Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 38% of all deaths in the United States, many of which are preventable (28). Chronic inflammation is thought to be the cause of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease (29). EPA and DHA are thought to have antiinflammatory effects and a role in oxidative stress (30) and to improve cellular function through changes in gene expression (31). In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways, such as nuclear transcription factor κB signaling, eicosanoid synthesis, scavenger receptor activity, adipogenesis, and hypoxia signaling (31). Circulating markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), TNF α, and some ILs (IL-6, IL-1), correlate with an increased probability of experiencing a cardiovascular event (32). Inflammatory markers such as IL-6 trigger CRP to be synthesized by the liver, and elevated levels of CRP are associated with an increased risk of the development of cardiovascular disease (33). A study of 89 patients showed that those treated with EPA+DHA had a significant reduction in high-sensitivity CRP (66.7%, P < 0.01) (33). The same study also showed a significant reduction in heat shock protein 27 antibody titers (57.69%, P < 0.05), which have been shown to be overexpressed in heart muscle cells after a return of blood flow after a period of ischemia (ischemia-reperfusion injury) and may potentially have a cardioprotective effect (33).
In many cases, people are recommended to consume fish oil because it is an easy way to get additional omega-3 fatty acids into their diet. Omega-3 fats can be used to reduce swelling or to prevent blood clots which could cause major cardiovascular damage. There are many other conditions which can be decreased or improved with the use of fish oil. In most cases fish oil is used to help reduce high triglycerides which can cause serious conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
Cancer. Research on the effects of fish oil in preventing cancer has produced conflicting results. Some population research suggests that eating fish or having higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil is linked to a lower risk of different cancers, including oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer. But other research suggests that eating fish does not reduce the risk of cancer.
1. Omega-3 benefits your heart health. An Italian study (GISSI)5 of 11,324 heart attack survivors found that patients supplementing with fish oils markedly reduced their risk of another heart attack, stroke, or death. In a separate study, 6 American medical researchers reported that men who consumed fish once or more every week had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from a sudden cardiac event than do men who eat fish less than once a month.
I now suspect that those thousands of gel-covered capsules I’ve swallowed over the years may have done little more than enrich the pockets of supplement producers and sellers. A number of extensive analyses have been conducted, some supporting and others refuting the value of fish oils to the cardiovascular system, along with studies of other purported health benefits that also have had mixed results.
We are now fortunate to understand how these fats work in combination and in isolation, how they are digested, absorbed and utilised in the body, so we are able to tailor different blends of EPA and DHA according to the health benefits we are seeking to achieve. At Igennus, we have long specialised in the role of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA in clinical nutrition, as a powerful tool in the patient’s ‘toolkit’ for helping to regulate inflammation by restoring several biological markers, known as the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and AA to EPA ratio. Before we discuss the therapeutic role of EPA in nutritional medicine, here’s a very brief summary of the role of both EPA and DHA in health throughout life.
4. Omega-3 has been found to save the lives of children going through short bowel syndrome (SBS), which is uncommon but impacts thousands of people in the United States. SBS can occur from birth (when a portion of the intestine fails to develop) or due to an infectious inflammatory disease striking premature newborns. In adults, it can be caused by surgery for Crohn's disease or injury.
Protects Vision: Our eyes' retinas are a membranous structures and the whole eye is covered in a soft double layer of membranes, making your eyes' health dependent on the liver (who knew?). The liver helps metabolize fat-soluble vitamins that feed and maintain those membranes. If you're deficient in DHA, it affects how we see by delaying the system that converts light into neural energy in the retina.
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.
If you have a bleeding disorder, bruise easily or take blood-thinning medications, you should use fish oil supplements with extra caution since large doses of omega-3 fatty acids can increase bleeding risk. This bleeding risk also applies to people with no history of bleeding disorders or current medication usage. If you have type 2 diabetes, you should only use fish oil supplements under your doctor’s supervision. Individuals with type 2 diabetes can experience increases in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements.
Most U.S. adults fail to consume adequate amounts of foods rich in EPA and DHA on a regular basis (at least 8 ounces of fatty fish per week is recommended), and probably consume too many omega-6 fats in comparison (soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, etc.). This omega-3:omega-6 imbalance can have a negative effect on inflammation patterns and may also be implicated as a contributing factor to other processes related to cellular metabolism, hormone signaling, and even weight regulation.
