The chemical structures of EPA and DHA are very similar and they compete for uptake and processing resources. During digestion, the triglyceride molecules in standard fish oil are broken down into a mono glycerol and two free fatty acids, small enough to be absorbed into cells of the gut lining. More often than not, DHA is the fatty acid that remains attached to the glycerol backbone, meaning in essence that DHA gets a ‘free pass’ into the gut, while the remaining free fatty acids (more often EPA) must reattach onto a glycerol molecule or risk being oxidised and used as fuel. The implication of this is that DHA levels in our cells are often concentrated at the expense of EPA after absorption when taking EPA and DHA in the standard ratio of 1.5 to 1.
Norris, J. M., Yin, X., Lamb, M. M., Barriga, K., Seifert, J., Hoffman, M., Orton, H. D., Baron, A. E., Clare-Salzler, M., Chase, H. P., Szabo, N. J., Erlich, H., Eisenbarth, G. S., and Rewers, M. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and islet autoimmunity in children at increased risk for type 1 diabetes. JAMA 9-26-2007;298(12):1420-1428. View abstract.
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-3s have been studied in various mood disorders, such as postpartum depression, with some promising results. In bipolar disorder (manic depression), the omega-3s may be most effective for the depressed phase rather than the manic phase of the illness. The omega-3s have also been proposed to alleviate or prevent other psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and attention deficit disorder. However, there is still not enough evidence to recommend the omega-3s in these conditions.
The use of DHA by persons with epilepsy could decrease the frequency of their seizures. Studies have shown that children with epilepsy had a major improvement, i.e. decrease in the frequency of their seizures, but another study showed mixed results with 57 adults taking DHA supplementation. The 57 subjects demonstrated a decreased frequency of seizures for the first six weeks of the study, but for some, it was just a temporary improvement (R).
As you likely know (and as I’ve been discussing for years), omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. They have been studied for the treatment and prevention of many diseases, several of which are related to inflammation, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. They have also been shown to be extraordinarily helpful in preventing and treating other brain conditions such as depression and other psychiatric disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and concussions.
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)
A group out of India conducted a study published in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology based on the premise that “fish oil rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has been preferred to chemosensitize tumor cells to anti-cancer drugs.” The study found that using 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) to treat colorectal cancer along with fish oil increased the survival rate in carcinogen-treated animals. Researchers also found that the fish oil ameliorated hematologic depression, along with gastrointestinal, hepatic and renal toxicity caused by the 5-FU. (15)
For example, large predatory fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and albacore tuna can contain high levels of methyl mercury, a toxin that would override any health benefit, especially for the developing brains of fetuses and young children as well as for adults, Dr. Nesheim and Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, noted in 2014 in an editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Levels of mercury and other contaminants in fish have since declined somewhat but are not negligible.)
According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, which included a comprehensive survey on the use of complementary health approaches in the United States, fish oil supplements are the nonvitamin/nonmineral natural product most commonly taken by both adults and children. The survey findings indicated that about 7.8 percent of adults (18.8 million) and 1.1 percent of children age 4 to 17 (664,000) had taken a fish oil supplement in the previous 30 days.
Two psychiatrists (P.-T.T. and T.-Y.C.) separately performed a systematic literature search of the PubMed, Embase, ProQuest, ScienceDirect, Cochrane Library, ClinicalKey, Web of Science, and ClinicalTrials.gov databases to March 4, 2018. Because we presumed some clinical trials would use investigating scales for some other mood symptoms but also contain symptoms of anxiety, we tried to use some nonspecific medical subject heading terms to include those clinical trials. Therefore, we used the following keywords: omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid; and anxiety, anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder. After removing duplicate studies, the same 2 authors screened the search results according to the title and abstract to evaluate eligibility. List of potentially relevant studies were generated for a full-text review. Any inconsistencies were discussed with a third author to achieve final consensus. To expand the list of potentially eligible articles, we performed a manual search of the reference lists of review articles in this area.12,38,39
Some studies suggest that people who get higher amounts of omega-3s from foods and dietary supplements may have a lower risk of breast cancer and perhaps colorectal cancer. More research is needed to confirm this possible link. Whether omega-3s affect the risk of other cancers is not clear. Clinical trials to examine this possibility are in progress.
Weak bones (osteoporosis). Research suggests that taking fish oil alone or together with calcium and evening primrose oil slows the rate of bone loss and increases bone density at the thigh bone (femur) and spine in elderly people with osteoporosis. But taking fish oil does not slow bone loss in older people with osteoarthritis in the knee but without weak bones.