At SelfHacked, it’s our goal to offer our readers all the tools possible to get optimally healthy. When I was struggling with chronic health issues I felt stuck because I didn’t have any tools to help me get better. I had to spend literally thousands of hours trying to read through studies on pubmed to figure out how the body worked and how to fix it.
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
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Omega-3 fatty acids get a fair amount of time in the press and a great deal of respect at this point. But do you know what omega-3s are? What omega-3 benefits could convince you to add more oily fish (or maybe a supplement) to your diet? Are omega-3 foods really that big of a deal when it comes to eating a nutrient-dense diet? Could you be deficient in these fatty acids?
People with metabolic syndrome (the combination of central obesity, high blood pressure, disturbed lipid profile, and impaired glucose tolerance) are at increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and other apparently “age-related” disorders. Because metabolic syndrome is closely associated with chronic low-grade inflammation, the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fats are especially important as a means of slowing or stopping the progression of this deadly disorder.
The effect of fish oil on incident atrial fibrillation has not been studied in large randomized trials, and observational population-based trials show mixed results. The Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study, and the Rotterdam Study followed 47,000 and 5100 middle-aged adults, respectively.45,46 Neither study found that the consumption of fish oil affected the incidence of atrial fibrillation. Similar findings were seen in the Women’s Health Initiative where there was no association between fish and omega-3 FA intake regarding incident atrial fibrillation.47 However, in a 12-year prospective, observational study of 4815 adults over the age of 65, daily fish consumption was associated with a 31% risk reduction in incident atrial fibrillation.48
There have been numerous clinical trials looking mainly at death, stroke, and cardiac outcomes related to omega 3 consumption, either in food or in supplements. Now the Cochrane Library has published the largest systematic review of these studies to date. Unfortunately, the review shows little benefit from consuming omega 3 fatty acid. This is a fairly extensive review with good statistical power:
Dornstauder, B., Suh, M., Kuny, S., Gaillard, F., MacDonald, I., Michael T. Clandinin, M. T., & Sauvé, Y. (2012, June). Dietary docosahexaenoic acid supplementation prevents age-related functional losses and A2E accumulation in the retina. Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science. Retrieved from http://iovs.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2188773
While I think the article is good, it does not tell the reader that most of fish oil capsules sold over the counter are unregulated, and contain widely different ingredients and potency levels. They are mostly a waste of money. If you have health concerns, you need to consult an MD or a Registered Dietitian. Not a naturopath, homeopath, or other pseudoscience practitioner. Eat a diet rich in whole grains, nuts, and some oily fish. I take a multivitamin supplement made by CVS, formulated for my gender and age. Not from the food supplement shelves, which are unregulated, and might contain anything at all, or nothing but vegetable oil or cornstarch.
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.
Reduce Metabolic Syndrome Symptoms: The cluster of risk factors known as metabolic syndrome includes abdominal obesity, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and low HDL cholesterol. These risk factors are indicative of a high chance you might develop heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Multiple studies have found omega-3 supplementation improve the symptoms of metabolic syndrome and may help to protect you from the related diseases. (22, 23, 24, 25)
16. Saito Y, Yokoyama M, Origasa H, Matsuzaki M, Matsuzawa Y, Ishikawa Y, Oikawa S, Sasaki J, Hishida H, Itakura H, et al. Effects of EPA on coronary artery disease in hypercholesterolemic patients with multiple risk factors: sub-analysis of primary prevention cases from the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS). Atherosclerosis. 2008;200:135–40. [PubMed]
Fish oil is also extremely beneficial for pregnant women and their children. Throughout pregnancy and also while breastfeeding, a woman’s omega-3 needs are even higher than usual. According to the American Pregnancy Association, most U.S. women are deficient in EPA and especially DHA going into pregnancy and get even more depleted during pregnancy, as the placenta supplies the fetus with DHA from the mother’s tissue. Omega-3 DHA is a critical building block of the fetal brain, eyes and nervous system. Once the baby is born, omega-3s continue to be vital to healthy brain development and immune function. (30)
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.
Pumps the Heart: Where to begin? Omega-3s reduce triglycerides, stabilize your heartbeat, make platelets "less sticky" and can even lower blood pressure. The EPA you get with your daily DHA dose helps prevent artery-blocking clots. In the Iowa Nurses Study (and 3 others), 1 ounce of nuts a day decreased the incidence of heart disease between 20 and 60 percent.
*Swordfish contains high levels of mercury, as does shark, king mackerel, and tilefish (sometimes called golden bass or golden snapper). Women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should avoid these high-mercury species of fish, but can eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
Unsafe for children. Fish oil supplements are not considered safe for children. Too much of this fat in their system can lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain which could stunt healthy growth and development. Because of this, and the possible exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, methylmercury and other toxins which are found in some sources of fish, it is not recommended that women who are pregnant take excessive amounts of fish oil. Servings of fish should be limited to six ounces per week and they should refrain from using fish oil or other fatty acid supplement pills. Children should not consume more than two ounces of fish per week to avoid overexposure to these chemicals. Now you know although fish oil can benefit human beings a lot, fish oil side effects should never be neglected for the sake of your safety.