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)
The human body does not produce significant amounts of EPA or DHA on its own, so you must get these important nutrients from the foods you eat and the supplements you consume. If you’re looking to get the heart health benefits of omega-3s, go straight to the source of EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are naturally found in marine sources, including fatty fish – salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring – shellfish, and marine algae.
Brussels sprouts are a cruciferous vegetable bursting with vitamin K, vitamin C, and a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids. With their strong flavor and smell, however, they’re not always loved (or even tolerated) by children or adults with ADHD. If someone in your house considers sprouts the enemy, try this recipe — honey, cranberries, and parmesan cheese give these Brussels sprouts a sweet and savory flavor that even picky eaters love.
Augood, C., Chakravarthy, U., Young, I., Vioque, J., de Jong, P. T., Bentham, G., Rahu, M., Seland, J., Soubrane, G., Tomazzoli, L., Topouzis, F., Vingerling, J. R., and Fletcher, A. E. Oily fish consumption, dietary docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid intakes, and associations with neovascular age-related macular degeneration. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88(2):398-406. View abstract.
In my opinion, the key benefit of DHA lies in its unique spatial characteristics. As mentioned earlier, the extra double bond (six in DHA vs. five in EPA) and increased carbon length (22 carbons in DHA vs. 20 in EPA) means that DHA takes up takes up a lot more space than does EPA in the membrane. Although this increase in spatial volume makes DHA a poor substrate for phospholipase A2 as well as the COX and LOX enzymes, it does a great job of making membranes (especially those in the brain) a lot more fluid as the DHA sweeps out a much greater volume in the membrane than does EPA. This increase in membrane fluidity is critical for synaptic vesicles and the retina of the eye as it allows receptors to rotate more effectively thus increasing the transmission of signals from the surface of the membrane to the interior of the nerve cells. This is why DHA is a critical component of these highly fluid portions of the nerves (7). On the other hand, the myelin membrane is essentially an insulator so that relatively little DHA is found in that part of the membrane.
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.
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.
Maternal nutrition guidelines have always stressed a diet including sufficient caloric and protein requirements, but recently fatty acids have also been deemed important (17). This is partially due to the fact that EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with multiple benefits for the infant (Table 1). During pregnancy, the placenta transfers nutrients, including DHA, from the mother to the fetus (18). The amount of omega-3 fatty acid in the fetus is correlated with the amount ingested by the mother, so it is essential that the mother has adequate nutrition (19). The 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dietary guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should “consume 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week from a variety of seafood types” (12). Ingesting 8–12 oz of seafood per week, depending on the type of fish, is equivalent to ∼300–900 mg EPA+DHA per day. Unfortunately, this amount is not being met by most mothers in the United States and Canada, which means that infants many not be receiving adequate amounts of these vital nutrients in the womb (20).
Some people who are hypersensitive to fish or have a known allergy to fish products may have a negative reaction to fatty acids which were derived from fish. Some fish oil tablets are also produced with alpha-linolenic acids which come from nuts, which may aggravate those which have an allergy to these products. In many cases these allergies will manifest themselves as a skin rash, but the symptoms could be more severe depending on the severity of your allergies. People with this concern will need to avoid using these products.
Australian researchers published results of a study examining the effects of fish oil on weight loss in combination with diet and exercise in the May 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The results show that a combination of fish oil supplements and regular exercise can reduce body fat while also improving heart and metabolic health. The fish supplementation group had lowered triglycerides, increased HDL cholesterol and improved blood flow. Overall, adding fish oil to a current exercise program (and a overall healthy lifestyle) looks like it can decrease body fat as well as cardiovascular disease risk. (32)
If you get your omega-3 index measured, you’ll know if your current efforts are sufficient. And this knowledge is especially important given that even health-conscious people are not always self-aware. One survey found that in a group of people with omega-3 index levels in the intermediate risk range, some 30% believed they were consuming enough omega-3s (11). One registered dietitian wrote a compelling story about exactly this experience. She discovered she was in the intermediate range, in spite of her intentions to eat enough fish.
Fish oil can be consumed in various ways such as capsules or can be included in daily meals. The dosage should not exceed 3 fish oil capsules per day. 1000mg of fish oil contains approximately 300mg omega-3 fatty acids so you can accordingly use the amount of fish oil in your meals. A daily intake of 3000mg or less is safe for all. Pregnant and lactating women can consume approximately 3200 mg per day.
