Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Lipids and Glycemic Control in Type II Diabetes and the Metabolic Syndrome and on Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Renal Disease, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, and Osteoporosis. AHRQ Publication No. 04-E012-1; 2004. Available at: https://archive.ahrq.gov/downloads/pub/evidence/pdf/o3lipid/o3lipid.pdf. (Accessed February 7, 2017).
The human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. That isn’t the case for omega-3 fatty acids (also called omega-3 fats and n-3 fats). These are essential fats—the body can’t make them from scratch but must get them from food. Foods high in Omega-3 include fish, vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables.

While fish oil has plenty of beneficial qualities, there is a lot of hype around its possible applications, and not all of them are accurate, so be wary when reading literature on this useful oil. Fish oil manufacturers have attempted to market it as a remedy for almost anything. We suggest that readers educate themselves fully before making an informed decision, rather than getting affected by both negative and positive propaganda about the beneficial applications of fish oil.
Abnormal rapid heart rhythms (ventricular arrhythmias). Population research suggests that eating a lot of fish has no effect on the risk for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Clinical research is inconsistent. Some research shows that taking fish oil daily does not affect the risk for abnormal heart rhythms. But other research shows that taking fish oil for 11 months delays the development of the condition. However, overall, taking fish oil does not seem to reduce the risk of death in people with abnormal rapid heart rhythms.

Gorjao, R., Verlengia, R., Lima, T. M., Soriano, F. G., Boaventura, M. F., Kanunfre, C. C., Peres, C. M., Sampaio, S. C., Otton, R., Folador, A., Martins, E. F., Curi, T. C., Portiolli, E. P., Newsholme, P., and Curi, R. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil supplementation on human leukocyte function. Clin Nutr 2006;25(6):923-938. View abstract.


Additional side effects of fish oil supplements which have been reported include headache, short-term memory loss, depression, somatic disorders, and increased risk of colon cancer, nasopharyngitis, worsening of asthma symptoms, hemolytic anemia, decreased physical activity, increased appetite, a general uncomfortable feeling or increased blood pressure. The percentage of users that develop these side effects is not known. If these side effects become severe it is recommended that you stop using fish oil supplements.
Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 38% of all deaths in the United States, many of which are preventable (28). Chronic inflammation is thought to be the cause of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease (29). EPA and DHA are thought to have antiinflammatory effects and a role in oxidative stress (30) and to improve cellular function through changes in gene expression (31). In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways, such as nuclear transcription factor κB signaling, eicosanoid synthesis, scavenger receptor activity, adipogenesis, and hypoxia signaling (31). Circulating markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), TNF α, and some ILs (IL-6, IL-1), correlate with an increased probability of experiencing a cardiovascular event (32). Inflammatory markers such as IL-6 trigger CRP to be synthesized by the liver, and elevated levels of CRP are associated with an increased risk of the development of cardiovascular disease (33). A study of 89 patients showed that those treated with EPA+DHA had a significant reduction in high-sensitivity CRP (66.7%, P < 0.01) (33). The same study also showed a significant reduction in heat shock protein 27 antibody titers (57.69%, P < 0.05), which have been shown to be overexpressed in heart muscle cells after a return of blood flow after a period of ischemia (ischemia-reperfusion injury) and may potentially have a cardioprotective effect (33).
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.
A 2014 meta-analysis of eleven trials conducted respectively on patients with a DSM-defined diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) and of eight trials with patients with depressive symptomatology but no diagnosis of MDD demonstrated significant clinical benefit of omega-3 PUFA treatment compared to placebo. The study concluded that: "The use of omega-3 PUFA is effective in patients with diagnosis of MDD and on depressive patients without diagnosis of MDD."[42]
An 18-month study was published in 2014 that evaluated how borage seed oil — rich in GLA — and fish oil rich fared against each other in treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It was discovered that all three groups (one taking fish oil, one taking borage oil and one taking a combination of the two) “exhibited significant reductions” in disease activity, and no therapy outperformed the others. For all three, “meaningful clinical responses” were the same after nine months. (11)
Our scientists also focused on each oil’s freshness, measured by the degree of oxidation. Oxidation occurs in two phases: primary (measured by peroxide values) and secondary (measured by p-anisidine values). Total oxidation is formalized into a quantitative score, TOTOX. While Labdoor conducted tests of both primary and secondary oxidation, advances in rancidity testing confirm that added flavors–particularly added citrus flavors prevalent in liquid formulations–skew p-anisidine values and result in false positive outcomes. Until analytical techniques measuring p-anisidine values that are able to account for added flavors are established, Labdoor will use peroxide values as the primary indicator of freshness. All products recorded measurable levels of oxidation, with the average product recording a peroxide values of 3.7 meq/kg. 14/51 products recorded peroxide levels at or above the upper limit (10 meq/kg).
Meanwhile, blood levels of DHA and EPA are very transitory, reflecting what an individual consumed only recently, while of course prostate cancer has a markedly longer progression. The study was not designed to isolate omega oil :: prostate cancer relationships, so conclusion would be weak. Seems likely to me that when faced with a serious disease, men suddenly begin to try living “right” in a hurry.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are no official guidelines for the proper amount of omega-3s you should consume each day. However, most organization agree that at least 2 servings of a 3.5 ounce serving of fish (preferably oily) each week is a good start. That equals about 500 milligrams of EPA/DHA each day. For treating disease, up to 4,000 milligrams per day is recommended by various studies, although values do vary. (96) It’s why a pescatarian diet can have such health protective effects.

