If you’ve been paying attention to health headlines over the last few decades, you’ve likely heard about essential fatty acids (EFAs) — specifically omega-3s and omega-6s. These nutrients play many vital roles in supporting our overall health, including increasing nutrient absorption, ensuring proper growth and development of the brain and nervous system, and reducing the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease. Click here for a guide to understanding omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and how they influence your health.
Jump up ^ Martins, Julian G (2009). "EPA but Not DHA Appears to Be Responsible for the Efficacy of Omega-3 Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation in Depression: Evidence from a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials". Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 28 (5): 525–42. doi:10.1080/07315724.2009.10719785. PMID 20439549.
Secondly, when we consume EPA, it inhibits the production of AA from DGLA and also competes with AA for uptake into cell membranes and can therefore lower the amount of AA in membranes by literally saturating the cell – in essence, it takes up more of the available ‘space’ and displaces AA. When there is less AA present, there is a reduced capacity for it to produce inflammatory products.
Fish oils might slow blood clotting. Taking fish oils along with medications that also slow clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding.
Some medications that slow blood clotting include aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), diclofenac (Voltaren, Cataflam, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen (Anaprox, Naprosyn, others), dalteparin (Fragmin), enoxaparin (Lovenox), heparin, warfarin (Coumadin), and others.
Khandelwal, S., Demonty, I., Jeemon, P., Lakshmy, R., Mukherjee, R., Gupta, R., Snehi, U., Niveditha, D., Singh, Y., van der Knaap, H. C., Passi, S. J., Prabhakaran, D., and Reddy, K. S. Independent and interactive effects of plant sterols and fish oil n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on the plasma lipid profile of mildly hyperlipidaemic Indian adults. Br.J.Nutr. 2009;102(5):722-732. 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.
Omega AD study, Irving et al. (54) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 1741 DHA (1.7 g/d) and EPA (0.6 g/d) for 6 mo, then for all subjects (supplementation group and placebo group) Supplementation was associated with positive weight gain and appetite in supplementation group at 6 mo, but not in the placebo group, and for both groups at 12 mo
A group out of India conducted a study published in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology based on the premise that “fish oil rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has been preferred to chemosensitize tumor cells to anti-cancer drugs.” The study found that using 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) to treat colorectal cancer along with fish oil increased the survival rate in carcinogen-treated animals. Researchers also found that the fish oil ameliorated hematologic depression, along with gastrointestinal, hepatic and renal toxicity caused by the 5-FU. (15)
This article had several limitations and the findings need to be considered with caution. First, our participant population is too heterogeneous because of our broad inclusion criteria, which might be true if considering current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or International Classification of Diseases diagnostic systems. However, the novel Research Domain Criteria consider anxiety to be one of the major domains in Negative Valence Systems. Trials should be conducted in populations in which anxiety is the main symptom irrespective of the presence or absence of diagnosis of anxiety disorder. Second, because of the limited number of recruited studies and their modest sample sizes, the results should not be extrapolated without careful consideration. Third, the significant heterogeneity among the included studies (Cochran Q, 178.820; df, 18; I2, 89.934%; P < .001) with potential influence by some outlier studies, such as the studies by Sohrabi et al56 and Yehuda et al,61 would be another major concern. Therefore, clinicians should pay attention to this aspect when applying the results of the current meta-analysis to clinical practice, particularly when considering the subgroups of these 2 studies (ie, subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses, with <2000 mg/d, with EPA <60%, and with placebo-controlled trials).
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]
56. Davidson MH, Stein EA, Bays HE, et al. COMBination of prescription Omega-3 with Simvastatin (COMBOS) Investigators. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther. 2007;29:1354–1367. [PubMed]
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a website, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You, to help people learn about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate. The site includes questions and answers about clinical trials, guidance on how to find clinical trials through ClinicalTrials.gov and other resources, and stories about the personal experiences of clinical trial participants. Clinical trials are necessary to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases.