Under these conditions, it may make sense to try fish oil even at higher doses than what I recommended. There is some evidence that krill oil will get the omega-3 fatty acids better into the brain in the psychiatric conditions that I listed. And there is some evidence that EPA-rich fish oils are better than DHA-rich fish oils for some of those psychiatric conditions as well. So there’s room to play around with the different possibilities if those things apply to you. But for the average case, limit the fish oil to 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined when you take it, but in all cases, go for food first, and go for fish oil only after you have exhausted those possibilities.
Secondly, when we consume EPA, it inhibits the production of AA from DGLA and also competes with AA for uptake into cell membranes and can therefore lower the amount of AA in membranes by literally saturating the cell – in essence, it takes up more of the available ‘space’ and displaces AA. When there is less AA present, there is a reduced capacity for it to produce inflammatory products.
Nielsen, G. L., Faarvang, K. L., Thomsen, B. S., Teglbjaerg, K. L., Jensen, L. T., Hansen, T. M., Lervang, H. H., Schmidt, E. B., Dyerberg, J., and Ernst, E. The effects of dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized, double blind trial. Eur J Clin Invest 1992;22(10):687-691. View abstract.
Several recent clinical studies, especially those focusing on the benefits of omega-3 in inflammatory conditions, have investigated the actions of pure-EPA in protecting against excess inflammation in the body. EPA works in several different ways. Firstly, it is the precursor to a number of immune messengers, collectively called ‘eicosanoids’ (series-3 prostaglandins, series-3 thromboxanes and series-5 leukotrienes,) all of which have anti-inflammatory roles.
Several studies confirmed the benefit of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy in terms of proper development of the brain and retina. Of the 2 most important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, DHA is the more important for proper cell membrane function and is vital to the development of the fetal brain and retina (17). During the third trimester, vast amounts of DHA accumulate in fetal tissue (20). The 2 most infiltrated fetal areas include the retina and brain, which may correlate with normal eyesight and brain function (19). A study by Judge et al. (20) found that children whose mothers had taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 29) had significantly better problem-solving skills at 9 mo old (P = 0.017) than those whose mothers had not taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 15). Another study provided a cognitive assessment of children 2.5 y after maternal EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy from 20 wk of gestation until delivery (n = 33) compared with children in a placebo group (n = 39). Children in the EPA + DHA–supplemented group attained significantly higher scores for eye and hand coordination [mean score, 114 (SD 10.2] than those in the placebo group [mean score, 108 (SD 11.3)] (P = 0.021, adjusted P = 0.008) (19).
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
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
(How much omega-3 is necessary to increase one’s omega-3 index? Studies show it can take between 1800 – 2000 mg of EPA/DHA daily to move a person’s index by 4 – 5 percentage points (12). Importantly, this is a much larger dose than you’d get swallowing one or two regular fish oil capsules and could well explain why many traditional omega-3 products fail to deliver results.)
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).
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.
It’s no surprise that fish — particularly cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies — are rich in omega-3s. It’s called fish oil for a reason, right? Mackerel, for instance, may have more than 3300 mg of omega-3 per serving — that’s more than 6 times the recommended per day dose for healthy adults. Not a huge fish connoisseur? Try some of the quick, simple recipes in Cooking with Fish Like a Pro, an accessible collection of fish recipes to suit every palate.
Meanwhile, blood levels of DHA and EPA are very transitory, reflecting what an individual consumed only recently, while of course prostate cancer has a markedly longer progression. The study was not designed to isolate omega oil :: prostate cancer relationships, so conclusion would be weak. Seems likely to me that when faced with a serious disease, men suddenly begin to try living “right” in a hurry.
The biggest cause of omega-3 deficiency is the overconsumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 comes from things like fried foods, fast foods and boxed foods that contain vegetables oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. When you consume too much omega-6, it can decrease your body’s ability to metabolize healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (36)
Scaly, itchy skin (eczema). Fish oil might help PREVENT eczema, but research is not consistent. Some early research suggests that mothers who take fish oil supplements during pregnancy reduce the risk of severe eczema in their infants. Also, population research suggests that children who eat fish at least once weekly from 1 to 2 years of age have a lower risk of developing eczema. But other research, including recent studies, suggests that neither supplementation during pregnancy nor supplementation during infancy reduces the risk of eczema. Overall, research suggests that fish oil does not help TREAT eczema once it has developed.
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.
Weight loss. Some research shows that eating fish improves weight loss and decreases blood sugar in people who are overweight with high blood pressure. Early research also shows that taking a specific fish oil supplement (Hi-DHA, NuMega) lowers body fat when combined with exercise. But other evidence suggests that taking another specific fish oil supplement (Lovaza) does not lower body weight in overweight people.