The 'essential' fatty acids were given their name when researchers found that they are essential to normal growth in young children and animals. The omega−3 fatty acid DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is found in high abundance in the human brain. It is produced by a desaturation process, but humans lack the desaturase enzyme, which acts to insert double bonds at the ω6 and ω3 position. Therefore, the ω6 and ω3 polyunsaturated fatty acids cannot be synthesized and are appropriately called essential fatty acids.
Scientific studies have found that fish oil can help to prevent and kill various cancers, including colon, prostate and breast. (13a) Not only has research proven that it makes conventional cancer drugs more effective, but it’s also an effective stand-alone therapy in natural cancer treatment. Intravenous fish oil lipid emulsions, in particular, are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which exhibit anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects. (13b)
Weimann, A., Bastian, L., Bischoff, W. E., Grotz, M., Hansel, M., Lotz, J., Trautwein, C., Tusch, G., Schlitt, H. J., and Regel, G. Influence of arginine, omega-3 fatty acids and nucleotide-supplemented enteral support on systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multiple organ failure in patients after severe trauma. Nutrition 1998;14(2):165-172. View abstract.
Dry eye disease occurs when tears don’t provide enough moisture, causing eye discomfort and vision problems. Some studies show that getting more omega-3s from foods or supplements—mainly EPA and DHA—helps relieve symptoms of dry eye disease. But a large, recent study found that the symptoms of people with dry eye disease who took fish oil supplements of 2,000 mg EPA plus 1,000 mg DHA daily for 1 year did not improve any more than those who took a placebo (a dummy pill). More research on the effects of omega-3s on dry eye disease is needed.
DHA is especially vital for infant and child brain and nervous system development, as well as visual function. In older children, high DHA levels have been shown to improve learning ability, while deficiencies have been linked to learning problems and ADHD. And in adults, some studies have shown that DHA helps protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
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.
The FDA recommends that consumers do not exceed more than three grams per day of EPA and DHA combined, with no more than 2 grams from a dietary supplement. This is not the same as 3000 mg of fish oil. A 1000 mg pill typically has only 300 mg of omega-3; 10 such pills would equal 3000 mg of omega-3. According to the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies, supplementation of 5 grams of EPA and DHA combined does not pose a safety concern for adults. Dyerberg studied healthy Greenland Inuit and found an average intake of 5.7 grams of omega-3 EPA per day; among other effects these people had prolonged bleeding times, i.e., slower blood clotting.
However, in both observational studies and controlled clinical trials, eating fish was shown to foster optimal development of a baby’s brain and nervous system, prompting advice that pregnant women and nursing mothers eat more fish rich in omega-3s while avoiding species that may contain mercury or other contaminants like PCBs sometimes found in freshwater fish.
Chemical structure of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega−3 fatty acid, (18:3Δ9c,12c,15c, which means a chain of 18 carbons with 3 double bonds on carbons numbered 9, 12, and 15). Although chemists count from the carbonyl carbon (blue numbering), biologists count from the n (ω) carbon (red numbering). Note that, from the n end (diagram right), the first double bond appears as the third carbon-carbon bond (line segment), hence the name "n-3". This is explained by the fact that the n end is almost never changed during physiological transformations in the human body, as it is more energy-stable, and other compounds can be synthesized from the other carbonyl end, for example in glycerides, or from double bonds in the middle of the chain.
Dr. Holub has provided the questions and answers for several emails he has received over the years regarding omega-3 fatty acids for health. If you have a question regarding omega-3, it is likely that Dr. Holub has answered it either here in this section, or elsewhere on the site (e.g. check the scientific overview section for general questions regarding omega-3). To quickly find your answer, please use our search bar located in the top right section of this page. After searching our site, and you still cannot find the answer to your question, we invite you to ask Dr. Holub a question here.
Studies have also found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are associated with improved survival rates for heart attack victims. A study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took a high dose of fish oil each for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation. (20)
In addition, there was no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs and those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the adolescent subgroup (aged <18 years) (k, 3; Hedges g, 0.020; 95% CI, –0.209 to 0.250; P = .86),48,53,57 in the adult subgroup (aged ≥18 years but <60 years) (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.388; 95% CI, –0.012 to 0.788; P = .06),33,35,36,47,49-51,54-56,59 or in the elderly subgroup (aged ≥60 years) (k, 3; Hedges g, –0.112; 95% CI, –0.406 to 0.181; P = .45).52,58,60 These insignificant results might be due to the smaller sample sizes in each subgroup.
A 2009 metastudy found that patients taking omega-3 supplements with a higher EPA:DHA ratio experienced fewer depressive symptoms. The studies provided evidence that EPA may be more efficacious than DHA in treating depression. However, this metastudy concluded that due to the identified limitations of the included studies, larger, randomized trials are needed to confirm these findings.
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.