Sorgi, P. J., Hallowell, E. M., Hutchins, H. L. & Sears, B. (2007, January 17). Effects of an open-label pilot study with high-dose EPA/DHA concentrates on plasma phospholipids and behavior in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Nutrition Journal 6(16). Retrieved from http://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-6-16
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.
We are now fortunate to understand how these fats work in combination and in isolation, how they are digested, absorbed and utilised in the body, so we are able to tailor different blends of EPA and DHA according to the health benefits we are seeking to achieve. At Igennus, we have long specialised in the role of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA in clinical nutrition, as a powerful tool in the patient’s ‘toolkit’ for helping to regulate inflammation by restoring several biological markers, known as the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and AA to EPA ratio. Before we discuss the therapeutic role of EPA in nutritional medicine, here’s a very brief summary of the role of both EPA and DHA in health throughout life.
Dr. Holub has provided the questions and answers for several emails he has received over the years regarding omega-3 fatty acids for health. If you have a question regarding omega-3, it is likely that Dr. Holub has answered it either here in this section, or elsewhere on the site (e.g. check the scientific overview section for general questions regarding omega-3). To quickly find your answer, please use our search bar located in the top right section of this page. After searching our site, and you still cannot find the answer to your question, we invite you to ask Dr. Holub a question here.
The studies recruited men and women, some healthy and others with existing illnesses from North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Participants were randomly assigned to increase their omega 3 fats or to maintain their usual intake of fat for at least a year. Most studies investigated the impact of giving a long-chain omega 3 supplement in a capsule form and compared it to a dummy pill. Only a few assessed whole fish intake. Most ALA trials added omega 3 fats to foods such as margarine and gave these enriched foods, or naturally ALA-rich foods such as walnuts, to people in the intervention groups, and usual (non-enriched) foods to other participants.
1. Omega-3 benefits your heart health. An Italian study (GISSI)5 of 11,324 heart attack survivors found that patients supplementing with fish oils markedly reduced their risk of another heart attack, stroke, or death. In a separate study, 6 American medical researchers reported that men who consumed fish once or more every week had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from a sudden cardiac event than do men who eat fish less than once a month.
This constant sweeping motion of DHA also causes the breakup of lipid rafts in membranes (8). Disruption of these islands of relatively solid lipids makes it more difficult for cancer cells to continue to survive and more difficult for inflammatory cytokines to initiate the signaling responses to turn on inflammatory genes (9). In addition, the greater spatial characteristics of DHA increase the size of LDL particles to a greater extent compared to EPA. As a result, DHA helps reduce the entry of these enlarged LDL particles into the muscle cells that line the artery thus reducing the likelihood of developing atherosclerotic lesions (10). Thus the increased spatial territory swept out by DHA is good news for making certain areas of membranes more fluid or lipoprotein particles larger, even though it reduces the benefits of DHA in competing with AA for key enzymes important in the development of cellular inflammation.
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.
Krauss-Etschmann, S., Hartl, D., Rzehak, P., Heinrich, J., Shadid, R., Del, Carmen Ramirez-Tortosa, Campoy, C., Pardillo, S., Schendel, D. J., Decsi, T., Demmelmair, H., and Koletzko, B. V. Decreased cord blood IL-4, IL-13, and CCR4 and increased TGF-beta levels after fish oil supplementation of pregnant women. J.Allergy Clin.Immunol. 2008;121(2):464-470. View abstract.
FDA pregnancy category C. It is not known whether Fish Oil will harm an unborn baby. Tell your doctor if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant while using Fish Oil. It is not known whether omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids pass into breast milk or if this could harm a nursing baby. Do not use Fish Oil without telling your doctor if you are breast-feeding a baby. Do not give this medication to anyone under 18 years old.
Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but they are less frequent now thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities. Past concerns about omega-3s increasing the risk of bleeding have been largely disproven, but caution is still advised in people taking blood thinners or who are about to undergo surgery. As mentioned, caution is needed in people with bipolar disorder to prevent cycling to mania. Because omega-3s are important to brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3 in expectant mothers, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children. Fish consumption in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on safety or optimal dosing of omega-3s in pregnancy, expectant mothers should consider omega-3 supplements judiciously.
