Fish oil contains two very important omega-3 PUFAs. I’m talking about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are sometimes called the marine omega-3s because they mainly come from fish. Some of the best fish to eat to obtain fish oil from in your diet include wild-caught salmon, herring, white fish, sardines and anchovies.
ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means that you need it but you must get this fat from your diet because your body is unable to produce it. In general, omega 3 fats are a crucial component of all cell membranes, including the eye (retina) and brain as well as aiding in the process of energy production to support functions involving the heart, lungs, immune system, and hormones (endocrine system), work properly.1
When it comes to fat, there's one type you don’t want to cut back on: omega-3 fatty acids. Two crucial ones -- EPA and DHA -- are primarily found in certain fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), another omega-3 fatty acid, is found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds. Not only does your body need these fatty acids to function, but also they deliver some big health benefits.
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.
Most Americans take in far more of another essential fat—omega-6 fats—than they do omega-3 fats. Some experts have raised the hypothesis that this higher intake of omega-6 fats could pose problems, cardiovascular and otherwise, but this has not been supported by evidence in humans. (4) In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, for example, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats wasn’t linked with risk of heart disease because both of these were beneficial. (5) Many other studies and trials in humans also support cardiovascular benefits of omega-6 fats. Although there is no question that many Americans could benefit from increasing their intake of omega-3 fats, there is evidence that omega-6 fats also positively influence cardiovascular risk factors and reduce heart disease.
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.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): This plant-based omega-3 is found in green, leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds and canola, walnut and soybean oils (although those rancid oils are not ones I generally recommend). ALA is known as a short-chain omega-3, meaning your body has to convert it into longer-chained EPA and DHA to synthesize it. This process is rather inefficient and only about one percent of the ALA you consume is converted to the long-chain version your body needs (although this percentage is slightly higher for women).
Infant development. There is some evidence that mothers who eat fish or take fish oil supplements during pregnancy may improve some aspects of their baby's mental development. Taking fish oil during breast-feeding does not have this effect. However, feeding infants formula fortified with fish oil appears to improve some aspect of the baby's vision by the age of 2 months.
A study published in Brain Research shows how far-reaching fish oil can be for people with diabetes. Researches found that fish oil can help reduce the risk of diabetics from developing cognitive deficit because it protects the hippocampus cells from being destroyed. The study also showed that fish oil could help reduce oxidative stress, which plays a central role in the development of diabetes complications, both microvascular and cardiovascular. (22)
A Pregnancy Prerequisite: Omega-3 fatty acids directly affect brain development, making it crucial for expectant mothers. Additionally, research indicates they decrease a mother's risk of depression. When the mother doesn't have enough of these essential fatty acids, the baby borrows from her. Some prenatal vitamins now include omega-3s, so be sure to check the label or grab a handful of walnuts each day.
Not surprising, there are some areas in which both EPA and DHA appear to be equally beneficial. As an example, both are equally effective in reducing triglyceride levels (10). This is probably due to the relatively equivalent activation of the gene transcription factor (PPAR alpha) that causes the enhanced synthesis of the enzymes that oxidize fats in lipoprotein particles. There is also apparently equal activation of the anti-inflammatory gene transcription factor PPAR-gamma (11). Both seem to be equally effective in making powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids known as resolvins (12). Finally, although both have no effect on total cholesterol levels, DHA can increase the size of LDL particle to a greater extent than can EPA (10).
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).
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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.
Due to the presence of Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil has been promoted for relieving depression, sadness, anxiety, restlessness, mental fatigue, stress, decreased sexual desire, suicidal tendencies, and other nervous disorders. Researchers at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, in their research publication titled “Fish Oils and Bipolar Disorder: A Promising but Untested Treatment”, state that fish oil can be useful in mood stabilization and the treatment of bipolar disorders. It is unsurprising, therefore, that countries where fish is frequently eaten, have a low incidence of depression. Similarly, research conducted on prisoners has shown that when prisoners were given seafood containing a higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids, there was a significant drop in the homicide rate and the frequency of violence. Intake of fish is also a good remedy for depression. Findings of a research study suggest that fish consumption may be beneficial for women’s mental health and reduces the risk of developing depression in women.
Fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes.[3][4][5][6] Earlier, in 2007, the American Heart Association had recommended the consumption of 1 gram of fish oil daily, preferably by eating fish, for patients with coronary artery disease, but cautioned pregnant and nursing women to avoid eating fish with high potential for mercury contaminants including mackerel, shark, and swordfish.[32] (Optimal dosage was related to body weight.)
Researchers are taking a hard look at a different sort of balance, this one between possible effects of marine and plant omega-3 fats on prostate cancer. Results from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and others show that men whose diets are rich in EPA and DHA (mainly from fish and seafood) are less likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than those with low intake of EPA and DHA. (6) At the same time, some-but not all-studies show an increase in prostate cancer and advanced prostate cancer among men with high intakes of ALA (mainly from supplements). However, this effect is inconsistent. In the very large Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, for example, there was no link between ALA intake and early, late, or advanced prostate cancer. (7)
Fish oil contains two very important omega-3 PUFAs. I’m talking about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are sometimes called the marine omega-3s because they mainly come from fish. Some of the best fish to eat to obtain fish oil from in your diet include wild-caught salmon, herring, white fish, sardines and anchovies.

The GISSI-Prevenzione trial40 showed similar findings. In this open-label trial, 11,324 post-MI patients were followed for 3.5 years after randomization to either 1 g/d of omega-3 FA, vitamin E, both, or none. In the 2836 patients assigned to only omega-3 FA, the primary end point of death, nonfatal MI or stroke, was reduced by 10%. This decreased risk occurred despite a minimal triglyceride-lowering effect because of the relatively low dose of omega-3 FA. Of note, the GISSI-Prevenzione trial was done prior to the pervasive use of lipid-lowering agents. Only about 40% of patients were on any form of lipid-lowering therapy.


Most brands of fish oil have been proven safe, free of detectable traces of mercury, and do not contain unsafe levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a toxin and pollutant believed to pose various health threats. To avoid contaminants in an unrefined supplement, it's best to choose a fish-oil supplement made from small, oily fish like anchovy, sardines or menhaden.
A 2009 metastudy found that patients taking omega-3 supplements with a higher EPA:DHA ratio experienced fewer depressive symptoms. The studies provided evidence that EPA may be more efficacious than DHA in treating depression. However, this metastudy concluded that due to the identified limitations of the included studies, larger, randomized trials are needed to confirm these findings.[40]
Belalcazar, L. M., Reboussin, D. M., Haffner, S. M., Reeves, R. S., Schwenke, D. C., Hoogeveen, R. C., Pi-Sunyer, F. X., and Ballantyne, C. M. Marine omega-3 fatty acid intake: associations with cardiometabolic risk and response to weight loss intervention in the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study. Diabetes Care 2010;33(1):197-199. View abstract.
Whilst EPA and DHA are both considered to be important regulators of immunity, platelet aggregation and inflammation, their health-influencing by-products arise from very different pathways and their effects in the body differ. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes, present in all organs and most abundant in the brain and retina, playing an important structural role. EPA is present structurally only in minute quantities, always being utilised and under constant demand to be replaced. Whilst DHA provides mainly a structural role, it is becoming evident that EPA may be the dominant functional fatty acid out of the two in many areas of health and especially in inflammatory conditions.
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.
Heterogeneity was examined using the Q statistic and the corresponding P values,41 and the I2 statistic was used to evaluate the proportion of variation resulting from among-study differences. Any possible publication bias was detected with both funnel plots and Egger regression in the main part of the meta-analysis.42 By using Duval and Tweedie’s trim-and-fill test, we adjusted the effect sizes for potential publication bias if there was evidence of publication bias detected by this test in the Comprehensive Meta-analysis statistical software, version 3.43 To investigate the potential confounding effects of any outliers within the recruited studies, sensitivity testing was conducted with the 1-study removal method to detect the potential outliers.44

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).
Katzman  MA, Bleau  P, Blier  P,  et al; Canadian Anxiety Guidelines Initiative Group on behalf of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada/Association Canadienne des troubles anxieux and McGill University.  Canadian clinical practice guidelines for the management of anxiety, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders.  BMC Psychiatry. 2014;14(suppl 1):S1. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-S1-S1PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
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The bottom line of all that is that there was no clear health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids in food or supplements. There was a suggestion of a possible benefit from LCn3 on cardiac events, but this did not hold up when they took into consideration the quality of the evidence. The better trials, with less risk of bias, tended to be negative.
