First, all Omega-3 products are not alike. Here's what I learned about Omega-3 from my research. The "3" relates to three sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Two of them, DHA and EPA are found in marine products such as fish and krill. The third source, ALA, is from plants. So with fish oil you are getting two of the three sources at once. That makes sense to me as a good reason to take Omega-3 fish oil. You will also note below that many of the reasons we choose to take Omega-3 do not occur with plant-based products.
Although there are no randomized data on fish oil consumption and protection from sudden death, observational studies have linked omega-3 FA with the prevention of sudden death. In a population-based, case-control study of sudden cardiac death victims, the mean red blood cell membrane omega-3 FA level of the lowest quartile, when compared with the mean level of the third quartile, was associated with a relative risk reduction of 70%.33 A similar finding was appreciated in a nested, prospective, case-control study of the Physician Health Study cohort of 22,000 healthy males. In the 119 patients that succumbed to sudden death, baseline omega-3 FA blood levels were significantly lower than in matched controls.34 Finally, in an analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study, a cohort study of 84,688 women, an inverse association was shown between fish consumption and CAD-related death. The investigators concluded that the reduction in CAD deaths was likely due to a reduction in sudden deaths, as there was no difference in the rate of MI when comparing high and low fish consumption.35
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.
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.
Birch, E. E., Carlson, S. E., Hoffman, D. R., Fitzgerald-Gustafson, K. M., Fu, V. L., Drover, J. R., Castaneda, Y. S., Minns, L., Wheaton, D. K., Mundy, D., Marunycz, J., and Diersen-Schade, D. A. The DIAMOND (DHA Intake And Measurement Of Neural Development) Study: a double-masked, randomized controlled clinical trial of the maturation of infant visual acuity as a function of the dietary level of docosahexaenoic acid. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):848-859. View abstract.
In later life, cognitive function and brain deterioration may become a concern. Once again, maintaining high levels of EPA has been shown to lower the risk of developing and worsening cognitive decline and dementia. If, however, you know someone who already has a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, their brain has already been damaged and needs structural support. At this point, DHA becomes important again and taking a high-EPA product that contains 250mg of DHA also is important to prevent further loss of brain tissue.
*Swordfish contains high levels of mercury, as does shark, king mackerel, and tilefish (sometimes called golden bass or golden snapper). Women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should avoid these high-mercury species of fish, but can eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
The Department of Ecology of the State of Washington has ranked various seafood based on its EPA and DHA concentrations. The highest-ranking seafood is mackerel, excluding King mackerel, that has a concentration of 1,790 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per 100 grams, followed by salmon at 1,590; bluefin tuna has between 1173 and 1504 milligrams; sardines contain 980 milligrams; albacore tuna has 862 milligrams; bass has 640 milligrams; tuna has 630 milligrams; trout and swordfish have 580 milligrams; and walleye has 530 milligrams. Other seafood, which includes sea bass, clams, lobster, scallops, catfish, cod, pollock, crayfish and scallops contains between 200 and 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per 100 grams. Breaded fish products rank lowest on the list with only 0.26 milligram per 100 grams.
The most widely available dietary source of EPA and DHA is cold-water oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Oils from these fish have a profile of around seven times as much omega-3 oils as omega-6 oils. Other oily fish, such as tuna, also contain omega-3 in somewhat lesser amounts. Although fish is a dietary source of omega-3 oils, fish do not synthesize them; they obtain them from the algae (microalgae in particular) or plankton in their diets.
Good for you for eating healthily! Sadly, many people do not like omega-3 containing foods such as fish, and for these people, supplementation may be a good alternative to obtain omega-3. As a clinical investigator, my research focuses on study supplements, which is what I was asked to cover in this article. I’m all for healthy eating, but not everyone can afford it or wants to eat certain foods, and this is perhaps why supplements are so popular.
Today, the average American has a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, when a healthy ratio is more ideally around 2:1. Put in other numerical terms, the typical American diet tends to contain 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. (35) This shows just how deficient most of us are and why supplementing with fish oil is so beneficial.
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.
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.
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.