Chemical structure of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega−3 fatty acid, (18:3Δ9c,12c,15c, which means a chain of 18 carbons with 3 double bonds on carbons numbered 9, 12, and 15). Although chemists count from the carbonyl carbon (blue numbering), biologists count from the n (ω) carbon (red numbering). Note that, from the n end (diagram right), the first double bond appears as the third carbon-carbon bond (line segment), hence the name "n-3". This is explained by the fact that the n end is almost never changed during physiological transformations in the human body, as it is more energy-stable, and other compounds can be synthesized from the other carbonyl end, for example in glycerides, or from double bonds in the middle of the chain.
• Fish oil – Fish oil is among the primary ways that people enhance their intake of omega-3 fats. High-quality fish oils can certainly provide many health benefits. However, this oil is weak in antioxidants. This means that as you increase your omega-3 intake through fish oil consumption, you actually increase your need for added antioxidant protection.
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
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.
Under these conditions, it may make sense to try fish oil even at higher doses than what I recommended. There is some evidence that krill oil will get the omega-3 fatty acids better into the brain in the psychiatric conditions that I listed. And there is some evidence that EPA-rich fish oils are better than DHA-rich fish oils for some of those psychiatric conditions as well. So there’s room to play around with the different possibilities if those things apply to you. But for the average case, limit the fish oil to 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined when you take it, but in all cases, go for food first, and go for fish oil only after you have exhausted those possibilities.
One reason omega-3 fatty acids may be so beneficial to this many aspects of health could be that they help decrease system-wide inflammation. (49, 50, 51, 52, 53) Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and is related to the development of nearly every major illness, so by eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet, you give your body its best chance to fight disease like it was designed to do.
In a study published after the AHRQ report, scientists in Denmark gave high-dose fish oil supplements or placebos to 736 pregnant women during the third trimester of pregnancy. Children born to mothers who had taken fish oil were less likely to develop asthma or persistent wheezing in early childhood, and this was most noticeable in children whose mothers had low blood levels of EPA and DHA before they started to take the supplements. However, other studies that evaluated the effects of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy on childhood asthma risk have had inconsistent results.
Krauss-Etschmann et al. (26) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 311 DHA+EPA daily with either fish oil with DHA (0.5 g) and EPA (0.15 g) or with methyltetrahydrofolic acid (400 μg), both, or placebo, from gestation week 22 Fish-oil supplementation was associated with decreased levels of maternal inflammatory/TH1 cytokines and a decrease of fetal Th2-related cytokines
Makrides et al. (25) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 2399 (n = 1197 supplemented, n = 1202 placebo; 726 children were followed up with) DHA (fish-oil capsules providing 800 mg/d DHA) Supplementation did not result in lower levels of postpartum depression in mothers or improved cognitive and language development in offspring during early childhood
In a 2009 letter on a pending revision to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association recommended 250–500 mg/day of EPA and DHA. The Guidelines were revised again for 2015-2020; included is a recommendation that adults consume at least eight ounces of a variety of types of fish per week, equating to at least 250 mg/day of EPA + DHA. The Food and Drug Administration recommends not exceeding 3 grams per day of EPA + DHA from all sources, with no more than 2 grams per day from dietary supplements.
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.
“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.”