36. Marchioli R, Barzi F, Bomba E, Chieffo C, Di Gregorio D, Di Mascio R, Franzosi MG, Geraci E, Levantesi G, Maggioni AP, et al. Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction: time-course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto Miocardico (GISSI)-Prevenzione. Circulation. 2002;105:1897–903. [PubMed]
The biggest cause of omega-3 deficiency is the overconsumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 comes from things like fried foods, fast foods and boxed foods that contain vegetables oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. When you consume too much omega-6, it can decrease your body’s ability to metabolize healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (36)
Human diet has changed rapidly in recent centuries resulting in a reported increased diet of omega−6 in comparison to omega−3. The rapid evolution of human diet away from a 1:1 omega−3 and omega−6 ratio, such as during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, has presumably been too fast for humans to have adapted to biological profiles adept at balancing omega−3 and omega−6 ratios of 1:1. This is commonly believed to be the reason why modern diets are correlated with many inflammatory disorders. While omega−3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may be beneficial in preventing heart disease in humans, the level of omega−6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (and, therefore, the ratio) does not matter.
And in osteoarthritis, when a DHA/EPA formulation was added to chondroitin sulfate, people experienced more complete relief of symptoms such as stiffness and pain. One study found a significant increase in walking speed in people who supplemented with fish oil versus those who did not.79,80 As with the beneficial results seen in people with bone loss, these positive findings may have been the result of the decreased inflammatory destruction of joint cartilage.81
Thanks to fatdog11 for that informative post about PCB’s in fish-oil supplements. Are these same toxicity levels found in fish themselves, or possibly are these levels so high only in highly concentrated fish-oil products? Also, can fatdog11 please inform us more about algae-derived omega-3. What are the DHA and EPA levels in these capsules? What is the cost, and where can they be purchased?
Omega-3 FA most likely reduce serum triglyceride levels by modulating very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and chylomicron metabolism. There is a consistent finding in the literature that the end effect of fish oil is decreased hepatic secretion of VLDL17—the major endogenous source of triglycerides. This effect occurs most likely through multiple mechanisms, including: (1) decreased synthesis of triglycerides because these omega-3 FA may not be the preferred substrates of the enzyme diacylglycerol O-acyltransferase,18 or they may interact with nuclear transcription factors that control lipogenesis19; cellular metabolism consequently shifts toward a decrease in triglyceride synthesis and an increase in FA oxidation; and (2) the promotion of apolipoprotein B degradation in the liver through the stimulation of an autophagic process.20 This means that fewer VLDL particles can be assembled and secreted. Fish oil may also accelerate VLDL and chylomicron clearance21 by inducing lipoprotein lipase activity.22
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!
Oftentimes this could be a result of poor body composition, poor activity levels, or other things, like a low-quality diet. Now, for other people, I do think it’s the case that for people who do not eat fish and for people whose animal products, especially their eggs, are mostly from animals fed grains rather than pasture-raised animals or who don’t eat eggs, I think in those cases there is an argument for fish oil in the sense that those people are probably not going to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, but the better argument might be: Eat pastured eggs or eat fish. Even eating an oily fish like salmon once or twice a week is probably good enough to provide the omega-3 fatty acids that you need. Eating some pastured egg yolks every day is probably good enough to provide for the omega-3 fatty acids that you need.
The evidence that fish oil consumption should be used for primary prevention of CAD is based on observational studies. The only randomized trial for primary prevention, the JELIS trial, showed a moderate relative risk reduction and was conducted in a very specific group. Nevertheless, to date, there has been no strong signal suggesting any serious adverse effects of having high DHA and EPA oils in the diet. We agree with the national guidelines that one should consume moderate amounts of fish oil— either in supplement or through the dietary intake of fatty fish with low mercury levels.
