Omega-3 is a group of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, perhaps most notably found in fatty fish. As science parses the biological actions of nutrients, it turns out that omega-3 fats do many good things for the body and the brain. Known as an "essential" fatty acid, meaning the body must take it in from food sources, omega-3 is important to human metabolism.
Makrides et al. (25) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 2399 (n = 1197 supplemented, n = 1202 placebo; 726 children were followed up with) DHA (fish-oil capsules providing 800 mg/d DHA) Supplementation did not result in lower levels of postpartum depression in mothers or improved cognitive and language development in offspring during early childhood
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.
Infant development. There is some evidence that mothers who eat fish or take fish oil supplements during pregnancy may improve some aspects of their baby's mental development. Taking fish oil during breast-feeding does not have this effect. However, feeding infants formula fortified with fish oil appears to improve some aspect of the baby's vision by the age of 2 months.
The number of presenters and the amount of information stuffed into an action-packed few days at times felt overwhelming, even for two dedicated omega-3 enthusiasts like us. But one important message did hit home: The omega-3 index could be a helpful indicator of various health risks, and we should all be paying closer attention to this measurement.
Higdon JV, Liu J, Du S, et al. Supplementation of postmenopausal women with fish oil rich in eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid is not associated with greater in vivo lipid peroxidation compared with oils rich in oleate and linoleate as assessed by plasma malondialdehyde and F(2)- isoprostanes. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;72:714-22. View abstract.
EPA, which is eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, which is docosahexaenoic acid, are two types of omega-3 fatty acids that are most commonly found in seafood. These polyunsaturated fats are known to have preventative health benefits and have been studied for their role in treating certain chronic conditions. In addition to dietary sources, certain supplements such as fish oil, are also rich in EPA and DHA.
However, this difference in the length of the carbon chain gives these two types of omega-3s significant characteristics. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid. The long-chain fatty acids are more important for cellular health. Another omega-3 fat, docosapentaenoic acid (DPA) can also be better synthesized by your body by elongating EPA.
The results of several small studies had suggested that taking omega-3 supplements might help relieve symptoms of dry eye disease. However, a 2018 NIH-sponsored study that tested omega-3 supplements for a full year in a larger group (535 study participants) with moderate-to-severe dry eye disease found that the supplements were no more helpful than a placebo (an inactive substance).
In 1964 it was discovered that enzymes found in sheep tissues convert omega−6 arachidonic acid into the inflammatory agent called prostaglandin E2 which both causes the sensation of pain and expedites healing and immune response in traumatized and infected tissues. By 1979 more of what are now known as eicosanoids were discovered: thromboxanes, prostacyclins, and the leukotrienes. The eicosanoids, which have important biological functions, typically have a short active lifetime in the body, starting with synthesis from fatty acids and ending with metabolism by enzymes. If the rate of synthesis exceeds the rate of metabolism, the excess eicosanoids may, however, have deleterious effects. Researchers found that certain omega−3 fatty acids are also converted into eicosanoids, but at a much slower rate. Eicosanoids made from omega−3 fatty acids are often referred to as anti-inflammatory, but in fact they are just less inflammatory than those made from omega−6 fats. If both omega−3 and omega−6 fatty acids are present, they will "compete" to be transformed, so the ratio of long-chain omega−3:omega−6 fatty acids directly affects the type of eicosanoids that are produced.
Oe, H., Hozumi, T., Murata, E., Matsuura, H., Negishi, K., Matsumura, Y., Iwata, S., Ogawa, K., Sugioka, K., Takemoto, Y., Shimada, K., Yoshiyama, M., Ishikura, Y., Kiso, Y., and Yoshikawa, J. Arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases coronary flow velocity reserve in Japanese elderly individuals. Heart 2008;94(3):316-321. 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."
Humans can convert short-chain omega−3 fatty acids to long-chain forms (EPA, DHA) with an efficiency below 5%. The omega−3 conversion efficiency is greater in women than in men, but less studied. Higher ALA and DHA values found in plasma phospholipids of women may be due to the higher activity of desaturases, especially that of delta-6-desaturase.
Your concerns are very valid. The quality of commercially available omega-3 preparations can vary greatly. In our clinical trials we use preparations made by reputable manufacturers with high standards. We also have the preparations analyzed by 2 independent labs to confirm omega-3 content, impurities, and degree of oxidation, prior to initiating the study. While omega-3 fatty acids–like most nutrients–are ideally obtained through dietary practice, because many people may not enjoy omega-3 containing foods, supplements may be a good option for these individuals. Anyone who is interested in using an omega-3 preparation for treating a psychiatric condition should do so preferably under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
Gerber, J. G., Kitch, D. W., Fichtenbaum, C. J., Zackin, R. A., Charles, S., Hogg, E., Acosta, E. P., Connick, E., Wohl, D., Kojic, E. M., Benson, C. A., and Aberg, J. A. Fish oil and fenofibrate for the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia in HIV-infected subjects on antiretroviral therapy: results of ACTG A5186. J.Acquir.Immune.Defic.Syndr. 4-1-2008;47(4):459-466. View abstract.
DHA is vital for early brain development and maintenance, while EPA seems to be closely related to behavior and mood. Together, both molecules provide critical neuroprotective benefits.11 These neuroprotective effects are important for the prevention of age-related brain shrinkage (cortical atrophy). Aging adults with brain shrinkage often experience memory loss, cognitive decline, and an increase in depression.12-14
To evaluate the potential placebo effect, we made further subgrouping analyses. In the subgroups of studies using placebo controls, the omega-3 PUFAs still revealed a consistent positive anxiolytic association with anxiety symptoms. These phenomena meant that the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs is probably not entirely owing to the placebo effect.