A March 2010 lawsuit filed by a California environmental group claimed that eight brands of fish oil supplements contained excessive levels of PCB's, including CVS/pharmacy, Nature Made, Rite Aid, GNC, Solgar, Twinlab, Now Health, Omega Protein and Pharmavite. The majority of these products were either cod liver or shark liver oils. Those participating in the lawsuit claim that because the liver is the major filtering and detoxifying organ, PCB content may be higher in liver-based oils than in fish oil produced from the processing of whole fish.[63][64]


Fortier, M., Tremblay-Mercier, J., Plourde, M., Chouinard-Watkins, R., Vandal, M., Pifferi, F., Freemantle, E., and Cunnane, S. C. Higher plasma n-3 fatty acid status in the moderately healthy elderly in southern Quebec: higher fish intake or aging-related change in n-3 fatty acid metabolism? Prostaglandins Leukot.Essent.Fatty Acids 2010;82(4-6):277-280. 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.

Due to the anticipated heterogeneity, a random-effects meta-analysis was chosen rather than a fixed-effects meta-analysis because random-effects modeling is more stringent and incorporates an among-study variance in the calculations. The entire meta-analysis procedure was performed on the platform of Comprehensive Meta-analysis statistical software, version 3 (Biostat). Under the preliminary assumption that the scales for anxiety symptoms are heterogeneous among the recruited studies, we chose Hedges g and 95% confidence intervals to combine the effect sizes, in accordance with the manual of the Comprehensive Meta-analysis statistical software, version 3. Regarding the interpretation of effect sizes, we defined Hedges g values 0 or higher as a better association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms of omega-3 PUFAs than in controls. For each analysis, a 2-tailed P value less than .05 was considered to indicate statistical significance. When more than 1 anxiety scale was used in a study, we chose the one with the most informative data (ie, mean and standard deviation [SD] before and after treatment). We entered the primary outcome provided in the included articles or obtained from the original authors. As for the variance imputation, we mainly chose the mean and SD before and after treatment. Later, we entered the mean and SD and calculated the effect sizes based on the software option, standardized by post score SD. In the case of studies with 2 active treatment arms, we merged the 2 active treatment arms into 1 group. If these 2 active treatment arms belonged to different subgroups (ie, different PUFA dosage subgroups), we kept them separate. Regarding the numbers of participants counted, we chose intention-to-treat as our priority. If there were insufficient data in the intention to treat group (ie, some studies only provided the changes in anxiety severity in those participants completing trials), we chose instead the per-protocol numbers of participants.
Sorgi, P. J., Hallowell, E. M., Hutchins, H. L. & Sears, B. (2007, January 17). Effects of an open-label pilot study with high-dose EPA/DHA concentrates on plasma phospholipids and behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutrition Journal 6(16). Retrieved from http://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-6-16