Another recent study shows that fatty fish consumption can cut the risk of eye-diabetes complications. The researches tracked the seafood consumption of about 3,600 diabetic men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 for nearly five years. The researchers found that people who regularly consumed 500 milligrams each day of omega-3 fatty acid in their diets (equal to two servings of fatty fish per week) were 48 percent less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than those who consumed less. (23)
In recent years, many people – particularly those who strictly follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – have believed that they do not have to consume animal products to get omega-3s, as long as they are consuming high amounts of plant-based omega-3s. But, as I mentioned before, most of the health benefits that you can get from omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based EPA and DHA fats – not plant-based ALA. They are simply NOT interchangeable.
Hooper, L., Thompson, R. L., Harrison, R. A., Summerbell, C. D., Ness, A. R., Moore, H. J., Worthington, H. V., Durrington, P. N., Higgins, J. P., Capps, N. E., Riemersma, R. A., Ebrahim, S. B., and Davey, Smith G. Risks and benefits of omega 3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review. BMJ 4-1-2006;332(7544):752-760. View abstract.
Macchia, A., Levantesi, G., Franzosi, M. G., Geraci, E., Maggioni, A. P., Marfisi, R., Nicolosi, G. L., Schweiger, C., Tavazzi, L., Tognoni, G., Valagussa, F., and Marchioli, R. Left ventricular systolic dysfunction, total mortality, and sudden death in patients with myocardial infarction treated with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Eur.J.Heart Fail. 2005;7(5):904-909. View abstract.
Keep in mind that APA found in plant-based foods takes a lot of energy for your body to convert to EPA and DHA. I understand that many people following a vegan diet struggle with the concept of fish oil or eating fish, but animal products contain the necessary omega-3 fatty acids to allow your body to absorb and synthesize what you take in. However, there are plant-based options — you’ll just need more APA because of the way your body processes the medium-chain fatty acid.
Mozaffarian D, Marchioli R, Macchia A, Silletta MG, Ferrazzi P, Gardner TJ, Latini R, Libby P, Lombardi F, O'Gara PT, Page RL, Tavazzi L, Tognoni G; OPERA Investigators. Fish oil and postoperative atrial fibrillation: the Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Prevention of Post-operative Atrial Fibrillation (OPERA) randomized trial. JAMA 2012;308(19):2001-11. View abstract.
Thanks to fatdog11 for that informative post about PCB’s in fish-oil supplements. Are these same toxicity levels found in fish themselves, or possibly are these levels so high only in highly concentrated fish-oil products? Also, can fatdog11 please inform us more about algae-derived omega-3. What are the DHA and EPA levels in these capsules? What is the cost, and where can they be purchased?
Not all forms of fish oil may be equally digestible. Of four studies that compare bioavailability of the glyceryl ester form of fish oil vs. the ethyl ester form, two have concluded the natural glyceryl ester form is better, and the other two studies did not find a significant difference. No studies have shown the ethyl ester form to be superior, although it is cheaper to manufacture.
As mentioned above, the omega-3 index has been suggested as a predictor of the risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular events. One study on a population in Seattle found that people with low omega-3 index levels were 10 times as likely to die from sudden cardiac death compared to people with higher omega-3 index levels (13). The NIH-funded Framingham study referenced above showed that the people with the highest omega-3 index levels had a 33% reduction in risk of death from any cause compared to the people with the lowest levels (2). In addition, a new study focused on individuals age 25 to 41 found that higher omega-3 index levels were associated with lower blood pressure in healthy adults (14).
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:
People who eat seafood rich in EPA and DHA at least once a week are less likely to die of heart disease, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The fatty acids may also be helpful in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Fish oil has been rated as "Effective" by MedlinePlus for lowering high triglycerides, which can be a major risk factor for heart disease. Fish oil has been rated as "Likely Effective" for keeping healthy hearts free of disease. Although eating baked or broiled fish can reduce the risk of heart disease, fried fish or fish sandwiches not only cancel out any heart-healthy benefits, but may also contribute to heart disease, MedlinePlus notes.
Among the 16 studies comparing the effect of omega-3 PUFA treatment with that of the placebo,33,34,36,47-49,51-53,55-61 the main results revealed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 16; Hedges g, 0.372; 95% CI, 0.032-0.712; P = .03; eFigure 3 in the Supplement). The meta-analysis of the subgroup focusing on non–placebo-controlled trials also showed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 3; Hedges g, 0.399; 95% CI, 0.154-0.643; P = .001).35,50,54
Gorjao, R., Verlengia, R., Lima, T. M., Soriano, F. G., Boaventura, M. F., Kanunfre, C. C., Peres, C. M., Sampaio, S. C., Otton, R., Folador, A., Martins, E. F., Curi, T. C., Portiolli, E. P., Newsholme, P., and Curi, R. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil supplementation on human leukocyte function. Clin Nutr 2006;25(6):923-938. View abstract.
Jump up ^ Bloch MH, Qawasmi A (October 2011). "Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for the treatment of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptomatology: systematic review and meta-analysis". Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 50 (10): 991–1000. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2011.06.008. PMC 3625948. PMID 21961774.
Conflicts of interest comprise financial interests, activities, and relationships within the past 3 years including but not limited to employment, affiliation, grants or funding, consultancies, honoraria or payment, speaker's bureaus, stock ownership or options, expert testimony, royalties, donation of medical equipment, or patents planned, pending, or issued.
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.
Fish or seafood allergy: Some people who are allergic to seafood such as fish might also be allergic to fish oil supplements. There is no reliable information showing how likely people with seafood allergy are to have an allergic reaction to fish oil. Until more is known, advise patients allergic to seafood to avoid or use fish oil supplements cautiously.