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.
In fact, fish oil is even dipping its way into mainstream medicine. In September 2018, Amarin Corporation, the biopharmaceutical developer of pharmaceutical-grade fish oil Vascepa, released preliminary findings of its double-blind clinical trial. In the study, researchers tracked more than 8,000 adults for a median 4.9 years. The mix of study participants had either established cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes and another cardiovascular disease risk factor, along with persistently elevated triglycerides.
Oe, H., Hozumi, T., Murata, E., Matsuura, H., Negishi, K., Matsumura, Y., Iwata, S., Ogawa, K., Sugioka, K., Takemoto, Y., Shimada, K., Yoshiyama, M., Ishikura, Y., Kiso, Y., and Yoshikawa, J. Arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid supplementation increases coronary flow velocity reserve in Japanese elderly individuals. Heart 2008;94(3):316-321. View abstract.
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 capsules contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in oils from certain types of fish, vegetables, and other plant sources. These fatty acids are not made by the body and must be consumed in the diet. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids work by lowering the body's production of triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides can lead to coronary artery disease, heart disease, and stroke.
The omega-3 index is also important because it is inversely related to one’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio — another important measurement (3). A lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio (meaning, you consume a balanced amount of these two fatty acid families) is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease, to name a few (4). Of course, most people get far too much omega-6 and too little omega-3, thanks to the plethora of highly processed foods in the Western diet.
ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means that you need it but you must get this fat from your diet because your body is unable to produce it. In general, omega 3 fats are a crucial component of all cell membranes, including the eye (retina) and brain as well as aiding in the process of energy production to support functions involving the heart, lungs, immune system, and hormones (endocrine system), work properly.1
Giacco, R., Cuomo, V., Vessby, B., Uusitupa, M., Hermansen, K., Meyer, B. J., Riccardi, G., and Rivellese, A. A. Fish oil, insulin sensitivity, insulin secretion and glucose tolerance in healthy people: is there any effect of fish oil supplementation in relation to the type of background diet and habitual dietary intake of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids? Nutr.Metab Cardiovasc.Dis. 2007;17(8):572-580. View abstract.
Dangour, A. D., Allen, E., Elbourne, D., Fasey, N., Fletcher, A. E., Hardy, P., Holder, G. E., Knight, R., Letley, L., Richards, M., and Uauy, R. Effect of 2-y n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on cognitive function in older people: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 2010;91(6):1725-1732. View abstract.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found primarily in fish oil, this is the ultimate form of fatty acid in humans. Most people get far too little of this all-important fatty acid, especially since the conversion of ALA to DHA is slow and minimally yielding. Getting a daily dose of of DHA (600 to 1000 mg) from supplements is preferable to reap the health benefits. You have a choice of taking a fish oil supplement or one derived from algae or krill, a shrimp-like crustacean.
Back in 2013, a study came out that made a lot of people concerned about fish oil supplements and cancer. The study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showed that men who consume the largest amount of fish oil had a 71 percent higher risk of high-grade prostate cancer and a 43 percent increase in all types of prostate cancer. The study was conducted on 2,227 men, of which 38 percent of the men already had prostate cancer. (39)
The most widely available dietary source of EPA and DHA is oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, menhaden, and sardines. Oils from these fish have a profile of around seven times as much omega−3 as omega−6. Other oily fish, such as tuna, also contain n-3 in somewhat lesser amounts. Consumers of oily fish should be aware of the potential presence of heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants like PCBs and dioxins, which are known to accumulate up the food chain. After extensive review, researchers from Harvard's School of Public Health in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2006)  reported that the benefits of fish intake generally far outweigh the potential risks. Although fish are a dietary source of omega−3 fatty acids, fish do not synthesize them; they obtain them from the algae (microalgae in particular) or plankton in their diets. In the case of farmed fish, omega-3 fatty acids is provided by fish oil; In 2009, 81% of the global fish oil production is used by aquaculture.
Finally, it is often assumed since there are not high levels of EPA in the brain, that it is not important for neurological function. Actually it is key for reducing neuro-inflammation by competing against AA for access to the same enzymes needed to produce inflammatory eicosanoids. However, once EPA enters into the brain it is rapidly oxidized (2,3). This is not the case with DHA (4). The only way to control cellular inflammation in the brain is to maintain high levels of EPA in the blood. This is why all the work on depression, ADHD, brain trauma, etc. have demonstrated EPA to be superior to DHA (5).
Nielsen, G. L., Faarvang, K. L., Thomsen, B. S., Teglbjaerg, K. L., Jensen, L. T., Hansen, T. M., Lervang, H. H., Schmidt, E. B., Dyerberg, J., and Ernst, E. The effects of dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: a randomized, double blind trial. Eur J Clin Invest 1992;22(10):687-691. View abstract.
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).
