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.
The differing actions of EPA and DHA, together with their competitive uptake, help to explain why studies that attempt to use standard fish oil therapeutically (where DHA and EPA are combined, in a natural ratio of approximately 1.5:1) are either less beneficial than expected, or even completely ineffective. Standard EPA/DHA fish oils are more suitable for everyday wellbeing, to compensate for a lack of fish in the diet and to meet a suggested intake.
Fish oil is oil derived from the tissues of oily fish. Fish oils contain the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), precursors of certain eicosanoids that are known to reduce inflammation in the body, and have other health benefits, such as treating hypertriglyceridemia, although claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes have not been supported. Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids have been studied in a wide variety of other conditions, such as clinical depression, anxiety, cancer, and macular degeneration, yet benefits in these conditions have not been verified.
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.
This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific product or service, or recommendation from an organization or professional society, does not represent an endorsement by ODS of that product, service, or expert advice.
After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. The evidence is somewhat conflicting in some reports, but there is some evidence to suggest breast and prostate cancers may be potentially slowed (or the risk reduced) in people who eat a lot of oily fish and possibly those who supplement with omega-3. (66, 67, 68)
It exists in nature in three forms, one derived from land plants and two derived from marine sources. In the body, omega-3 is highly concentrated in the brain; it is critical to the formation and maintenance of nerve cell membranes. Research shows that in the nervous system, omega-3s foster the development of brain circuitry and the processing of information. They also play important roles in stabilizing mood and staving off cognitive decline. Low levels of omega-3s are linked to poor memory and depression. Omega-3 fats are also critical for the formation of anti-inflammatory molecules in the body.
The Cochrane researchers found that increasing long-chain omega 3 provides little if any benefit on most outcomes that they looked at. They found high certainty evidence that long-chain omega 3 fats had little or no meaningful effect on the risk of death from any cause. The risk of death from any cause was 8.8% in people who had increased their intake of omega 3 fats, compared with 9% in people in the control groups.
Capanni, M., Calella, F., Biagini, M. R., Genise, S., Raimondi, L., Bedogni, G., Svegliati-Baroni, G., Sofi, F., Milani, S., Abbate, R., Surrenti, C., and Casini, A. Prolonged n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation ameliorates hepatic steatosis in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a pilot study. Aliment.Pharmacol.Ther. 4-15-2006;23(8):1143-1151. View abstract.
Dangour, A. D., Allen, E., Elbourne, D., Fasey, N., Fletcher, A. E., Hardy, P., Holder, G. E., Knight, R., Letley, L., Richards, M., and Uauy, R. Effect of 2-y n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on cognitive function in older people: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 2010;91(6):1725-1732. View abstract.
Fish oil has only a small benefit on the risk of premature birth. A 2015 meta-analysis of the effect of omega−3 supplementation during pregnancy did not demonstrate a decrease in the rate of preterm birth or improve outcomes in women with singleton pregnancies with no prior preterm births. A systematic review and meta-analysis published the same year reached the opposite conclusion, specifically, that omega−3 fatty acids were effective in "preventing early and any preterm delivery".
^ Jump up to: a b Casula M, Soranna D, Catapano AL, Corrao G (August 2013). "Long-term effect of high dose omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for secondary prevention of cardiovascular outcomes: A meta-analysis of randomized, placebo controlled trials [corrected]". Atherosclerosis. Supplements. 14 (2): 243–51. doi:10.1016/S1567-5688(13)70005-9. PMID 23958480.
For those who can’t or choose not to eat fatty fish, or who have certain health issues, supplementation is a way to increase omega-3 levels. “There are some conditions that might respond well to supplementation, such as depression or cardiovascular risk factors, including elevated triglycerides,” explains Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, LDN. If you're ooking to increase your omega-3 levels, Click here for six tips to finding the right supplement.
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The evidence that fish oil consumption should be used for primary prevention of CAD is based on observational studies. The only randomized trial for primary prevention, the JELIS trial, showed a moderate relative risk reduction and was conducted in a very specific group. Nevertheless, to date, there has been no strong signal suggesting any serious adverse effects of having high DHA and EPA oils in the diet. We agree with the national guidelines that one should consume moderate amounts of fish oil— either in supplement or through the dietary intake of fatty fish with low mercury levels.
Maximizing the benefits you get from omega-3s is highly dependent on how they are absorbed and transported throughout your body. Although these fatty acids are water soluble, they cannot be easily transported into your blood in their free form. Therefore, they need to be packaged in lipoprotein vehicles for them to be better absorbed into your bloodstream.
Harper, M., Thom, E., Klebanoff, M. A., Thorp, J., Jr., Sorokin, Y., Varner, M. W., Wapner, R. J., Caritis, S. N., Iams, J. D., Carpenter, M. W., Peaceman, A. M., Mercer, B. M., Sciscione, A., Rouse, D. J., Ramin, S. M., and Anderson, G. D. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to prevent recurrent preterm birth: a randomized controlled trial. Obstet Gynecol 2010;115(2 Pt 1):234-242. View abstract.
Like its other leafy green counterparts, broccoli is a powerful source of ALA, one of the omega-3 fatty acids your body needs (but can’t make on its own). Broccoli is also high in fiber, zinc, and — surprisingly — protein, a must for any ADHD brain. If you or your child doesn’t like broccoli, try pairing it with a cheesy sauce or baking it into tots — try this simple recipe to get started.