Macchia, A., Levantesi, G., Franzosi, M. G., Geraci, E., Maggioni, A. P., Marfisi, R., Nicolosi, G. L., Schweiger, C., Tavazzi, L., Tognoni, G., Valagussa, F., and Marchioli, R. Left ventricular systolic dysfunction, total mortality, and sudden death in patients with myocardial infarction treated with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Eur.J.Heart Fail. 2005;7(5):904-909. View abstract.
Doses for depression range from less than 1 g/day to 10 g/day, but most studies use doses between 1 and 2 g/day. In my practice, I recommend 1 to 2 g/day of an EPA+DHA combination, with at least 60% EPA, for major depression. I am more cautious in patients with bipolar depression, because the omega-3s may bring on mania, as can most antidepressants. In these individuals, I recommend using omega-3 cautiously, and preferably in combination with a prescription mood stabilizer.
For several years now, the fish oil and Alzheimer’s disease connection has been studied with consistent results. The essential fatty acids vital for brain function that are found in fish oil can not only slow cognitive decline, but can help prevent brain atrophy in older adults. A study published in the FASEB Journal looked at the health effects of four- to 17-month dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. The findings once again confirm the potential for fish oil to be used as a weapon to fend off the onset of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. (8)
Mozaffarian D, Marchioli R, Macchia A, Silletta MG, Ferrazzi P, Gardner TJ, Latini R, Libby P, Lombardi F, O'Gara PT, Page RL, Tavazzi L, Tognoni G; OPERA Investigators. Fish oil and postoperative atrial fibrillation: the Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Prevention of Post-operative Atrial Fibrillation (OPERA) randomized trial. JAMA 2012;308(19):2001-11. View abstract.

The effect of fish oil consumption on prostate cancer is controversial,[28][29] as one study showed decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, whereas another reported increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA.[30] Some evidence indicated an association between high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and an increased prostate cancer risk.[31]
For slowing weight loss in patients with cancer: 30 mL of a specific fish oil product (ACO Omega-3, Pharmacia, Stockholm, Sweden) providing 4.9 grams of EPA and 3.2 grams of DHA daily for 4 weeks has been used. 7.5 grams of fish oil daily providing EPA 4.7 grams and DHA 2.8 grams has been used for about 6 weeks. In addition, two cans of a fish oil nutritional supplement containing 1.09 grams of EPA and 0.96 grams of DHA per can have been used daily for up to 7 weeks.
Omega-3 fats may also impact the development of arthritis. As far back as 1959, studies were published about the effectiveness of cod liver oil on arthritic patients. In the 1959 study, 93 percent of participants “showed major clinical improvement.” (73) While there is no evidence that high omega-3 levels can prevent the development of arthritis, it seems clear that they can reduce inflammation that causes the typical bone and joint pain experienced in the disease. (74)
Omega-3 fatty acids are frequently in the news regarding their health benefits (or doubts in some cases). Two types of omega-3s in particular - eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docohexaenoic acid (DHA) – are known to be essential fatty acids. “Essential” refers to the fact that our cells need these fatty acids in order to function normally. But the body cannot make them from other fats, which means it’s “essential” we supply them in our diet or through supplementation.
Several studies confirmed the benefit of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy in terms of proper development of the brain and retina. Of the 2 most important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, DHA is the more important for proper cell membrane function and is vital to the development of the fetal brain and retina (17). During the third trimester, vast amounts of DHA accumulate in fetal tissue (20). The 2 most infiltrated fetal areas include the retina and brain, which may correlate with normal eyesight and brain function (19). A study by Judge et al. (20) found that children whose mothers had taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 29) had significantly better problem-solving skills at 9 mo old (P = 0.017) than those whose mothers had not taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 15). Another study provided a cognitive assessment of children 2.5 y after maternal EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy from 20 wk of gestation until delivery (n = 33) compared with children in a placebo group (n = 39). Children in the EPA + DHA–supplemented group attained significantly higher scores for eye and hand coordination [mean score, 114 (SD 10.2] than those in the placebo group [mean score, 108 (SD 11.3)] (P = 0.021, adjusted P = 0.008) (19).
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The Nutrition Source does not recommend or endorse any products.
The differing actions of EPA and DHA, together with their competitive uptake, help to explain why studies that attempt to use standard fish oil therapeutically (where DHA and EPA are combined, in a natural ratio of approximately 1.5:1) are either less beneficial than expected, or even completely ineffective. Standard EPA/DHA fish oils are more suitable for everyday wellbeing, to compensate for a lack of fish in the diet and to meet a suggested intake.
• Fish oil – Fish oil is among the primary ways that people enhance their intake of omega-3 fats. High-quality fish oils can certainly provide many health benefits. However, this oil is weak in antioxidants. This means that as you increase your omega-3 intake through fish oil consumption, you actually increase your need for added antioxidant protection.
In addition to depression, chronic stress leads to loss of volume of the hippocampus—and also causes enlargement of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates anxiety and anger.24 When rats were supplemented with omega-3s during exposure to stress, they showed lower corticosterone levels (a marker of stress), and improved learning on a maze—indicating that the omega-3s helped preserve memory and reduce anxiety.24

