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.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that everyone eats fish (particularly fatty, coldwater fish) at least twice a week. Salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, lake trout, and tuna are especially high in omega-3 fatty acids. While foods are your best bet for getting omega-3s in your diet, fish oil supplements are also available for those who do not like fish. The heart-healthy benefits of regular doses of fish oil supplements are unclear, so talk to your doctor to see if they're right for you. If you have heart disease or high triglyceride levels, you may need even more omega-3 fatty acids. Ask your doctor if you should take higher doses of fish oil supplements to get the omega-3s you need.
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.
Since 2004, scientists have been suggesting that the omega-3 index be used as a way to measure a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, in a similar way to how cholesterol levels are used today (1). A recent study funded by the National Institutes for Health even indicated that the omega-3 index could be a better predictor of death risk than serum cholesterol levels (2).
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.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Fish oil is LIKELY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Taking fish oil during pregnancy does not seem to affect the fetus or baby while breast-feeding. Women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant, and nursing mothers should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (also called golden bass or golden snapper), as these may contain high levels of mercury. Limit consumption of other fish to 12 ounces/week (about 3 to 4 servings/week). Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when dietary sources are consumed in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury.
Interestingly, the results are also consistent with our recent findings that somatic anxiety is associated with omega-3 PUFA deficits and the genetic risks of PUFA metabolic enzyme cytosolic phospholipase A2 in major depressive disorder62,63 and interferon α–induced neuropsychiatric syndrome.63,64 Brain membranes contain a high proportion of omega-3 PUFAs and their derivatives and most animal and human studies suggest that a lack of omega-3 PUFAs in the brain might induce various behavioral and neuropsychiatric disorders,16,65-70 including anxiety-related behaviors.12,18,19,32,49,71 Emerging evidence suggests that omega-3 PUFAs interfere with and possibly control several neurobiological processes, such as neurotransmitter systems, neuroplasticity, and inflammation,12,72 which is postulated to be the mechanism underlying anxiety and depression.
Heart disease. Research suggests that 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.
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are common toxins in seafood. Although the U.S. banned the use of PCBs and DDT in 1976, these and other chemicals are still used in half the world's commercial chemical processes. Substances like these can hang around in the air, soil, and water for many years. They end up in the bodies of fish and animals.
Three randomized trials assessing more than 600 patients with known malignant ventricular arrhythmia were carried out under the protection of implanted cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) therapy.41–43 In all 3 of the trials, 75% of the patients had ischemic heart disease, survived ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation and were randomized to 1 to 3 g/d of fish oil. In the first trial of its kind, 402 patients with ICDs were randomized to either a fish oil or an olive oil supplement.41 Although statistical significance was not reached, after approximately 1 year the primary end-point of time to first ICD cardioversion for ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation or death from any cause was longer in the fish oil group. This finding was not replicated in a trial of 200 patients who were randomized to either fish oil or a placebo and followed for a median of approximately 2 years.42 In fact, time to first ICD cardioversion was not changed and the incidence of recurrent ventricular tachycardia and fibrillation was more common in the group assigned to fish oil. In the largest trial, 546 patients were randomized to supplemental fish oil or a placebo and were followed for a mean period of 1 year.43 The primary outcome of the rate of ICD cardioversion or all-cause mortality was not reduced. It was concluded in a recent meta-analysis of these trials that fish oil did not have a protective effect.44
The number, location, and orientation of the double bonds determine the health effects of fatty acids on the body. One aspect of this is their effect on triglycerides and LDL and HDL types of cholesterol, which in turn affect how much cholesterol gets deposited on the inside of blood vessels. There are also subtypes of LDL and HDL which are also likely important to their health effects.
ODS seeks to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, supporting research, sharing research results, and educating the public. Its resources include publications (such as Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know), fact sheets on a variety of specific supplement ingredients and products (such as vitamin D and multivitamin/mineral supplements), and the PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset
Fearon, K. C., Von Meyenfeldt, M. F., Moses, A. G., Van Geenen, R., Roy, A., Gouma, D. J., Giacosa, A., Van Gossum, A., Bauer, J., Barber, M. D., Aaronson, N. K., Voss, A. C., and Tisdale, M. J. Effect of a protein and energy dense n-3 fatty acid enriched oral supplement on loss of weight and lean tissue in cancer cachexia: a randomised double blind trial. Gut 2003;52(10):1479-1486. View abstract.
Abnormal cholesterol or fat levels in the blood (dyslipidemia). There is conflicting evidence about the effects of fish oil on cholesterol and fat levels in the blood. Some research shows that taking fish oil can lower triglyceride levels, low density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol, and increase high density lipoprotein (HDL or "good") cholesterol in people with abnormal cholesterol levels. However, other research shows that taking fish oil daily does not have this effect.
Ozaydin, M., Erdogan, D., Tayyar, S., Uysal, B. A., Dogan, A., Icli, A., Ozkan, E., Varol, E., Turker, Y., and Arslan, A. N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids administration does not reduce the recurrence rates of atrial fibrillation and inflammation after electrical cardioversion: a prospective randomized study. Anadolu.Kardiyol.Derg. 2011;11(4):305-309. View abstract.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 3 g/day of EPA and DHA combined, including up to 2 g/day from dietary supplements. Higher doses are sometimes used to lower triglycerides, but anyone taking omega-3s for this purpose should be under the care of a healthcare provider because these doses could cause bleeding problems and possibly affect immune function. Any side effects from taking omega-3 supplements in smaller amounts are usually mild. They include an unpleasant taste in the mouth, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea, headache, and smelly sweat.
Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need each day, but suggestions range from a fish oil dosage of 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily depending on whom you ask. How easy is it to get these recommended amounts? To give you an idea, there are more than 500 milligrams of total omega-3s in one can of tuna fish and one small serving of wild-caught salmon.
The three types of omega-3s are APA, EPA and DHA. The first is a medium-chain fatty acid and must be converted into EPA before being synthesized by the body, and only about 1 percent of the APA consumed is able to be converted. EPA and DHA are already in a form ready to be synthesized (and are the subject of most scientific research regarding omega-3s).
A Cochrane meta-analysis published in June 2012 found no significant protective effect for cognitive decline for those aged 60 and over and who started taking fatty acids after this age. A co-author of the study said to Time, "Our analysis suggests that there is currently no evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplements provide a benefit for memory or concentration in later life".
Hanwell, H. E., Kay, C. D., Lampe, J. W., Holub, B. J., and Duncan, A. M. Acute fish oil and soy isoflavone supplementation increase postprandial serum (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids and isoflavones but do not affect triacylglycerols or biomarkers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr 2009;139(6):1128-1134. View abstract.
Results In total, 1203 participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment (mean age, 43.7 years; mean female proportion, 55.0%; mean omega-3 PUFA dosage, 1605.7 mg/d) and 1037 participants without omega-3 PUFA treatment (mean age, 40.6 years; mean female proportion, 55.0%) showed an association between clinical anxiety symptoms among participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment compared with control arms (Hedges g, 0.374; 95% CI, 0.081-0.666; P = .01). Subgroup analysis showed that the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly greater in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was significantly better than that of controls only in subgroups with a higher dosage (at least 2000 mg/d) and not in subgroups with a lower dosage (<2000 mg/d).
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.
Basil — a flavorful and easy-to-find herb — is a strong source of omega-3 fatty acids. Since basil is used primarily as a seasoning, however, you likely won’t get a full day’s supply of omega-3 from a standard serving. For best results, use whole basil leaves, and add them toward the end of your meal’s cooking time to preserve the plant’s nutrients. In addition to delivering omega-3s, basil teas like Buddha Tea’s Organic Holy Basil Tea also promote calm and reduce cell inflammation.
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.
Causing unsafe conditions. Fish oil may increase the risk of bleeding, which can lead to an unsafe condition. Excessive bleeding inside the body may also lead to conditions such as ulcers or liver disease which could be quite dangerous. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of this condition such as bruising easily or nosebleeds which could be a sign that you are developing this condition. If you begin to bleed more easily than usual then you should reduce the amount of fish oil you take regularly to reduce this condition.
According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, fish oil can aid in preventing or slowing heart disease, which is especially great for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis sufferers who are at a higher risk of developing heart disease. (27) When it comes to using fish oil supplements for the alleviation of psoriasis symptoms, studies have been mixed with some showing improvement but others showing no effect. If you suffer from psoriasis, you may want to try a fish oil supplement, or else I highly recommend that you make sure to have fish rich in omega-3s regularly.
Another small study had all volunteers consume the same exact control diet and substituted fish oil for visible fats (things like butter and cream). The volunteers consumed six grams of fish oil each day for three weeks. They found that body fat mass decreased with the intake of fish oil. The researchers conclude that dietary fish oil reduces body fat and stimulates the use of fatty acids for the production of energy in healthy adults. (33a)
The competition between EPA and DHA during digestion and absorption and the fact that DHA appears to ‘block’ the therapeutic actions of EPA can therefore be an issue if we are looking to optimise the benefits associated with EPA (Martins 2009; Bloch & Qawasmi et al, 2011; Sublette et al, 2011). High dose, high concentration and high ratio EPA supplements increase the effectiveness in depression studies, and pure EPA-only is optimal. Depression is also a condition with an inflammatory basis, so this is likely another significant reason for EPA being the key player – its antagonistic relationship with the inflammatory omega-3 AA (arachidonic acid) is very effective at reducing inflammation.
People used to believe that osteoporosis and osteoarthritis were the result of aging and reduced intake of calcium and milk products. Science has now shown that these bone and joint disorders are, in part, due to inflammation. Because of this, bones and joints are prime targets for the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 oils from both fish and krill.
A scientific review published in 2013 looked at omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and prostate cancer prevention. Researchers concluded that there’s a great deal of evidence suggesting that omega-3s have antiproliferative effects – which means they inhibit cancer cell growth – in cancer cell lines, animal models and humans. In addition, the “direct effects on cancer cells” and indirect anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system fighting the cancer likely contribute to the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to inhibit tumor growth. (14)
Cochrane lead author, Dr. Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia, UK said: “We can be confident in the findings of this review which go against the popular belief that long-chain omega 3 supplements protect the heart. This large systematic review included information from many thousands of people over long periods. Despite all this information, we don’t see protective effects.
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The effect of fish oil on incident atrial fibrillation has not been studied in large randomized trials, and observational population-based trials show mixed results. The Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Study, and the Rotterdam Study followed 47,000 and 5100 middle-aged adults, respectively.45,46 Neither study found that the consumption of fish oil affected the incidence of atrial fibrillation. Similar findings were seen in the Women’s Health Initiative where there was no association between fish and omega-3 FA intake regarding incident atrial fibrillation.47 However, in a 12-year prospective, observational study of 4815 adults over the age of 65, daily fish consumption was associated with a 31% risk reduction in incident atrial fibrillation.48