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:
Fatty predatory fish like sharks, swordfish, tilefish, and albacore tuna may be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but due to their position at the top of the food chain, these species may also accumulate toxic substances through biomagnification. For this reason, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting consumption (especially for women of childbearing age) of certain (predatory) fish species (e.g. albacore tuna, shark, king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish) due to high levels of the toxic contaminant mercury. Dioxin, PCBs and chlordane are also present. Fish oil is used as a component in aquaculture feed. More than 50 percent of the world's fish oil used in aquaculture feed is fed to farmed salmon.
Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but they are less frequent now thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities. Past concerns about omega-3s increasing the risk of bleeding have been largely disproven, but caution is still advised in people taking blood thinners or who are about to undergo surgery. As mentioned, caution is needed in people with bipolar disorder to prevent cycling to mania. Because omega-3s are important to brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3 in expectant mothers, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children. Fish consumption in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on safety or optimal dosing of omega-3s in pregnancy, expectant mothers should consider omega-3 supplements judiciously.
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Jump up ^ Miller M, Stone NJ, Ballantyne C, Bittner V, Criqui MH, Ginsberg HN, Goldberg AC, Howard WJ, Jacobson MS, Kris-Etherton PM, Lennie TA, Levi M, Mazzone T, Pennathur S (May 2011). "Triglycerides and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association". Circulation. 123 (20): 2292–333. doi:10.1161/CIR.0b013e3182160726. PMID 21502576.
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
In recent years, many people – particularly those who strictly follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – have believed that they do not have to consume animal products to get omega-3s, as long as they are consuming high amounts of plant-based omega-3s. But, as I mentioned before, most of the health benefits that you can get from omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based EPA and DHA fats – not plant-based ALA. They are simply NOT interchangeable.
The GISSI-Heart Failure trial was the first blinded, randomized trial to assess the efficacy of fish oil supplements in patients with heart failure.51 The trial enrolled 7046 subjects with heart failure; 60% with New York Heart Association class II symptoms and 40% with a history of MI. The majority of patients were on a standard heart failure regimen, including angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers, beta-blockers, and spironolactone, but only 22% were on a statin. At an average of 3.9 years, the coprimary end points of death and death or hospital admission for cardiovascular reasons were reduced by approximately 9% with fish oil supplementation. Sudden cardiac death, a secondary end-point, showed a statistically nonsignificant relative risk reduction of 7% with fish oil. There was also a reduction in 2 other arrhythmia-related secondary end-points: first hospitalization for ventricular arrhythmia and presumed arrhythmic death.
36. Marchioli R, Barzi F, Bomba E, Chieffo C, Di Gregorio D, Di Mascio R, Franzosi MG, Geraci E, Levantesi G, Maggioni AP, et al. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction: time-course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto Miocardico (GISSI)-Prevenzione. Circulation. 2002;105:1897–903. [PubMed]
Despite this one study, you should still consider eating fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.
So for those people who will not eat liver, cod liver oil on a daily basis can be a very good way of getting that. And you do benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids, and with the cod liver oil, it may even be unimportant to eat fish if you’re getting the cod liver oil, although it’s still better to focus on the fish, the egg yolks, and just add some of the cod liver oil.
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. If you keep up with the latest nutrition news, you may have a pretty good sense of what they offer. But, if you're like many people, you still can't tell your omega-3s from your omega-6s -- and you sure as heck can't pronounce eicosapentaenoic acid. That's OK. Our fishing expedition turned up some interesting facts to share about omega-3 fatty acids and fish.
Nakamura, N., Hamazaki, T., Ohta, M., Okuda, K., Urakaze, M., Sawazaki, S., Yamazaki, K., Satoh, A., Temaru, R., Ishikura, Y., Takata, M., Kishida, M., and Kobayashi, M. Joint effects of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors and eicosapentaenoic acids on serum lipid profile and plasma fatty acid concentrations in patients with hyperlipidemia. Int J Clin Lab Res 1999;29(1):22-25. View abstract.
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)
Grigg, L. E., Kay, T. W., Valentine, P. A., Larkins, R., Flower, D. J., Manolas, E. G., O'Dea, K., Sinclair, A. J., Hopper, J. L., and Hunt, D. Determinants of restenosis and lack of effect of dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid on the incidence of coronary artery restenosis after angioplasty. J Am Coll Cardiol. 3-1-1989;13(3):665-672. View abstract.
In some cases, fish oil pills may cause loose stools, nausea, diarrhea, and decreased appetite, fat in the stools, vomiting or constipation. These side effects can be minimized by taking a fish oil capsule that is coated, which is designed to help eliminate the "fish burps" many users complain about. Starting with low doses of the supplement and working up to a full dose can also help minimize side effects. You can also pair fish oil supplements with meals so that they enter your body more slowly, minimizing the risk of side effects occurring.
The health benefits of fish oil include its ability to aid in weight loss and healthy pregnancy. It also promotes fertility and skin care (particularly for psoriasis and acne). It is beneficial in the treatment of various heart diseases, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, ADHD, weak immune system, cancer, diabetes, inflammation, arthritis, IBD, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, eye disorders, macular degeneration, and ulcers.
The hypotriglyceridemic effect of fish oil is well established and is related to both dose and baseline triglyceride level. Patients with triglycerides <90 mg/dL will be negligibly affected unless very high doses of omega-3 FA are used.67,68 However, in patients with triglycerides >200 mg/dL, who are treated with 4 g/d of fish oil, a 30% reduction in triglycerides is expected.17,69 For patients with triglycerides >500 mg/dL who are at risk for pancreatitis, the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III guidelines recommend using fish oil supplements as an adjunctive therapy to fibrates and nicotinic acid.70 Lovaza capsules have been shown to be effective, safe, and comparable to gemfibrozil in treating triglycerides at this range.71,72 The official label recommendation for Lovaza is for patients with triglycerides >500 mg/dL.73