We’ve written about the dose necessary to achieve measurable benefits before. However, a person’s actual omega-3 intake can be tricky to estimate. Even if you eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week, as the American Heart Association recommends (10), your fish might contain more or less omega-3s depending on the fish species, the time of year, and how you cook it. Even taking fish oil supplements isn’t always straightforward, as dose can be impacted by numerous bioavailability factors, as well as genetics, age, gender, medication-use and lifestyle.
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.
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What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
Irish AB, Viecelli AK, Hawley CM, et al; Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oils) and Aspirin in Vascular Access Outcomes in Renal Disease (FAVOURED) Study Collaborative Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation and aspirin use on arteriovenous fistula failure in patients requiring hemodialysis: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(2):184-193. View abstract.
Jump up ^ Kwak SM, Myung SK, Lee YJ, Seo HG (May 2012). "Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials". Archives of Internal Medicine. 172 (9): 686–94. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.262. PMID 22493407.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), clinical trials have shown that omega-3 is effective in reducing the incidence of cardiovascular diseases (CVD). Fish oil is a great source of omega-3 and therefore, reduces the risk of heart diseases and heart arrhythmias. It also lowers the level of bad cholesterol (LDL) and increases the level of good cholesterol (HDL). Fish oil prevents the accumulation of triglycerides and also reduces the level of excess triglycerides. Preliminary research has shown that fish oil can be used to prevent atherosclerosis in coronary patients. Thus, fish oil is effective in preventing strokes and regular usage of fish oil can help avoid sudden cardiac death. As per the American Heart Association, these preliminary findings still need to be confirmed by a further detailed research.
Fish oil supplements came under scrutiny in 2006, when the Food Standards Agency in the UK and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported PCB levels that exceeded the European maximum limits in several fish oil brands, which required temporary withdrawal of these brands. To address the concern over contaminated fish oil supplements, the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) Program, a third-party testing and accreditation program for fish oil products, was created by Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc. in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
“The review provides good evidence that taking long-chain omega 3 (fish oil, EPA or DHA) supplements does not benefit heart health or reduce our risk of stroke or death from any cause. The most trustworthy studies consistently showed little or no effect of long-chain omega 3 fats on cardiovascular health. On the other hand, while oily fish is a healthy food, it is unclear from the small number of trials whether eating more oily fish is protective of our hearts.
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.
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.
There are numerous omega-3 sources with varying proportions of EPA and DHA, and the balance of EPA and DHA in a supplement influences the actions of these fats in the body. For more information about the different types of omega-3 sources and which are most suited for your individual needs, read our page on the different types of omega-3 supplements
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Meta‐analysis and sensitivity analyses suggested little or no effect of increasing LCn3 on all‐cause mortality (RR 0.98, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.03, 92,653 participants; 8189 deaths in 39 trials, high‐quality evidence), cardiovascular mortality (RR 0.95, 95% CI 0.87 to 1.03, 67,772 participants; 4544 CVD deaths in 25 RCTs), cardiovascular events (RR 0.99, 95% CI 0.94 to 1.04, 90,378 participants; 14,737 people experienced events in 38 trials, high‐quality evidence), coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality (RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.79 to 1.09, 73,491 participants; 1596 CHD deaths in 21 RCTs), stroke (RR 1.06, 95% CI 0.96 to 1.16, 89,358 participants; 1822 strokes in 28 trials) or arrhythmia (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.05, 53,796 participants; 3788 people experienced arrhythmia in 28 RCTs). There was a suggestion that LCn3 reduced CHD events (RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.88 to 0.97, 84,301 participants; 5469 people experienced CHD events in 28 RCTs); however, this was not maintained in sensitivity analyses – LCn3 probably makes little or no difference to CHD event risk. All evidence was of moderate GRADE quality, except as noted.
It is believed that regular consumption of fish oil aids in boosting your immune system, thereby enabling you to resist the occurrence of common diseases like colds, cough, and the flu. Omega-3 fatty acids present in fish oil bolster the immune system by affecting the activity and amount of cytokines and eicosanoids present in our body. Researchers have also studied the effect of a fish meal and fish oil on the immune system of pigs and found that fish oil aided in the growth of the animals. Similar research conducted on mice at Taichung Veterans General Hospital, Taiwan, also gave positive results.
High blood pressure. Fish oil seems to slightly lower blood pressure in people with moderate to very high blood pressure. Some types of fish oil might also reduce blood pressure in people with slightly high blood pressure, but results are inconsistent. Fish oil seems to add to the effects of some, but not all, blood pressure-lowering medications. However, it doesn't seem to reduce blood pressure in people with uncontrolled blood pressure who are already taking blood pressure-lowering medications.