A lot of the benefit of fish oil seems to come from the omega-3 fatty acids that it contains. Interestingly, the body does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. Nor can the body make omega-3 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in the Western diet. A lot of research has been done on EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 acids that are often included in fish oil supplements.
The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in these omega-3s. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA. Good sources of these are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
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The ultimate goal of using omega-3 fatty acids is the reduction of cellular inflammation. Since eicosanoids derived from arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid, are the primary mediators of cellular inflammation, EPA becomes the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids to reduce cellular inflammation for a number of reasons. First, EPA is an inhibitor of the enzyme delta-5-desaturase (D5D) that produces AA (1). The more EPA you have in the diet, the less AA you produce. This essentially chokes off the supply of AA necessary for the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes, etc.). DHA is not an inhibitor of this enzyme because it can’t fit into the active catalytic site of the enzyme due to its larger spatial size. As an additional insurance policy, EPA also competes with AA for the enzyme phospholipase A2 necessary to release AA from the membrane phospholipids (where it is stored). Inhibition of this enzyme is the mechanism of action used by corticosteroids. If you have adequate levels of EPA to compete with AA (i.e. a low AA/EPA ratio), you can realize many of the benefits of corticosteroids but without their side effects. That’s because if you don’t release AA from the cell membrane then you can’t make inflammatory eicosanoids. Because of its increased spatial dimensions, DHA is not a good competitor of phospholipase A2 relative to EPA. On the other hand, EPA and AA are very similar spatially so they are in constant competition for the phospholipase A2 enzyme just as both fatty acids are in constant competition for the delta-5 desaturase enzyme. This is why measuring the AA/EPA ratio is such a powerful predictor of the state of cellular inflammation in your body.
It’s uncertain whether omega-3 fatty acid supplements are helpful for depression. Although some studies have had promising results, a 2015 evaluation of 26 studies that included more than 1,400 people concluded that if there is an effect, it may be too small to be meaningful. Other analyses have suggested that if omega-3s do have an effect, EPA may be more beneficial than DHA and that omega-3s may best be used in addition to antidepressant medication rather than in place of it.
Hernandez, D., Guerra, R., Milena, A., Torres, A., Garcia, S., Garcia, C., Abreu, P., Gonzalez, A., Gomez, M. A., Rufino, M., Gonzalez-Posada, J., Lorenzo, V., and Salido, E. Dietary fish oil does not influence acute rejection rate and graft survival after renal transplantation: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Nephrol.Dial.Transplant. 2002;17(5):897-904. View abstract.
Studies have also shown that omega-3 fats are anti-arrhythmic (preventing or counteracting cardiac arrhythmia), anti-thrombotic (prevents thrombosis or a blood clot within a blood vessel), anti-atherosclerotic (preventing fatty deposits and fibrosis of the inner layer of your arteries), and anti-inflammatory (counteracting inflammation – the heat, pain, swelling, etc).
For those who can’t or choose not to eat fatty fish, or who have certain health issues, supplementation is a way to increase omega-3 levels. “There are some conditions that might respond well to supplementation, such as depression or cardiovascular risk factors, including elevated triglycerides,” explains Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, LDN. If you're ooking to increase your omega-3 levels, Click here for six tips to finding the right supplement.
Fish oil supplements in our study averaged 473.3mg EPA + 243.1mg DHA in a single serving. These average values were stretched by outliers on both extremes of the spectrum. Nature Made Cod Liver Oil (50mg EPA/serving) and Schiff MegaRed Krill Oil (29mg DHA/serving) recorded category lows for the two omega-3 fatty acids. Ocean Blue Professional Omega-3 (1260mg EPA/serving) and Dr. Tobias Optimum Omega-3 Fish Oil (600mg DHA/serving), on the other hand, recorded category highs for EPA and DHA content.
