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.
Here is a brief on omega-3 fatty acids: There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, namely alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). All three are important for the body. Vegetable sources, including flaxseed oil, soybean oil, hemp oil, canola oil, walnut oil, rapeseed, perilla, chia, and tofu are rich in ALA. The human body has the ability to convert ALA to DHA and EPA, though there are certain limitations to this conversion.
Flaxseed (or linseed) (Linum usitatissimum) and its oil are perhaps the most widely available botanical source of the omega−3 fatty acid ALA. Flaxseed oil consists of approximately 55% ALA, which makes it six times richer than most fish oils in omega−3 fatty acids. A portion of this is converted by the body to EPA and DHA, though the actual converted percentage may differ between men and women.
Findings In this systematic review and meta-analysis of 19 clinical trials including 2240 participants from 11 countries, improvement in anxiety symptoms was associated with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid treatment compared with controls in both placebo-controlled and non–placebo-controlled trials. The anxiolytic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids were also stronger in participants with clinical conditions than in subclinical populations.
Egert, S., Somoza, V., Kannenberg, F., Fobker, M., Krome, K., Erbersdobler, H. F., and Wahrburg, U. Influence of three rapeseed oil-rich diets, fortified with alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid or docosahexaenoic acid on the composition and oxidizability of low-density lipoproteins: results of a controlled study in healthy volunteers. Eur J Clin Nutr 2007;61(3):314-325. View abstract.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found abundantly in fish oil, are increasingly being used in the management of cardiovascular disease. It is clear that fish oil, in clinically used doses (typically 4 g/d of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) reduce high triglycerides. However, the role of omega-3 fatty acids in reducing mortality, sudden death, arrhythmias, myocardial infarction, and heart failure has not yet been established. This review will focus on the current clinical uses of fish oil and provide an update on their effects on triglycerides, coronary artery disease, heart failure, and arrhythmia. We will explore the dietary sources of fish oil as compared with drug therapy, and discuss the use of fish oil products in combination with other commonly used lipid-lowering agents. We will examine the underlying mechanism of fish oil’s action on triglyceride reduction, plaque stability, and effect in diabetes, and review the newly discovered anti-inflammatory effects of fish oil. Finally, we will examine the limitations of current data and suggest recommendations for fish oil use.
Depression. There is inconsistent evidence on the effect of taking fish oil for depression. Some research shows that taking fish oil along with an antidepressant might help improve symptoms in some people. Other research shows that taking fish oil does not improve depression symptoms. The conflicting results may be due to the amount of EPA and DHA in the supplement or the severity of depression before treatment.
16. Saito Y, Yokoyama M, Origasa H, Matsuzaki M, Matsuzawa Y, Ishikawa Y, Oikawa S, Sasaki J, Hishida H, Itakura H, et al. Effects of EPA on coronary artery disease in hypercholesterolemic patients with multiple risk factors: sub-analysis of primary prevention cases from the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS). Atherosclerosis. 2008;200:135–40. [PubMed]
Augood, C., Chakravarthy, U., Young, I., Vioque, J., de Jong, P. T., Bentham, G., Rahu, M., Seland, J., Soubrane, G., Tomazzoli, L., Topouzis, F., Vingerling, J. R., and Fletcher, A. E. Oily fish consumption, dietary docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid intakes, and associations with neovascular age-related macular degeneration. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88(2):398-406. View abstract.
Finally, in order for AA to be converted into inflammatory products it must be released from phospholipids (part of the cell membrane) using the enzyme phospholipase A2 and then converted by the enzyme cyclooxygenase. EPA utilises both of these enzymes, so if EPA levels are increased in the diet, it attracts enzyme away from AA to EPA – again giving rise to anti-inflammatory products instead of inflammatory ones.
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.
First, always remember that it’s the omega-3s that count. When making your purchase, be sure to determine the amount of omega-3s per serving. Many doctors often recommend 1000 to 1200 mg of fish oil because that amount of fish oil contains the total amount of omega-3s the doctor wants you to consume. 1000 mg or 1200 mg of fish oil doesn’t equal 1000 or 1200 mg of omega-3s. A standard 1000 mg fish oil softgel provides around 300 mg of omega-3s (and even less of the important EPA and DHA), and to meet the 500 mg EPA and DHA recommendation, a minimum of two softgels would be necessary. Make sure to read the “Supplement Facts” label to determine the amount of EPA and DHA in a fish oil/omega-3 supplement.
Some research indicates that people who eat more seafood may have a reduced risk of cognitive decline. However, omega-3 supplements haven’t been shown to help prevent cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease or to improve symptoms of these conditions. For example, a large NIH-sponsored study completed in 2015 indicated that taking EPA and DHA supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older adults. The people studied were participants in a larger eye disease study, and all of them had age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Children require DHA for growth and development, and the brain, CNS and retina rely heavily on the adequate supply of DHA during growth in the womb. Thus women should emphasise DHA in their diets when they become pregnant and continue to take this until they cease breastfeeding. Children continue to need DHA up until the age they start school, so if children under the age of five are taking an omega-3 supplement, it should contain DHA. The exception is for children with developmental problems – where pure EPA or high EPA omega-3 has been shown to be most effective for supporting cognitive function. We would still recommend, where possible, naturally derived sources of omega-3 such as oily fish to support a balanced EPA and DHA intake.
Funding/Support: The work was supported in part by grant 17H04253, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; grant 30-A-17 from the National Cancer Center Research and Development Fund; grants MOST106-2314-B-039-027-MY, 106-2314-B-038-049, 106-2314-B-039-031, 106-2314-B-039-035, 104-2314-B-039-022-MY2, and 104-2314-B-039-050-MY3 from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan; grant HRI-EX105-10528NI from the National Health Research Institutes, Taiwan; and grants CRS-106-063, DMR-107-202, and DMR-107-204 from the China Medical University, Taiwan.