Davidson, M. H., Stein, E. A., Bays, H. E., Maki, K. C., Doyle, R. T., Shalwitz, R. A., Ballantyne, C. M., and Ginsberg, H. N. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther 2007;29(7):1354-1367. View abstract.

Fish oil seems to be a subject of controversy. Some people swear by it, and there are thousands of clinical trials out now trying to study what the latest and greatest thing about the supplement is. The Natural Standard does a really good job collecting and gathering data for those who are interested in delving through what fish oil may or may not be doing to us. Definitive answers, however, may take a little while to get.

In 2016, AHRQ reviewed 143 studies that evaluated the effects of giving omega-3 supplements to pregnant or breastfeeding women or giving formulas with added DHA to infants. They found that when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their babies’ birth weight was slightly higher, but the risk of an undesirably low birth weight did not change. Also, when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their pregnancies lasted a little longer, but there was no effect on the risk of premature birth. Omega-3s were not found to have effects on any other aspects of the mothers’ or infants’ health or the infants’ long-term development. Aspects of the infants’ health that were not shown to be affected by omega-3s include growth after birth, visual acuity, long-term neurological and cognitive development, and the risks of autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and allergies.
Several recent clinical studies, especially those focusing on the benefits of omega-3 in inflammatory conditions, have investigated the actions of pure-EPA in protecting against excess inflammation in the body. EPA works in several different ways. Firstly, it is the precursor to a number of immune messengers, collectively called ‘eicosanoids’ (series-3 prostaglandins, series-3 thromboxanes and series-5 leukotrienes,) all of which have anti-inflammatory roles.
This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific product or service, or recommendation from an organization or professional society, does not represent an endorsement by ODS of that product, service, or expert advice.
Lok CE, Moist L, Hemmelgarn BR, Tonelli M, Vazquez MA, Dorval M, Oliver M, Donnelly S, Allon M, Stanley K; Fish Oil Inhibition of Stenosis in Hemodialysis Grafts (FISH) Study Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation on graft patency and cardiovascular events among patients with new synthetic arteriovenous hemodialysis grafts: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2012;307(17):1809-16. View abstract.
Your concerns are very valid. The quality of commercially available omega-3 preparations can vary greatly. In our clinical trials we use preparations made by reputable manufacturers with high standards. We also have the preparations analyzed by 2 independent labs to confirm omega-3 content, impurities, and degree of oxidation, prior to initiating the study. While omega-3 fatty acids–like most nutrients–are ideally obtained through dietary practice, because many people may not enjoy omega-3 containing foods, supplements may be a good option for these individuals. Anyone who is interested in using an omega-3 preparation for treating a psychiatric condition should do so preferably under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
In 2016, AHRQ reviewed 143 studies that evaluated the effects of giving omega-3 supplements to pregnant or breastfeeding women or giving formulas with added DHA to infants. They found that when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their babies’ birth weight was slightly higher, but the risk of an undesirably low birth weight did not change. Also, when women took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy, their pregnancies lasted a little longer, but there was no effect on the risk of premature birth. Omega-3s were not found to have effects on any other aspects of the mothers’ or infants’ health or the infants’ long-term development. Aspects of the infants’ health that were not shown to be affected by omega-3s include growth after birth, visual acuity, long-term neurological and cognitive development, and the risks of autism, ADHD, learning disorders, and allergies.

