I now suspect that those thousands of gel-covered capsules I’ve swallowed over the years may have done little more than enrich the pockets of supplement producers and sellers. A number of extensive analyses have been conducted, some supporting and others refuting the value of fish oils to the cardiovascular system, along with studies of other purported health benefits that also have had mixed results.
Gorjao, R., Verlengia, R., Lima, T. M., Soriano, F. G., Boaventura, M. F., Kanunfre, C. C., Peres, C. M., Sampaio, S. C., Otton, R., Folador, A., Martins, E. F., Curi, T. C., Portiolli, E. P., Newsholme, P., and Curi, R. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil supplementation on human leukocyte function. Clin Nutr 2006;25(6):923-938. View abstract.
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.
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.
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.
An animal study involving the omega-3 ETA discovered that subjects experienced a drop in overall inflammation similar to that caused by NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), but without the dangerous gastrointestinal side effects. The study authors also pointed out that eicosapentaenoic acid seems to be even more potent than the conventional omega-3s found in fish oil supplements (EPA/DHA). (56)
In later life, cognitive function and brain deterioration may become a concern. Once again, maintaining high levels of EPA has been shown to lower the risk of developing and worsening cognitive decline and dementia. If, however, you know someone who already has a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, their brain has already been damaged and needs structural support. At this point, DHA becomes important again and taking a high-EPA product that contains 250mg of DHA also is important to prevent further loss of brain tissue.
People who eat seafood rich in EPA and DHA at least once a week are less likely to die of heart disease, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The fatty acids may also be helpful in relieving symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Fish oil has been rated as "Effective" by MedlinePlus for lowering high triglycerides, which can be a major risk factor for heart disease. Fish oil has been rated as "Likely Effective" for keeping healthy hearts free of disease. Although eating baked or broiled fish can reduce the risk of heart disease, fried fish or fish sandwiches not only cancel out any heart-healthy benefits, but may also contribute to heart disease, MedlinePlus notes.
There was a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs than in those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage less than 60% (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.485; 95% CI, 0.017-0.954; P = .04; Figure 4)35,49,52,54-61 but no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs and those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage of at least 60% (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.092; 95% CI, –0.102 to 0.285; P = .35) (Figure 4).33,34,36,47,48,50,51,53,60 There were no significantly different estimated effect sizes between these 2 subgroups by the interaction test (P = .13).
A healthy balance of dietary omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is a prerequisite for normal immune function, cognitive health, and cardiovascular health. Among other factors, sufficient dietary levels of EPA, DHA or other omega 3 fatty acids are also important in the regulation of normal blood lipoprotein and healthy cholesterol metabolism. Fish oil supplements can also lower elevated triglyceride levels, improving cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart disease.†
Augood, C., Chakravarthy, U., Young, I., Vioque, J., de Jong, P. T., Bentham, G., Rahu, M., Seland, J., Soubrane, G., Tomazzoli, L., Topouzis, F., Vingerling, J. R., and Fletcher, A. E. Oily fish consumption, dietary docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid intakes, and associations with neovascular age-related macular degeneration. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88(2):398-406. View abstract.
EPA, which is eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, which is docosahexaenoic acid, are two types of omega-3 fatty acids that are most commonly found in seafood. These polyunsaturated fats are known to have preventative health benefits and have been studied for their role in treating certain chronic conditions. In addition to dietary sources, certain supplements such as fish oil, are also rich in EPA and DHA.
Fish oil has been shown to have a direct electrophysiological effect on the myocardium. Initial experience with animal ischemia models demonstrated that the ventricular fibrillation threshold was increased in both animals fed or infused with omega-3 FA.23,24 This progressed to a demonstration, on a cellular and ion channel level, that omega-3 FA reduce both sodium currents and L-type calcium currents.25–29 It is hypothesized that during ischemia, a reduction in the sodium ion current protects hyperexcitable tissue, and a reduction in the calcium ion current reduces arrhythmogenic depolarizing currents.30
The question is whether the observed cardiovascular benefits often found among fish eaters is due solely to the oils in fish or to some other characteristics of seafood or to still other factors common to those who eat lots of fish, like eating less meat or pursuing a healthier lifestyle over all. Whatever the answer, it does not seem to be fish oil supplements.
Arsenault, L. N., Matthan, N., Scott, T. M., Dallal, G., Lichtenstein, A. H., Folstein, M. F., Rosenberg, I., and Tucker, K. L. Validity of estimated dietary eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid intakes determined by interviewer-administered food frequency questionnaire among older adults with mild-to-moderate cognitive impairment or dementia. Am J Epidemiol 7-1-2009;170(1):95-103. View abstract.
“This idea has since been pretty discredited; we really don’t know if the Eskimos got heart disease or not,” said Malden C. Nesheim, emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell University, who chaired an Institute of Medicine committee assessing the risks and benefits of seafood in the early 2000s. “I’ve been an omega-3 skeptic since doing this study.”
The US National Institutes of Health lists three conditions for which fish oil and other omega-3 sources are most highly recommended: hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride level), preventing secondary cardiovascular disease, and hypertension (high blood pressure). It then lists 27 other conditions for which there is less evidence. It also lists possible safety concerns: "Intake of 3 grams per day or greater of omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding, although there is little evidence of significant bleeding risk at lower doses. Very large intakes of fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke."
Cancer. Research on the effects of fish oil in preventing cancer has produced conflicting results. Some population research suggests that eating fish or having higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil is linked to a lower risk of different cancers, including oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer. But other research suggests that eating fish does not reduce the risk of cancer.