Animal studies show potent reduction of liver fat stores, glucose levels, and cholesterol levels in mice supplemented with krill oil while being fed a high fat diet.64,65 While many of these effects are seen with fish oil as well, studies show that krill oil, with its unique phospholipid structure, had the added benefit of increasing fat-burning in mitochondria while reducing new glucose production in the liver.66,67 As with so many other complex disease processes, utilizing multiple pathways to reduce disease is a highly effective strategy.67
Another study conducted by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital examined the relationship between fish oil supplementation and indicators of cognitive decline. The subjects of the study were older adults: 229 cognitively normal individuals, 397 patients with mild cognitive impairment and 193 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They were assessed with neuropsychological tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging every six months while taking fish oil supplements. The study found that the adults taking fish oil (who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s and did not have genetic risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s known as APOE ε4) experienced significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage than adults not taking fish oil. (9)
You “beat me to the punch.” despite labels, cured meats , aged fats, as well as those heated to a high enough temperature all have trans bonds. Fish that offer high amounts of Omega-3 also often are high in mercury. I was fortunate to have a very good teacher for experimental design. One should be careful to assume that a study actually measures what it claims to and without “confounders” Confounders are parts of the study that complicate the the “logic” of the design. Also, were other fat contents measured or controlled? It would be reasonable to suspect that those with higher levels of Omega-3 could have higher levels of Omega-6, fats in general , High levels of protein, higher levels of testosterone, or lower levels of certain hormones. In addition, statistical studies do not and have never indicated a causal relationship. I have a fear of how much we have begun to rely on statistical correlational studies which are at the end of the day”soft” science.
My estimate is that close to 90 percent of fish oils on the market today may contain mercury and pesticide residues plus hydrogenated oils. Of course, this is my opinion based on my own research from visiting different manufacturing plants, interviewing companies, and studying the research and the listed ingredients of typical fish oils. I would stay away from ALL fish oils that do not have antioxidants like astaxanthin, which help stabilize the oil from going rancid. I always look for astaxanthin as part of any high-quality fish oil supplement.
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).
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
6. Krauss-Etschmann S, Shadid R, Campoy C, Hoster E, Demmelmair H, Jimenez M, Gil A, Rivero M, Veszpremi B, Decsi T, et al. Effects of fish-oil and folate supplementation of pregnant women on maternal and fetal plasma concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid: a European randomized multicenter trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1392–400. [PubMed]
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)
Doses for depression range from less than 1 g/day to 10 g/day, but most studies use doses between 1 and 2 g/day. In my practice, I recommend 1 to 2 g/day of an EPA+DHA combination, with at least 60% EPA, for major depression. I am more cautious in patients with bipolar depression, because the omega-3s may bring on mania, as can most antidepressants. In these individuals, I recommend using omega-3 cautiously, and preferably in combination with a prescription mood stabilizer.
Nakamura, N., Hamazaki, T., Ohta, M., Okuda, K., Urakaze, M., Sawazaki, S., Yamazaki, K., Satoh, A., Temaru, R., Ishikura, Y., Takata, M., Kishida, M., and Kobayashi, M. Joint effects of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors and eicosapentaenoic acids on serum lipid profile and plasma fatty acid concentrations in patients with hyperlipidemia. Int J Clin Lab Res 1999;29(1):22-25. View abstract.
Because of the preliminary state of knowledge on the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety, we decided to include as many studies as possible and not to set further limitations on specific characteristics, such as length of study, diagnosis, omega-3 PUFA dosage, omega-3 PUFA preparation (EPA to DHA ratio), rated anxiety coding scale, or type of control. Therefore, we chose to make the inclusion criteria as broad as possible to avoid missing any potentially eligible studies. The inclusion criteria included clinical trials in humans (randomized or nonrandomized), studies investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms, and formal published articles in peer-reviewed journals. The clinical trials could be placebo controlled or non–placebo controlled. The target participants could include healthy volunteers, patients with psychiatric illness, and patients with physical illnesses other than psychiatric illnesses. The exclusion criteria included case reports or series, animal studies or review articles, and studies not investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms. We did not set any language limitation to increase the number of eligible articles. Figure 1 shows the literature search and screening protocol.
About the only exception are wild-caught Alaskan salmon and very small fish like sardines. The highest concentrations of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish like tuna, sea bass, and marlin. You may need to be especially cautious of canned tuna as well, as independent testing by the Mercury Policy Project found that the average mercury concentration in canned tuna is far over the "safe limits" of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Joensen, A. M., Schmidt, E. B., Dethlefsen, C., Johnsen, S. P., Tjonneland, A., Rasmussen, L. H., and Overvad, K. Dietary intake of total marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid and docosapentaenoic acid and the risk of acute coronary syndrome - a cohort study. Br J Nutr 2010;103(4):602-607. View abstract.
A number of trials have found that omega-3 PUFAs might reduce anxiety under serious stressful situations. Case-controlled studies have shown low peripheral omega-3 PUFA levels in patients with anxiety disorders.27-31 A cohort study found that high serum EPA levels were associated with protection against posttraumatic stress disorder.32 In studies of therapeutic interventions, while a randomized clinical trial of adjunctive EPA treatment in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder revealed that EPA augmentation had no beneficial effect on symptoms of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsiveness,33 a randomized clinical trial involving participants with substance abuse showed that EPA and DHA administration was accompanied by significant decreases in anger and anxiety scores compared with placebo.34 In addition, a randomized clinical trial found that omega-3 PUFAs had additional effects on decreasing depressive and anxiety symptoms in patients with acute myocardial infarction,35 and a randomized clinical trial demonstrated that omega-3 PUFAs could reduce inflammation and anxiety among healthy young adults facing a stressful major examination.36 Despite the largely positive findings of these trials, the clinical application of the findings is unfortunately limited by their small sample sizes.
