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.
Brain function and vision rely on dietary intake of DHA to support a broad range of cell membrane properties, particularly in grey matter, which is rich in membranes. A major structural component of the mammalian brain, DHA is the most abundant omega−3 fatty acid in the brain. It is under study as a candidate essential nutrient with roles in neurodevelopment, cognition, and neurodegenerative disorders.
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
We’ve already seen that fish oil can help with depression-like symptoms in rats, but what about people? A study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience evaluated the effects of fish oil supplementation on prefrontal metabolite concentrations in adolescents with major depressive disorder. Researchers found that there was a 40 percent decrease in major depression disorder symptoms in addition to marked improvements in amino acid and nutrition content in the brain, specifically, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. (21)
Of great clinical importance, EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy has been associated with longer gestation and increased concentrations of EPA and DHA in fetal tissues (21). In 2005, preterm births accounted for 12.7% of all births in the United States, increasing the likelihood of health complications (22). Carrying a baby to term is very important because prematurity is the cause of various infant diseases and can lead to death; preterm delivery is an underlying factor for 85% of the deaths of normally formed infants (23). One mechanism by which EPA and DHA may decrease the incidence of preterm birth is by decreasing prostaglandin E2 and prostaglandin F2α production, therefore reducing inflammation within the uterus, which could be associated with preterm labor (21, 24). Several studies investigated EPA and DHA intake during pregnancy and its correlation with longer gestation. Conclusions were that EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy delayed the onset of delivery to term or closer to term; however, supplementation did not delay delivery to the point of being post-term (20, 23, 25). This supports the evidence that EPA+DHA ingestion leads to optimal pregnancy length. EPA+DHA supplementation reduced the HR of preterm delivery by 44% (95% CI: 14–64%) in those who consumed relatively low amounts of fish and 39% (95% CI: 16–56%) in those who consumed medium amounts of fish; however, a level of statistical significance was not met (P = 0.10) (23). The Judge et al. (20) study found that women who had DHA supplementation from gestation week 24 until full-term delivery carried their infants significantly (P = 0.019) longer than did the women in the placebo group. One study found that DHA supplementation after gestation week 21 led to fewer preterm births (<34 wk of gestation) in the DHA group compared with the control group (1.09% vs. 2.25%; adjusted RR, 0.49; 95% CI: 0.25–0.94; P = 0.03). Also, mean birth weight was 68 g heavier (95% CI: 23–114 g; P = 0.003) and fewer infants were of low birth weight in the DHA group compared with the control group (3.41% vs. 5.27%; adjusted RR, 0.65; 95% CI: 0.44–0.96; P = 0.03) (25).
Fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes. 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. (Optimal dosage was related to body weight.)
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.
About the only exception are wild-caught Alaskan salmon and very small fish like sardines. The highest concentrations of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish like tuna, sea bass, and marlin. You may need to be especially cautious of canned tuna as well, as independent testing by the Mercury Policy Project found that the average mercury concentration in canned tuna is far over the "safe limits" of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It is also believed that women who do not have a sufficient intake of EPA and DHA in their diet suffer from depression after childbirth, as there is a transfer of some amount of brain mass from the mother to the child in the last stages of pregnancy. Thus, it is very beneficial to consume fish oil either by eating fish or taking fish oil supplements, tablets, capsules, or pills during pregnancy for the overall development of the child and the well-being of the mother. However, it should be noted that fish oil obtained from the liver of the fish, example – cod liver oil, should not be consumed during pregnancy as cod liver oil is high in retinol and vitamin A, which are usually known to cause birth defects.
The evidence linking the consumption of marine omega−3 fats to a lower risk of cancer is poor. With the possible exception of breast cancer, there is insufficient evidence that supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids has an effect on different cancers. The effect of consumption on prostate cancer is not conclusive. There is a decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, but an increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer was shown with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA. In people with advanced cancer and cachexia, omega−3 fatty acids supplements may be of benefit, improving appetite, weight, and quality of life.