. Similar results were found for cardiovascular death. They did not find enough data from the studies to be able to measure the risk of bleeding or blood clots from using ALA.
Consumers of oily fish should be aware of the potential presence of heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants like PCBs and dioxins, which are known to accumulate up the food chain. After extensive review, researchers from Harvard's School of Public Health in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2006) reported that the benefits of fish intake generally far outweigh the potential risks.
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
Warfarin (Coumadin) is used to slow blood clotting. Fish oil also might slow blood clotting. Taking fish oil with warfarin might slow blood clotting too much and increase the risk of bleeding. However, conflicting results suggests that fish oil does not increase the effects of warfarin. Until more is known, use cautiously in combination with warfarin. Have your blood checked regularly, as your dose of warfarin (Coumadin) might need to be changed.
A lot of the benefit of fish oil seems to come from the omega-3 fatty acids that it contains. Interestingly, the body does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. Nor can the body make omega-3 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in the Western diet. A lot of research has been done on EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 acids that are often included in fish oil supplements.