These low levels are especially bad when compared to the numbers from the Japanese population. In Japan, the average omega-3 index level is more than double that of the average American, with some surveys showing Japanese men consume over 100 g (approximately 3.5 oz) of fish every day. These radically different dietary habits help explain how even those with omega-3 indexes in the lowest 5th percentile of the Japanese population have higher omega-3 index averages than most Americans (8).

Fortier, M., Tremblay-Mercier, J., Plourde, M., Chouinard-Watkins, R., Vandal, M., Pifferi, F., Freemantle, E., and Cunnane, S. C. Higher plasma n-3 fatty acid status in the moderately healthy elderly in southern Quebec: higher fish intake or aging-related change in n-3 fatty acid metabolism? Prostaglandins Leukot.Essent.Fatty Acids 2010;82(4-6):277-280. View abstract.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Chemical compounds called cannabinoids are found in marijuana and also are produced naturally in the body from omega-3 fatty acids. A well-known cannabinoid in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, is responsible for some of its euphoric effects, but it also has anti-inflammatory benefits. A new study in animal tissue reveals the cascade of chemical reactions that convert omega-3 fatty acids into cannabinoids that have anti-inflammatory benefits – but without the psychotropic high.


While fish oil has plenty of beneficial qualities, there is a lot of hype around its possible applications, and not all of them are accurate, so be wary when reading literature on this useful oil. Fish oil manufacturers have attempted to market it as a remedy for almost anything. We suggest that readers educate themselves fully before making an informed decision, rather than getting affected by both negative and positive propaganda about the beneficial applications of fish oil.
It exists in nature in three forms, one derived from land plants and two derived from marine sources. In the body, omega-3 is highly concentrated in the brain; it is critical to the formation and maintenance of nerve cell membranes. Research shows that in the nervous system, omega-3s foster the development of brain circuitry and the processing of information. They also play important roles in stabilizing mood and staving off cognitive decline. Low levels of omega-3s are linked to poor memory and depression. Omega-3 fats are also critical for the formation of anti-inflammatory molecules in the body.
Harper, M., Thom, E., Klebanoff, M. A., Thorp, J., Jr., Sorokin, Y., Varner, M. W., Wapner, R. J., Caritis, S. N., Iams, J. D., Carpenter, M. W., Peaceman, A. M., Mercer, B. M., Sciscione, A., Rouse, D. J., Ramin, S. M., and Anderson, G. D. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to prevent recurrent preterm birth: a randomized controlled trial. Obstet Gynecol 2010;115(2 Pt 1):234-242. View abstract.
The most extensive data of the effect of fish oil on lipoprotein subfractions are based on trials performed before the widespread use of statins. This data were aggregated over a decade ago in a meta-analysis of 16 randomized trials including over 1500 patients.17 In this analysis, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) was increased by an average of 5% and high-density lipoprotein was marginally changed. Although a shift toward less atherogenic, larger and more buoyant LDL particle composition has been shown,74 this has been offset by the observation that the number of apolipoprotein B 100 particles increases and may be more susceptible to oxidation.75 Increased conversion of remnant particles (intermediate density lipoprotein) to LDL has also been observed.76
Cashew nuts are a versatile, creamy nut, eaten on their own as a snack or used as a base for many vegan cheese substitutes. RXBAR, a healthy alternative to the standard sugar-loaded snack bar, uses cashews for several of its flavor varieties. And with delicious (and kid-friendly!) flavors like gingerbread, chocolate chip, or “Berry Blast,” these bars are a tasty way to add more cashews to any diet.
Smithers, L. G., Collins, C. T., Simmonds, L. A., Gibson, R. A., McPhee, A., and Makrides, M. Feeding preterm infants milk with a higher dose of docosahexaenoic acid than that used in current practice does not influence language or behavior in early childhood: a follow-up study of a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(3):628-634. View abstract.
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