The FDA recommends that consumers do not exceed more than three grams per day of EPA and DHA combined, with no more than 2 grams from a dietary supplement. This is not the same as 3000 mg of fish oil. A 1000 mg pill typically has only 300 mg of omega-3; 10 such pills would equal 3000 mg of omega-3. According to the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies, supplementation of 5 grams of EPA and DHA combined does not pose a safety concern for adults. Dyerberg studied healthy Greenland Inuit and found an average intake of 5.7 grams of omega-3 EPA per day; among other effects these people had prolonged bleeding times, i.e., slower blood clotting.
In a U.K. study, children of mothers who ate more than 12 ounces a week actually scored better on tests of verbal I.Q., social behavior, and development and communication than children of mothers who ate none. In the Seychelles Islands, where people average 12 fish meals -- not ounces -- a week, there are no reports of links between mercury exposure and poor outcomes in children. These studies suggest that eating less than 12 ounces of fish each week could do more harm to a child's developing neurological system than mercury poisoning.
Scaly, itchy skin (eczema). Fish oil might help PREVENT eczema, but research is not consistent. Some early research suggests that mothers who take fish oil supplements during pregnancy reduce the risk of severe eczema in their infants. Also, population research suggests that children who eat fish at least once weekly from 1 to 2 years of age have a lower risk of developing eczema. But other research, including recent studies, suggests that neither supplementation during pregnancy nor supplementation during infancy reduces the risk of eczema. Overall, research suggests that fish oil does not help TREAT eczema once it has developed.
As always with such trials, you can never prove zero benefit (or zero risk), but an essentially negative trial or meta-analysis sets statistical limits on the size of any remaining plausible effect. What we can now say with a fairly high degree of confidence is that any health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids is tiny, probably too small to warrant supplementing (or adding it to pasta).
The American Heart Association (AHA) has made recommendations for EPA and DHA due to their cardiovascular benefits: individuals with no history of coronary heart disease or myocardial infarction should consume oily fish two times per week; and "Treatment is reasonable" for those having been diagnosed with coronary heart disease. For the latter the AHA does not recommend a specific amount of EPA + DHA, although it notes that most trials were at or close to 1000 mg/day. The benefit appears to be on the order of a 9% decrease in relative risk. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approved a claim "EPA and DHA contributes to the normal function of the heart" for products that contain at least 250 mg EPA + DHA. The report did not address the issue of people with pre-existing heart disease. The World Health Organization recommends regular fish consumption (1-2 servings per week, equivalent to 200 to 500 mg/day EPA + DHA) as protective against coronary heart disease and ischaemic stroke.
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.
Thank you for your kind comment. As pointed out above, the main limitation of our meta-analysis is the heterogeneity, which we address several times in our main manuscript. We included studies with several different situations and participants with different underlying diseases, which would also result in wide heterogeneity in our meta-analysis. Based upon our post-hoc analysis, there was some common characteristics among the six trials with nominally significant results, including specific clinical diagnoses (5/6) and, placebo-control (4/6), which had also previously been addressed in our subgroup meta-analysis. Therefore, we suggested future placebo-controlled trials investigating the treatment effect of omega-3 in participants with specific clinical diagnoses should be warranted. In addition, improving underlying specific clinical diagnoses (5/6), good quality (placebo-control (4/6), low drop-out rate (zero in Exp/control groups: 4/6)), and long treatment duration (>= 12 weeks: 4/6) are all good indicators of high quality.
However, since the dosage of fish oil required for an ideal effect in the improvement of a patient is unknown, the Arthritis Center in the Department of Rheumatology at John Hopkins University considers including omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil in the treatment of arthritis as controversial. The University also cautions that arthritis patients must be wary of all the other side effects that can come from using fish oil. You can read more about arthritis on the web page of the Arthritis Foundation and the Arthritis Center.
Rogers, P. J., Appleton, K. M., Kessler, D., Peters, T. J., Gunnell, D., Hayward, R. C., Heatherley, S. V., Christian, L. M., McNaughton, S. A., and Ness, A. R. No effect of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (EPA and DHA) supplementation on depressed mood and cognitive function: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Nutr 2008;99(2):421-431. View abstract.