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.
In fact, fish oil is even dipping its way into mainstream medicine. In September 2018, Amarin Corporation, the biopharmaceutical developer of pharmaceutical-grade fish oil Vascepa, released preliminary findings of its double-blind clinical trial. In the study, researchers tracked more than 8,000 adults for a median 4.9 years. The mix of study participants had either established cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes and another cardiovascular disease risk factor, along with persistently elevated triglycerides.
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:
Dry eye. Higher intake of fish oil from the diet has been linked to a lower risk of dry eye in women. But the effects of fish oil in people with dry eye are inconsistent. Some research shows that fish oil reduces dry eye symptoms such as pain, blurred vision, and sensitivity. But fish oil doesn’t seem to improve other signs and symptoms of dry eye such as tear production and damage to the surface of the eye. Taking fish oil also doesn’t improve signs and symptoms of dry eye when used with other dry eye treatments.
Respected health care organizations proposed intake recommendations for oily fish of two servings per week for healthy adults, which equates to approximately a daily total of 500 milligrams (mg) EPA and DHA.‡ The recommendation encourages adults already with or at-risk of developing cardiovascular disease to talk to their primary healthcare professional about supplementing with amounts greater than 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day. Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
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.
Cast about for healthy canned tuna. Think all tuna is created equal? Think again. Choose canned light tuna instead of tuna steaks or albacore tuna. It tends to have less mercury. Albacore may contain three times the mercury of chunk light tuna. Check fish guides for the latest information about foods low in toxins but high in omega-3. Two good online sources are:
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
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)
According to the Cardiovascular Research Institute in Maastricht in Netherlands, “Epidemiological studies show that replacing fat with carbohydrates may even be worse [than the Western-type high-fat diet] and that various polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA) have beneficial rather than detrimental effects on CVD (cardiovascular disease) outcome.” This includes fish-oil fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent and reverse a plethora of cardiovascular diseases. (19)
Interestingly, the results are also consistent with our recent findings that somatic anxiety is associated with omega-3 PUFA deficits and the genetic risks of PUFA metabolic enzyme cytosolic phospholipase A2 in major depressive disorder62,63 and interferon α–induced neuropsychiatric syndrome.63,64 Brain membranes contain a high proportion of omega-3 PUFAs and their derivatives and most animal and human studies suggest that a lack of omega-3 PUFAs in the brain might induce various behavioral and neuropsychiatric disorders,16,65-70 including anxiety-related behaviors.12,18,19,32,49,71 Emerging evidence suggests that omega-3 PUFAs interfere with and possibly control several neurobiological processes, such as neurotransmitter systems, neuroplasticity, and inflammation,12,72 which is postulated to be the mechanism underlying anxiety and depression.
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
Thusgaard, M., Christensen, J. H., Morn, B., Andersen, T. S., Vige, R., Arildsen, H., Schmidt, E. B., and Nielsen, H. Effect of fish oil (n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) on plasma lipids, lipoproteins and inflammatory markers in HIV-infected patients treated with antiretroviral therapy: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Scand.J.Infect.Dis. 2009;41(10):760-766. View abstract.
Fish oil can be obtained from eating fish or by taking supplements. Fish that are especially rich in the beneficial oils known as omega-3 fatty acids include mackerel, herring, tuna, salmon, cod liver, whale blubber, and seal blubber. Two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish oil are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Make sure to see separate listings on EPA and DHA, as well as Cod Liver Oil, and Shark Liver Oil.