EPA and DHA stand for eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid respectively. These fatty acids are omega-3 fats, which are found in cold water fish. EPA DHA are highly unsaturated fats because they contain six and five double bonds on their long structural chains. These polyunsaturated fats play a very important role with the function of our bodies.
Research conducted by Professor Peter Howe at the University of South Australia has shown that fish oil improves the efficacy of exercise in attempts to reduce weight. Volunteers who were given fish oil in their diet showed greater weight loss as compared to those who did not regularly consume it. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help to promote the weight loss, so a combination of physical workout and intake of this oil helps in reducing body fat significantly faster.
There is some evidence that omega−3 fatty acids are related to mental health, including that they may tentatively be useful as an add-on for the treatment of depression associated with bipolar disorder. Significant benefits due to EPA supplementation were only seen, however, when treating depressive symptoms and not manic symptoms suggesting a link between omega−3 and depressive mood. There is also preliminary evidence that EPA supplementation is helpful in cases of depression. The link between omega−3 and depression has been attributed to the fact that many of the products of the omega−3 synthesis pathway play key roles in regulating inflammation (such as prostaglandin E3) which have been linked to depression. This link to inflammation regulation has been supported in both in vitro and in vivo studies as well as in meta-analysis studies. The exact mechanism in which omega−3 acts upon the inflammatory system is still controversial as it was commonly believed to have anti-inflammatory effects.
In addition, there was no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs and those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the adolescent subgroup (aged <18 years) (k, 3; Hedges g, 0.020; 95% CI, –0.209 to 0.250; P = .86),48,53,57 in the adult subgroup (aged ≥18 years but <60 years) (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.388; 95% CI, –0.012 to 0.788; P = .06),33,35,36,47,49-51,54-56,59 or in the elderly subgroup (aged ≥60 years) (k, 3; Hedges g, –0.112; 95% CI, –0.406 to 0.181; P = .45).52,58,60 These insignificant results might be due to the smaller sample sizes in each subgroup.
First, EPA inhibits the enzyme that produces arachidonic acid. Second, EPA impedes the release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes (where it is stored) and its metabolization once it is released. Without this release and metabolization, your body can’t make eicosanoids. The result is lower risk of the inflammation that would have been caused by all that arachidonic acid going to eicosanoids.
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.
A six week, double-blind study on fish oil supplementation for body composition showed that the group taking 4 grams/day of fish oil (contained 1600mg if EPA & 800mg of DHA) experienced a significant increase in lean body mass and significant decrease in fat mass compared to a group that took safflower oil (an omega-6 oil). The fish oil group also saw a tendency for decreases in cortisol, a hormone associated with belly fat gain when elevated.
EPA is the precursor to DHA in the body and can be converted to DHA with the enzyme delta-6 desaturase, but this process is inefficient in many people (much like the inefficiency of short-chain omega-3s to long-chain). For those individuals taking pure EPA products as well as those taking our EPA-rich products, we still recommend eating oily fish at least once each week to provide a natural source of DHA. Fish provides a unique nutritional package, supplying the diet with important amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and antioxidants, including vitamins and minerals needed to process fats, so eating fish will also support the natural enzyme-dependent EPA to DHA conversion.
46. Gajos G, Rostoff P, Undas A, Piwowarska W. Effects of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids on responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention: the OMEGA-PCI (OMEGA-3 fatty acids after pci to modify responsiveness to dual antiplatelet therapy) study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2010;55:1671–8. [PubMed]
Keep in mind that APA found in plant-based foods takes a lot of energy for your body to convert to EPA and DHA. I understand that many people following a vegan diet struggle with the concept of fish oil or eating fish, but animal products contain the necessary omega-3 fatty acids to allow your body to absorb and synthesize what you take in. However, there are plant-based options — you’ll just need more APA because of the way your body processes the medium-chain fatty acid.
In our analysis, most of the included studies showed a positive Hedges g toward a beneficial effect of omega-3 PUFAs in anxiety reduction, although not all findings were statistically significant. However, after merging of these effect sizes from all of the included studies, the main result showed significant findings in our meta-analysis. Despite the significant heterogeneity, no significant publication bias was found among these 19 studies.
In my opinion, the key benefit of DHA lies in its unique spatial characteristics. As mentioned earlier, the extra double bond (six in DHA vs. five in EPA) and increased carbon length (22 carbons in DHA vs. 20 in EPA) means that DHA takes up takes up a lot more space than does EPA in the membrane. Although this increase in spatial volume makes DHA a poor substrate for phospholipase A2 as well as the COX and LOX enzymes, it does a great job of making membranes (especially those in the brain) a lot more fluid as the DHA sweeps out a much greater volume in the membrane than does EPA. This increase in membrane fluidity is critical for synaptic vesicles and the retina of the eye as it allows receptors to rotate more effectively thus increasing the transmission of signals from the surface of the membrane to the interior of the nerve cells. This is why DHA is a critical component of these highly fluid portions of the nerves (7). On the other hand, the myelin membrane is essentially an insulator so that relatively little DHA is found in that part of the membrane.
There’s more good news when it comes to fish oil and eye health, and it’s just not just for diabetic this time. Fish oil has been shown to reverse age-related eye disorders. In March 2014, French researchers evaluated 290 patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and they discovered that dietary oil fish and seafood intake were significantly lower in AMD patients. Due to the high EPA and DHA levels in fish oil, it was concluded that this kind of nutritional intervention could especially benefit those at high risk for neovascular age-related macular degeneration. (24)
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.