Humans are unable to place double bonds beyond position 9 on long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA), making the omega-3 FA synthesized in plants and in marine microalgae essential elements to the human diet.1 Fish contain high levels of 2 omega-3 FA, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; C20:5 n-3), and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]; C22:6 n-3)2,3 (Fig. 1). Many claims about the role of these omega-3 FA have been made in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. For instance, fish oil is seen as having a therapeutic role in coronary artery disease (CAD), heart failure, fatal and nonfatal arrhythmias, as well as offering an alternative or adjunct to the standard therapy for hypertriglyceridemia and diabetes. This review will highlight the potential mechanisms of fish oil on cardiovascular disease and provide an update of clinical trial results. The established uses in the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia and sources of omega-3 FA—both dietary and drug therapy—will be iterated, along with its potential application in combination with standard hypolipidemic agents. Finally, the limitations of current data will be addressed, as well as suggested recommendations for clinical use.
Saito, Y., Yokoyama, M., Origasa, H., Matsuzaki, M., Matsuzawa, Y., Ishikawa, Y., Oikawa, S., Sasaki, J., Hishida, H., Itakura, H., Kita, T., Kitabatake, A., Nakaya, N., Sakata, T., Shimada, K., and Shirato, K. 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(1):135-140. View abstract.
Corresponding Author: Yutaka J. Matsuoka, MD, PhD, Division of Health Care Research, Center for Public Health Sciences, National Cancer Center Japan, 5-1-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan (firstname.lastname@example.org); Kuan-Pin Su, MD, PhD, China Medical University Hospital, No. 2, Yude Road, North District, Taichung City, Taiwan 404 (email@example.com).
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.
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.
Among the 16 studies comparing the effect of omega-3 PUFA treatment with that of the placebo,33,34,36,47-49,51-53,55-61 the main results revealed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 16; Hedges g, 0.372; 95% CI, 0.032-0.712; P = .03; eFigure 3 in the Supplement). The meta-analysis of the subgroup focusing on non–placebo-controlled trials also showed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 3; Hedges g, 0.399; 95% CI, 0.154-0.643; P = .001).35,50,54
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.
Some studies suggest that people who get higher amounts of omega-3s from foods and dietary supplements may have a lower risk of breast cancer and perhaps colorectal cancer. More research is needed to confirm this possible link. Whether omega-3s affect the risk of other cancers is not clear. Clinical trials to examine this possibility are in progress.
Boucher, O., Burden, M. J., Muckle, G., Saint-Amour, D., Ayotte, P., Dewailly, E. ... Jacobson, J. L.. (2011, May). Neurophysiologic and neurobehavioral evidence of beneficial effects of prenatal omega-3 fatty acid intake on memory function at school age. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 93(5), 1025-1037. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/5/1025.full
It can be challenging to get the appropriate intake of EPA and DHA through diet alone, even though EPA and DHA are produced by water plants such as algae and are prevalent in marine animals. A shorter chain omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (ALA),6 is a prominent component of our diet as it is found in many land plants that are commonly eaten, but it does not provide the health benefits seen with EPA and DHA. Although it is possible for the body to convert ALA to EPA and DHA by enlongase and desaturase enzymes, research suggests that only a small amount can be synthesized in the body from this process (8). For example, 1 study suggested that only ∼2 to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA or DHA (9), and other studies found even less: Goyens et al. (10) found an ALA conversion of ∼7% for EPA, but only 0.013% for DHA; Hussein et al. (11) found an ALA conversion of only 0.3% for EPA and <0.01% for DHA.
Dry eye. Higher intake of fish oil from the diet has been linked to a lower risk of dry eye in women. But the effects of fish oil in people with dry eye are inconsistent. Some research shows that fish oil reduces dry eye symptoms such as pain, blurred vision, and sensitivity. But fish oil doesn’t seem to improve other signs and symptoms of dry eye such as tear production and damage to the surface of the eye. Taking fish oil also doesn’t improve signs and symptoms of dry eye when used with other dry eye treatments.
Maternal nutrition guidelines have always stressed a diet including sufficient caloric and protein requirements, but recently fatty acids have also been deemed important (17). This is partially due to the fact that EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with multiple benefits for the infant (Table 1). During pregnancy, the placenta transfers nutrients, including DHA, from the mother to the fetus (18). The amount of omega-3 fatty acid in the fetus is correlated with the amount ingested by the mother, so it is essential that the mother has adequate nutrition (19). The 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dietary guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should “consume 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week from a variety of seafood types” (12). Ingesting 8–12 oz of seafood per week, depending on the type of fish, is equivalent to ∼300–900 mg EPA+DHA per day. Unfortunately, this amount is not being met by most mothers in the United States and Canada, which means that infants many not be receiving adequate amounts of these vital nutrients in the womb (20).
All people need to consume omega-3 fats regularly. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females, according to the National Institutes of Health. The omega-3 family encompasses numerous fatty acids, but three primary forms are eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid. The first two forms primarily occur in fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna. The third can be found in plant oils, including flaxseed, soybean, walnut, and canola oils.
It’s no surprise that fish — particularly cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies — are rich in omega-3s. It’s called fish oil for a reason, right? Mackerel, for instance, may have more than 3300 mg of omega-3 per serving — that’s more than 6 times the recommended per day dose for healthy adults. Not a huge fish connoisseur? Try some of the quick, simple recipes in Cooking with Fish Like a Pro, an accessible collection of fish recipes to suit every palate.
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.
Human growth and intellectual development – DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increase 300 to 500 percent in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy. Adding DHA to a pregnant mother’s diet may be beneficial for the fetus’s brain development. Elderly people should also take EPA DHA, because as we get older, our bodies form less EPA and DHA, which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Taking EPA DHA also may help with mental abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Foods such as meat, eggs, fish and nuts contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which the body converts into endocannabinoids – cannabinoids that the body produces naturally, said Aditi Das, a University of Illinois professor of comparative biosciences and biochemistry, who led the study. Cannabinoids in marijuana and endocannabinoids produced in the body can support the body’s immune system and therefore are attractive targets for the development of anti-inflammatory therapeutics, she said.
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.
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.
Scaly, itchy skin (eczema). Research shows that fish oil does not improve eczema. Most research also shows that taking fish oil during pregnancy doesn't PREVENT eczema in the child. Giving fish oil to an infant also doesn't seem to prevent eczema in children. But children who eat fish at least once weekly from the age of 1-2 years seem to have a lower risk of developing eczema.