Your retina contains quite a bit of DHA, making it necessary for that fatty acid to function. (90) The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, concludes that there is “consistent evidence” suggesting long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and EPA are necessary for retinal health and may help protect the eyes from disease. (91)
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.
The number, location, and orientation of the double bonds determine the health effects of fatty acids on the body. One aspect of this is their effect on triglycerides and LDL and HDL types of cholesterol, which in turn affect how much cholesterol gets deposited on the inside of blood vessels. There are also subtypes of LDL and HDL which are also likely important to their health effects.
Various scales were used in these studies to evaluate the target outcome of anxiety symptoms: the Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale, Profile of Mood States, State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale, Generalized Anxiety Disorder questionnaire, Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scales, Clinician-Administered Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Scale, Beck Anxiety Inventory, visual analog scale of anxiety, Impact of Event Scale–Revised, Conners score anxiety subscale, Neuropsychiatric Inventory, test anxiety severity, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale anxiety subscale, and Child Behavior Checklist anxiety subscale. The psychiatric and physical health conditions of the recruited participants also varied widely: general population without specific clinical conditions,36,47,51,55,60 participants with acute myocardial infarction,35 borderline personality disorder,2 mild to severe depression,59 obsessive-compulsive disorder,33 severe accidental injury,49 participants who were traumatized by disaster,54 participants with substance abuse disorder,34 women with premenstrual syndrome,56 children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,48,53 Alzheimer disease,58 generally healthy undergraduate college students but with test anxiety,61 Parkinson disease,52 and participants with Tourette syndrome.57 Sixteen studies compared the effect of omega-3 PUFA treatment with that of the placebo33,34,36,47-49,51-53,55-61; the other 3 studies were non–placebo controlled trials.35,50,54 The mean (SD) Jadad score of the recruited studies was 3.8 (1.0) (eTable in the Supplement).
Several other analyses of the evidence have been done in the last few years (2012 or later), and like the 2018 analysis and the AHRQ report, most found little or no evidence for a protective effect of omega-3 supplements against heart disease. However, some earlier analyses suggested that omega-3s could be helpful. The difference between the newer conclusions and the older ones may reflect two changes over time:
There is some evidence that omega−3 fatty acids are related to mental health, including that they may tentatively be useful as an add-on for the treatment of depression associated with bipolar disorder. Significant benefits due to EPA supplementation were only seen, however, when treating depressive symptoms and not manic symptoms suggesting a link between omega−3 and depressive mood. There is also preliminary evidence that EPA supplementation is helpful in cases of depression. The link between omega−3 and depression has been attributed to the fact that many of the products of the omega−3 synthesis pathway play key roles in regulating inflammation (such as prostaglandin E3) which have been linked to depression. This link to inflammation regulation has been supported in both in vitro and in vivo studies as well as in meta-analysis studies. The exact mechanism in which omega−3 acts upon the inflammatory system is still controversial as it was commonly believed to have anti-inflammatory effects.
So back to fish oil in general. The major fish oil benefits include decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke while also helping reduce symptoms of depression, hypertension, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain, arthritis and chronic skin ailments like eczema. (2) Fish oil intake has also been associated with aiding the body in weight loss, fertility, pregnancy and increased energy. Prescription fish oil has even been approved by the FDA to lower unhealthy high triglyceride levels. (3)
Human growth and intellectual development – DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increase 300 to 500 percent in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy. Adding DHA to a pregnant mother’s diet may be beneficial for the fetus’s brain development. Elderly people should also take EPA DHA, because as we get older, our bodies form less EPA and DHA, which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Taking EPA DHA also may help with mental abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The omega-3 PUFA EPA and DHA are important throughout life and are a dietary necessity found predominantly in fish and fish-oil supplements. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are essential for proper fetal development, and supplementation during pregnancy has also been linked to decreased immune responses in infants including decreased incidence of allergies in infants. Omega-3 fatty acid consumption has been associated with improved cardiovascular function in terms of antiinflammatory properties, PAD, reduced major coronary events, and improved antiplatelet effects in the face of aspirin resistance or clopidogrel hyporesponsiveness. Patients with AD have been shown to be deficient in DHA, and supplementing them with EPA+DHA not only reverses this deficiency, but may also improve cognitive functioning in patients with very mild AD. With increasing rates of pediatric allergies, cardiovascular disease, and AD in the United States, EPA and DHA may be a safe and inexpensive link to a healthier life. Further research should be conducted in humans to assess a variety of clinical outcomes including quality of life and mental status. In addition, because potent lipid mediator metabolites of EPA and DHA are of great interest currently, their influence on these important outcomes should be assessed because current evidence suggests that their antiinflammatory and tissue-protective effects are nearly 1000 times greater than those of EPA and DHA (7).
For several years now, the fish oil and Alzheimer’s disease connection has been studied with consistent results. The essential fatty acids vital for brain function that are found in fish oil can not only slow cognitive decline, but can help prevent brain atrophy in older adults. A study published in the FASEB Journal looked at the health effects of four- to 17-month dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. The findings once again confirm the potential for fish oil to be used as a weapon to fend off the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. (8)
Omega-3 fats may also impact the development of arthritis. As far back as 1959, studies were published about the effectiveness of cod liver oil on arthritic patients. In the 1959 study, 93 percent of participants “showed major clinical improvement.” (73) While there is no evidence that high omega-3 levels can prevent the development of arthritis, it seems clear that they can reduce inflammation that causes the typical bone and joint pain experienced in the disease. (74)
For preventing and reversing the progression of hardening of the arteries after angioplasty: 6 grams of fish oil daily starting one month before angioplasty and continuing for one months after, followed by 3 grams daily for 6 months thereafter has been used. Also, 15 grams of fish oil has been taken daily for 3 weeks before angioplasty and for 6 months thereafter.