Omega−3 fatty acids are important for normal metabolism. Mammals are unable to synthesize omega−3 fatty acids, but can obtain the shorter-chain omega−3 fatty acid ALA (18 carbons and 3 double bonds) through diet and use it to form the more important long-chain omega−3 fatty acids, EPA (20 carbons and 5 double bonds) and then from EPA, the most crucial, DHA (22 carbons and 6 double bonds). The ability to make the longer-chain omega−3 fatty acids from ALA may be impaired in aging. In foods exposed to air, unsaturated fatty acids are vulnerable to oxidation and rancidity.
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.
Bo and I worked with Dr. Harris many years ago to measure the impact of eating one Omega Cookie® daily on the study participants’ omega-3 index levels, and we recently ran into him at ISFFAL. At the conference, we remeasured our omega-3 index and omega-6/omega-3 ratios, and a few weeks later, we got our results in the mail. For the two of us, it was exciting to get another concrete measure of how our daily omega-3 consumption impacted our scores. For the record, we take one vial of Omega Restore™ per night and frequently sneak an Omega Heaven® or Omega Cookie during the day.
Secondary prevention fish oil studies demonstrate a significant reduction in MI. But unfortunately, both the observational and randomized trials were conducted in an era before the widespread use of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, and therefore, the incremental benefit is still unknown. Nevertheless, in patients receiving antiplatelet and anticoagulant therapy in addition to fish oil supplementation (even at doses as high as 4 g per day), no serious adverse complications have been reported.
A tremendous body of research has been conducted on these important nutrients since it was first discovered in the 1950s that fish oil offered many health benefits and that these benefits were attributable to a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. Despite the volumes of research on omega-3s, it is only in recent years (within the last 15 years or so) that the actions of EPA and DHA have come to be understood individually. Researchers now often investigate the actions of EPA and DHA individually rather than together, no longer simply under the generic label omega-3 as they are widely referred to.
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.
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?
In addition to depression, chronic stress leads to loss of volume of the hippocampus—and also causes enlargement of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates anxiety and anger.24 When rats were supplemented with omega-3s during exposure to stress, they showed lower corticosterone levels (a marker of stress), and improved learning on a maze—indicating that the omega-3s helped preserve memory and reduce anxiety.24
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.
Metagenics offers a wide range of educational opportunities including webinars, group meetings, and seminars as part of our commitment to continuing functional medicine education. Our goal is to give our practitioners further insight to help address their patients’ unique health needs for a higher level of personalized, lifetime wellness care. We have been sharing this ever-growing body of nutritional and lifestyle research for over 25 years.
A 2012 study involved children from 6 to 12 years of age with ADHD who were being treated with methylphenidate and standard behavior therapy for more than six months. The parents of these children reported no improvement in behavior and academic learning using these standard treatments. The researchers randomly gave some of the children an omega-3 and omega-6 acid supplementation or a placebo. They found “statistically significant improvement” for the omega group in the following categories: restlessness, aggressiveness, completing work and academic performance. (5)
Today the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved form of dietary omega-3 FA supplement is Lovaza (omega-3-acid ethyl esters; GlaxoSmithKline), which contains 375 mg of DHA and 465 mg of EPA per 1 g capsule. The myriad of dietary supplements of fish oil, including Kosher capsules, vary from comparable content to insignificant amounts, and for the most part can include other fats and cholesterols. In comparison, to achieve approximately 1 g of EPA and DHA in a meal, 12 ounces of canned light tuna, 2 to 3 ounces of sardines, 1.5 to 2.5 ounces of farmed Atlantic salmon, or 20 ounces of farmed catfish must be consumed (Table 1).65 Unfortunately, potentially high levels of harmful pollutants offset this source of omega-3 FA. The FDA action level for unacceptably high mercury content in fish is 1.0 μg/g. The mercury level in most fish is at or below 0.1 μg/g, but tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel have high levels of mercury. The majority of fish species also contain <100 ng/g of polychlorinated biphenyls, which is below the FDA action level of 2000 ng/g. Dioxins, which do not have FDA action levels, are present in the majority of marine life.66
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential nutrients that have potential preventive and therapeutic effects on psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression,7-15 as well as comorbid depression and anxiety in physically ill patients,16-19 patients with coronary heart disease,20,21 and pregnant women.22,23 Preclinical data support the effectiveness of omega-3 PUFAs as treatment for anxiety disorders. Song et al24,25 found that an EPA-rich diet could reduce the development of anxiety-like behaviors in rats as well as normalize dopamine levels in the ventral striatum. In addition, Yamada et al26 showed that a high dietary omega-3 to omega-6 PUFA ratio reduced contextual fear behaviors in mice and that these effects were abolished by a cannabinoid CB1 receptor antagonist.
Several studies suggest that people suffering symptoms of depression and/or anxiety see improvement after adding an omega-3 supplement to their routine, even in double-blinded, randomized, controlled trials. (29, 30, 31, 32, 33) At least one study comparing a common depression medication found omega-3 supplements to be just as effective in combating depression symptoms. (34)
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.
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.
The current American diet has changed over time to be high in SFA and low in omega-3 fatty acids (12). This change in eating habits is centered on fast food containing high amounts of saturated fat, which has small amounts of essential omega-3 PUFA compared with food prepared in the home (13). Seafood sources such as fish and fish-oil supplements are the primary contributors of the 2 biologically important dietary omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA (14–16). This low intake of dietary EPA and DHA is thought to be associated with increased inflammatory processes as well as poor fetal development, general cardiovascular health, and risk of the development of Alzheimer's disease (AD).
They also found that taking more long-chain omega 3 fats (including EPA and DHA), primarily through supplements probably makes little or no difference to risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities. Long-chain omega 3 fats probably did reduce some blood fats, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. Reducing triglycerides is likely to be protective of heart diseases, but reducing HDL has the opposite effect. The researchers collected information on harms from the studies, but information on bleeding and blood clots was very limited.
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.
van der Meij, B. S., Langius, J. A., Smit, E. F., Spreeuwenberg, M. D., von Blomberg, B. M., Heijboer, A. C., Paul, M. A., and van Leeuwen, P. A. Oral nutritional supplements containing (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids affect the nutritional status of patients with stage III non-small cell lung cancer during multimodality treatment. J.Nutr. 2010;140(10):1774-1780. View abstract.
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.
As always with such trials, you can never prove zero benefit (or zero risk), but an essentially negative trial or meta-analysis sets statistical limits on the size of any remaining plausible effect. What we can now say with a fairly high degree of confidence is that any health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids is tiny, probably too small to warrant supplementing (or adding it to pasta).
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.