Muñoz MA, Liu W, Delaney JA, Brown E, Mugavero MJ, Mathews WC, Napravnik S, Willig JH, Eron JJ, Hunt PW, Kahn JO, Saag MS, Kitahata MM, Crane HM. Comparative effectiveness of fish oil versus fenofibrate, gemfibrozil, and atorvastatin on lowering triglyceride levels among HIV-infected patients in routine clinical care. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2013;64(3):254-60. View abstract.
Typical Western diets provide ratios of between 10:1 and 30:1 (i.e., dramatically higher levels of omega−6 than omega−3). The ratios of omega−6 to omega−3 fatty acids in some common vegetable oils are: canola 2:1, hemp 2–3:1, soybean 7:1, olive 3–13:1, sunflower (no omega−3), flax 1:3, cottonseed (almost no omega−3), peanut (no omega−3), grapeseed oil (almost no omega−3) and corn oil 46:1.
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Katzman MA, Bleau P, Blier P, et al; Canadian Anxiety Guidelines Initiative Group on behalf of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada/Association Canadienne des troubles anxieux and McGill University. Canadian clinical practice guidelines for the management of anxiety, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders. BMC Psychiatry. 2014;14(suppl 1):S1. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-S1-S1PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc. have demonstrated EPA to be superior to DHA (5).
Pay attention to the quality of fish oil when purchasing it. It is obtained from almost all fishes – fresh water, farm, ocean, deep sea and shallow sea fish. All these fishes can be contaminated with toxic compounds such as mercury, arsenic, lead, forms of calcium, furans, dioxins, PCBs, and methylmercury, and can negatively affect the human body. Therefore, the fish oil used must be pure. Many companies sell ultra refined or distilled fish oil, but you should always check if the standards have been followed and research on the company or the product before adding it to your diet.
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, eating 8 to 12 ounces per week of fish and other seafood may improve your baby’s health. However, it is important to choose fish that are higher in EPA and DHA and lower in mercury. Examples are salmon, herring, sardines, and trout. It is not clear whether taking dietary supplements containing EPA and DHA during pregnancy or breastfeeding affects a baby’s health or development. However, some studies show that taking these supplements may slightly increase a baby’s weight at birth and the length of time the baby is in the womb, both of which may be beneficial. Breast milk contains DHA. Most commercial infant formulas also contain DHA.
In some cases, fish oil pills may cause loose stools, nausea, diarrhea, and decreased appetite, fat in the stools, vomiting or constipation. These side effects can be minimized by taking a fish oil capsule that is coated, which is designed to help eliminate the "fish burps" many users complain about. Starting with low doses of the supplement and working up to a full dose can also help minimize side effects. You can also pair fish oil supplements with meals so that they enter your body more slowly, minimizing the risk of side effects occurring.
Marchioli, R., Barzi, F., Bomba, E., Chieffo, C., Di, Gregorio D., Di, Mascio R., Franzosi, M. G., Geraci, E., Levantesi, G., Maggioni, A. P., Mantini, L., Marfisi, R. M., Mastrogiuseppe, G., Mininni, N., Nicolosi, G. L., Santini, M., Schweiger, C., Tavazzi, L., Tognoni, G., Tucci, C., and Valagussa, F. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction: time-course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto Miocardico (GISSI)-Prevenzione. Circulation 4-23-2002;105(16):1897-1903. View abstract.
Bemelmans, W. J., Broer, J., Feskens, E. J., Smit, A. J., Muskiet, F. A., Lefrandt, J. D., Bom, V. J., May, J. F., and Meyboom-de Jong, B. Effect of an increased intake of alpha-linolenic acid and group nutritional education on cardiovascular risk factors: the Mediterranean Alpha-linolenic Enriched Groningen Dietary Intervention (MARGARIN) study. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;75(2):221-227. View abstract.
Fortier, M., Tremblay-Mercier, J., Plourde, M., Chouinard-Watkins, R., Vandal, M., Pifferi, F., Freemantle, E., and Cunnane, S. C. Higher plasma n-3 fatty acid status in the moderately healthy elderly in southern Quebec: higher fish intake or aging-related change in n-3 fatty acid metabolism? Prostaglandins Leukot.Essent.Fatty Acids 2010;82(4-6):277-280. View abstract.
Children: Fish oil is POSSIBLY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Fish oil has been used safely through feeding tubes in infants for up to 9 months. But young children should not eat more than two ounces of fish per week. Fish oil is also POSSIBLY SAFE when given in the vein by a health care professional to infants who cannot take food by mouth. Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when consumed from dietary sources in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury. Eating contaminated fish frequently can cause brain damage, mental retardation, blindness and seizures in children.