A new Cochrane systematic review, published today in the Cochrane Library, combines the results of seventy-nine randomised trials involving 112,059 people. These studies assessed effects of consuming additional omega 3 fat, compared to usual or lower omega 3, on diseases of the heart and circulation. Twenty-five studies were assessed as highly trustworthy because they were well designed and conducted.
^ Jump up to: a b Hooper L, Thompson RL, Harrison RA, Summerbell CD, Ness AR, Moore HJ, Worthington HV, Durrington PN, Higgins JP, Capps NE, Riemersma RA, Ebrahim SB, Davey Smith G (2006). "Risks and benefits of omega−3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review". BMJ. 332 (7544): 752–60. doi:10.1136/bmj.38755.366331.2F. PMC 1420708. PMID 16565093. Retrieved 2006-07-07.[permanent dead link]
The current American diet has changed over time to be high in SFA and low in omega-3 fatty acids (12). This change in eating habits is centered on fast food containing high amounts of saturated fat, which has small amounts of essential omega-3 PUFA compared with food prepared in the home (13). Seafood sources such as fish and fish-oil supplements are the primary contributors of the 2 biologically important dietary omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA (14–16). This low intake of dietary EPA and DHA is thought to be associated with increased inflammatory processes as well as poor fetal development, general cardiovascular health, and risk of the development of Alzheimer's disease (AD).
^ Jump up to: a b Casula M, Soranna D, Catapano AL, Corrao G (August 2013). "Long-term effect of high dose omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for secondary prevention of cardiovascular outcomes: A meta-analysis of randomized, placebo controlled trials [corrected]". Atherosclerosis. Supplements. 14 (2): 243–51. doi:10.1016/S1567-5688(13)70005-9. PMID 23958480.
EPA and DHA are vital nutrients and may be taken to maintain healthy function of the following: brain and retina: DHA is a building block of tissue in the brain and retina of the eye. It helps with forming neural transmitters, such as phosphatidylserine, which is important for brain function. DHA is found in the retina of the eye and taking DHA may be necessary for maintaining healthy levels of DHA for normal eye function.
Today the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved form of dietary omega-3 FA supplement is Lovaza (omega-3-acid ethyl esters; GlaxoSmithKline), which contains 375 mg of DHA and 465 mg of EPA per 1 g capsule. The myriad of dietary supplements of fish oil, including Kosher capsules, vary from comparable content to insignificant amounts, and for the most part can include other fats and cholesterols. In comparison, to achieve approximately 1 g of EPA and DHA in a meal, 12 ounces of canned light tuna, 2 to 3 ounces of sardines, 1.5 to 2.5 ounces of farmed Atlantic salmon, or 20 ounces of farmed catfish must be consumed (Table 1).65 Unfortunately, potentially high levels of harmful pollutants offset this source of omega-3 FA. The FDA action level for unacceptably high mercury content in fish is 1.0 μg/g. The mercury level in most fish is at or below 0.1 μg/g, but tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel have high levels of mercury. The majority of fish species also contain <100 ng/g of polychlorinated biphenyls, which is below the FDA action level of 2000 ng/g. Dioxins, which do not have FDA action levels, are present in the majority of marine life.66
The DART study, published in 1989, was the first randomized trial to show the efficacy of fish oil on CAD.37 In the trial, 2033 post-MI patients were randomized to receive 3 types of diets: a diet that was either high in cereal fiber, polyunsaturated fat, or fish oil. The fish oil group consumed 200 to 400 g/wk of fatty fish (2 portions of fish per week) or 0.5 g/d of Maxepa fish oil supplement. At 2 years, the primary end point of all-cause mortality was reduced by 29% in the fish oil group, whereas no improvement was seen in the other dietary advice groups.
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
Omega-3 fatty acids get a fair amount of time in the press and a great deal of respect at this point. But do you know what omega-3s are? What omega-3 benefits could convince you to add more oily fish (or maybe a supplement) to your diet? Are omega-3 foods really that big of a deal when it comes to eating a nutrient-dense diet? Could you be deficient in these fatty acids?
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.
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