Fish oil contamination even among “molecularly distilled” brands and those aimed at children is a widespread problem. One study in California tested 10 common brands and found PCBs — toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans — in all of them. Some had 70 times the PCBs of other ones and 240x the toxicity. In another study, researchers tested 13 over-the-counter children’s dietary supplements containing fish oil for PCBs. PCBs were detected in all products. Our family takes algae-derived omega-3 (DHA/EPA) capsules, which are bioequivalent to fish oil capsules. Algae are actually the source where fish get their omega-3 content, so we skip the contaminated middle man (or, fish, in this case) and the neurotoxins that come with them given how polluted our oceans are now. I highly recommend parents do their research on what studies show about fish oil contamination and not just trust the labels, as well as consider algae-derived omega-3 capsules as more healthful bioequivalent to fish oil.
If we want to deliver the benefits associated with EPA therapeutically, it is essential to optimise digestion and uptake. If we take EPA and DHA in their natural 1.5:1 ratio, it’s an uphill struggle for EPA because we know that DHA is more effectively absorbed and assimilated into cells. Delivering the benefits of EPA (for example, for cognitive function, mood and depression, inflammation regulation, heart health, skin health and so on), requires doses of EPA in excess of DHA, which determines the type of benefits obtained and the degree of the beneficial outcomes. The higher the ratio of EPA to DHA (meaning higher doses of EPA in relation to DHA), the more likely that EPA will be digested and absorbed, ready to meet the body’s high demands for this important nutrient.
Back in 2013, a study came out that made a lot of people concerned about fish oil supplements and cancer. The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showed that men who consume the largest amount of fish oil had a 71 percent higher risk of high-grade prostate cancer and a 43 percent increase in all types of prostate cancer. The study was conducted on 2,227 men, of which 38 percent of the men already had prostate cancer. (39)
ODS seeks to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, supporting research, sharing research results, and educating the public. Its resources include publications (such as Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know), fact sheets on a variety of specific supplement ingredients and products (such as vitamin D and multivitamin/mineral supplements), and the PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset
The omega-3 index is also important because it is inversely related to one’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio — another important measurement (3). A lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio (meaning, you consume a balanced amount of these two fatty acid families) is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease, to name a few (4). Of course, most people get far too much omega-6 and too little omega-3, thanks to the plethora of highly processed foods in the Western diet.
Hanwell, H. E., Kay, C. D., Lampe, J. W., Holub, B. J., and Duncan, A. M. Acute fish oil and soy isoflavone supplementation increase postprandial serum (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids and isoflavones but do not affect triacylglycerols or biomarkers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr 2009;139(6):1128-1134. View abstract.
Although there was significant heterogeneity among the included studies (Cochran Q, 178.820; df, 18; I2, 89.934%; P < .001), the sensitivity test suggested that the main significant results of the meta-analysis would not change after removal of any of the included studies. However, through direct inspection of the forest plot, we detected the potential influence of some outliers, such as the studies by Sohrabi et al56 and Yehuda et al.61 These 2 studies evaluated anxiety symptoms with a visual analog scale of anxiety and test anxiety severity, which are seldom used in psychiatric research and lack a definite report to prove their equivalent sensitivity and specificity to some other frequently used anxiety rating scales, such as depression, anxiety, and stress scales or the Hamilton anxiety rating scale. Therefore, these studies might have affected the interpretation of the current meta-analysis.
Krauss-Etschmann et al. (26) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 311 DHA+EPA daily with either fish oil with DHA (0.5 g) and EPA (0.15 g) or with methyltetrahydrofolic acid (400 μg), both, or placebo, from gestation week 22 Fish-oil supplementation was associated with decreased levels of maternal inflammatory/TH1 cytokines and a decrease of fetal Th2-related cytokines
The absence of DHA in many pure EPA trials, and therefore lack of competition between EPA and DHA during digestion and consequently for uptake, is considered to be partly responsible for the positive outcomes. Simply put, pure EPA delivers more EPA into cells where it is needed than combined EPA & DHA blends. Consequently, oils containing DHA may not be suitable for a variety of conditions when treatment relies on increasing levels of EPA and its end products.
A study in 2013, (Stafford, Jackson, Mayo-Wilson, Morrison, Kendall), stated the following in its conclusion: "Although evidence of benefits for any specific intervention is not conclusive, these findings suggest that it might be possible to delay or prevent transition to psychosis. Further research should be undertaken to establish conclusively the potential for benefit of psychological interventions in the treatment of people at high risk of psychosis."`
According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, fish oil can aid in preventing or slowing heart disease, which is especially great for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis sufferers who are at a higher risk of developing heart disease. (27) When it comes to using fish oil supplements for the alleviation of psoriasis symptoms, studies have been mixed with some showing improvement but others showing no effect. If you suffer from psoriasis, you may want to try a fish oil supplement, or else I highly recommend that you make sure to have fish rich in omega-3s regularly.
If you want to take higher doses of omega-3 fish oil supplements, talk to your doctor first. Your doctor can guide you in supplementing your diet with omega-3 fish oil. Also, your doctor can monitor all aspects of your health if you take higher doses of fish oil.For people with very high triglyceride levels, prescription omega-3 preparations are also available.
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.