Fish oil supplements are available as liquids or capsules. Some capsules are enteric-coated to pass through the stomach before dissolving in the small intestine, thus helping prevent indigestion and "fish burps". Poorly manufactured enteric-coated products have the potential to release ingredients too early. ConsumerLab.com, a for-profit supplement testing company, reported that 1 of the 24 enteric-coated fish oil supplements it evaluated released ingredients prematurely.
Fish oil is useful in the treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, Raynaud’s symptoms and similar conditions. Using the fish oil can help in reducing the need for large dosages of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). The Royal Adelaide Hospital and the University of Newcastle, located in Australia, have reported that fish oil has shown positive effects in the treatment of arthritis. In cases of osteoarthritis, fish oil can be helpful in reducing the impact of enzymes that destroy cartilage.
Nielsen, A. A., Jorgensen, L. G., Nielsen, J. N., Eivindson, M., Gronbaek, H., Vind, I., Hougaard, D. M., Skogstrand, K., Jensen, S., Munkholm, P., Brandslund, I., and Hey, H. Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit an increase of proinflammatory cytokines in patients with active Crohn's disease compared with omega-6 fatty acids. Aliment.Pharmacol.Ther. 2005;22(11-12):1121-1128. View abstract.
Omega-3 [(n-3)] fatty acids have been linked to healthy aging throughout life. Recently, fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have been associated with fetal development, cardiovascular function, and Alzheimer's disease. However, because our bodies do not efficiently produce some omega-3 fatty acids from marine sources, it is necessary to obtain adequate amounts through fish and fish-oil products. Studies have shown that EPA and DHA are important for proper fetal development, including neuronal, retinal, and immune function. EPA and DHA may affect many aspects of cardiovascular function including inflammation, peripheral artery disease, major coronary events, and anticoagulation. EPA and DHA have been linked to promising results in prevention, weight management, and cognitive function in those with very mild Alzheimer's disease.
What's more, ALA is just a precursor to EPA and DHA. You need certain enzymes to elongate and desaturate ALA so it can become long-chained omega-3s. Unfortunately, this does not work in some people, particularly those who are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, leading to very low conversion rates – only 1 percent of ALA is converted to EPA/DHA. In some, the conversion can even dip as low as 0.1 to 0.5 percent!
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Most people get far too little omega-3s in their diet. In fact, research consistently indicates that the majority of Americans have just slightly more than half the amount of EPA and DHA in their tissues than they need for optimum brain and body health. This is partly due to a high dietary intake of unhealthy fats combined with an inadequate intake of EPA and DHA.
Another study conducted by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital examined the relationship between fish oil supplementation and indicators of cognitive decline. The subjects of the study were older adults: 229 cognitively normal individuals, 397 patients with mild cognitive impairment and 193 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They were assessed with neuropsychological tests and brain magnetic resonance imaging every six months while taking fish oil supplements. The study found that the adults taking fish oil (who had not yet developed Alzheimer’s and did not have genetic risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s known as APOE ε4) experienced significantly less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage than adults not taking fish oil. (9)
Fish oil has the ability to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) due to its high concentration of fatty acids. For children suffering from hyperactivity, dyslexia, dyspraxia, inability to complete tasks, emotional instability, wavering attitude, poor coordination, short attention span, short-term memory weakness, low concentration, tendency to interrupt others, recklessness, hastiness, impetuosity, impulsiveness, low IQ, or learning disorders, fish oil is a proven remedy. Research conducted at the University of South Australia and CSIRO has shown that when children suffering from ADHD were given doses of fish oil and evening primrose capsules for 15 weeks, they showed significant improvements in their behavior. Since, human brain consists of about 60% fats, especially essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, it helps to improve the functions of the brain.
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 contamination even among “molecularly distilled” brands and those aimed at children is a widespread problem. One study in California tested 10 common brands and found PCBs — toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans — in all of them. Some had 70 times the PCBs of other ones and 240x the toxicity. In another study, researchers tested 13 over-the-counter children’s dietary supplements containing fish oil for PCBs. PCBs were detected in all products. Our family takes algae-derived omega-3 (DHA/EPA) capsules, which are bioequivalent to fish oil capsules. Algae are actually the source where fish get their omega-3 content, so we skip the contaminated middle man (or, fish, in this case) and the neurotoxins that come with them given how polluted our oceans are now. I highly recommend parents do their research on what studies show about fish oil contamination and not just trust the labels, as well as consider algae-derived omega-3 capsules as more healthful bioequivalent to fish oil.
Fish oil is also used for diabetes, prediabetes, asthma, a movement and coordination disorder called dyspraxia, dyslexia, eczema, autism, obesity, weak bones (osteoporosis), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis, psoriasis, an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, gum disease, Lyme disease, sickle cell disease, and preventing weight loss caused by some cancer drugs.