Matsumura K, Noguchi H, Nishi D, Hamazaki K, Hamazaki T, Matsuoka YJ. Effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on psychophysiological symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in accident survivors: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Affect Disord. 2017;224:27-31. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2016.05.054PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
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)
Several other analyses of the evidence have been done in the last few years (2012 or later), and like the 2018 analysis and the AHRQ report, most found little or no evidence for a protective effect of omega-3 supplements against heart disease. However, some earlier analyses suggested that omega-3s could be helpful. The difference between the newer conclusions and the older ones may reflect two changes over time:
Reduce Metabolic Syndrome Symptoms: The cluster of risk factors known as metabolic syndrome includes abdominal obesity, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, high blood pressure and low HDL cholesterol. These risk factors are indicative of a high chance you might develop heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Multiple studies have found omega-3 supplementation improve the symptoms of metabolic syndrome and may help to protect you from the related diseases. (22, 23, 24, 25)
The FDA product label on Lovaza warns of potential bleeding complications with the coadministration of anticoagulants. This warning is based on observational studies that suggested a prolonged bleeding time in populations ingesting high levels of fish oil77 and on in vitro studies that demonstrated an effect on pro-thrombotic mediators such as a reduction in thromboxane A2 production78 and platelet activation factor.79 The same trend, however, has not been clearly demonstrated in measurements of clotting times or in factors of fibrinolysis.80 In addition, in randomized clinical trials of patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty, endarterectomy and diagnostic angiography, no adverse bleeding related events have been demonstrated.81 For example, in a trial of 500 patients randomized to pretreatment with 6.9 g of DHA and EPA preparation 2 weeks before balloon percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (where all the patients received 325 mg/d of aspirin and heparin bolus periprocedure), no difference was seen in bleeding complications.82 Similar results were seen in a trial of 610 patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, randomized to either placebo or 4 g/d of fish oil and then further randomized to aspirin or warfarin (dosed to an international normalized ratio [INR] goal of 2.5–4.2). At 1 year, the number of bleeding complications was not increased.15 The effect of fish oil on INR values has not been studied extensively, but a small, randomized trial showed that fish oil did not alter the Coumadin dosing regimen.83 There is very little evidence that a lower target INR is necessary in patients receiving chronic warfarin therapy and fish oil.
Keck, P. E., Jr., Mintz, J., McElroy, S. L., Freeman, M. P., Suppes, T., Frye, M. A., Altshuler, L. L., Kupka, R., Nolen, W. A., Leverich, G. S., Denicoff, K. D., Grunze, H., Duan, N., and Post, R. M. Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials of ethyl-eicosapentanoate in the treatment of bipolar depression and rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Biol.Psychiatry 11-1-2006;60(9):1020-1022. View abstract.
When taking fish oil, more is not always better. Remember that you want it to stay in a balanced ratio with omega-6 fats. For most people, I recommend a 1,000-milligram dose of fish oil daily as a good amount and the most scientifically studied dosage. I highly recommend not taking more than that unless directed to under the supervision of a doctor.
Unintended weight loss is a problem that many patients with AD may face, and EPA+DHA supplementation has had a positive effect on weight gain in patients with AD. In a study using EPA+DHA supplementation, patients' weight significantly increased by 0.7 kg in the EPA+DHA treatment group at 6 mo (P = 0.02) and by 1.4 kg at 12 mo (P < 0.001) and was observed mainly in patients with a BMI <23 at the study start (54). This means that those patients with a lower BMI preferentially gained weight compared with those patients already with a higher BMI.
Bemelmans, W. J., Broer, J., Feskens, E. J., Smit, A. J., Muskiet, F. A., Lefrandt, J. D., Bom, V. J., May, J. F., and Meyboom-de Jong, B. Effect of an increased intake of alpha-linolenic acid and group nutritional education on cardiovascular risk factors: the Mediterranean Alpha-linolenic Enriched Groningen Dietary Intervention (MARGARIN) study. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;75(2):221-227. View abstract.
*Swordfish contains high levels of mercury, as does shark, king mackerel, and tilefish (sometimes called golden bass or golden snapper). Women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should avoid these high-mercury species of fish, but can eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
The effect of fish oil consumption on prostate cancer is controversial, 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. Some evidence indicated an association between high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and an increased prostate cancer risk.
Several large studies have linked higher blood levels of long-chain omega-3s with higher risks of prostate cancer. However, other research has shown that men who frequently eat seafood have lower prostate cancer death rates and that dietary intakes of long-chain omega-3s aren’t associated with prostate cancer risk. The reason for these apparently conflicting findings is unclear.
As with other supplements, when it comes to quality, you get what you pay for. Life Time sources its omega-3 fish oil (both capsules and liquid) from sustainable fisheries off the coast of Chile. We only use oils from small, cold-water anchovy, sardine, and mackerel. It’s molecularly distilled to be sure it’s free of mercury, PCBs, and heavy metals. If your fish oil brand doesn’t name the species of fish it’s sourced from, or it lists larger, predatory species, the quality and purity of the oil could be less than optimal.