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.
Ample evidence from animal studies supports regular supplementation with omega-3 oils as a means of lowering long-term cardiovascular risk. This may be due to omega-3 fatty acids’ effects on reducing inflammation, lowering triglycerides, reducing blood pressure, improving endothelial function, inducing new blood vessel formation after heart attack or stroke, and favorable modification of obesity-related inflammatory molecules.35-39
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
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)
The ultimate goal of using omega-3 fatty acids is the reduction of cellular inflammation. Since eicosanoids derived from arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid, are the primary mediators of cellular inflammation, EPA becomes the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids to reduce cellular inflammation for a number of reasons. First, EPA is an inhibitor of the enzyme delta-5-desaturase (D5D) that produces AA (1). The more EPA you have in the diet, the less AA you produce. This essentially chokes off the supply of AA necessary for the production of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes, etc.). DHA is not an inhibitor of this enzyme because it can’t fit into the active catalytic site of the enzyme due to its larger spatial size. As an additional insurance policy, EPA also competes with AA for the enzyme phospholipase A2 necessary to release AA from the membrane phospholipids (where it is stored). Inhibition of this enzyme is the mechanism of action used by corticosteroids. If you have adequate levels of EPA to compete with AA (i.e. a low AA/EPA ratio), you can realize many of the benefits of corticosteroids but without their side effects. That’s because if you don’t release AA from the cell membrane then you can’t make inflammatory eicosanoids. Because of its increased spatial dimensions, DHA is not a good competitor of phospholipase A2 relative to EPA. On the other hand, EPA and AA are very similar spatially so they are in constant competition for the phospholipase A2 enzyme just as both fatty acids are in constant competition for the delta-5 desaturase enzyme. This is why measuring the AA/EPA ratio is such a powerful predictor of the state of cellular inflammation in your body.
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).
Additionally, total polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) content was measured in every product. All product recorded PCB levels within the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2 PPM limit for the edible parts of fish/shellfish as well as the stricter standards enacted by California’s Proposition 65, which requires products containing greater than 0.09 PPM of PCB content to bear a cancer warning. The worst offender, Now Foods Ultra Omega-3 Fish Oil, recorded 0.04 PPM of PCB content.
CONDITIONS OF USE AND IMPORTANT INFORMATION: This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health care provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor or health care professional before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your health care plan or treatment and to determine what course of therapy is right for you.
A tremendous body of research has been conducted on these important nutrients since it was first discovered in the 1950s that fish oil offered many health benefits and that these benefits were attributable to a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. Despite the volumes of research on omega-3s, it is only in recent years (within the last 15 years or so) that the actions of EPA and DHA have come to be understood individually. Researchers now often investigate the actions of EPA and DHA individually rather than together, no longer simply under the generic label omega-3 as they are widely referred to.
To evaluate the potential placebo effect, we made further subgrouping analyses. In the subgroups of studies using placebo controls, the omega-3 PUFAs still revealed a consistent positive anxiolytic association with anxiety symptoms. These phenomena meant that the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs is probably not entirely owing to the placebo effect.
Grigg, L. E., Kay, T. W., Valentine, P. A., Larkins, R., Flower, D. J., Manolas, E. G., O'Dea, K., Sinclair, A. J., Hopper, J. L., and Hunt, D. Determinants of restenosis and lack of effect of dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid on the incidence of coronary artery restenosis after angioplasty. J Am Coll Cardiol. 3-1-1989;13(3):665-672. View abstract.
Krill oil is joining the toolkit for fighting arthritis, thanks to its exceptional anti-inflammatory properties resulting from its phospholipid form of omega-3s. A study in mice with experimental arthritis showed that krill oil supplements reduced arthritis scores and markedly diminished joint swelling. When examined under a microscope, the animals’ joints were remarkably free of inflammatory infiltrates of immune system cells.85
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
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.
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)
Human growth and intellectual development – DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increase 300 to 500 percent in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy. Adding DHA to a pregnant mother’s diet may be beneficial for the fetus’s brain development. Elderly people should also take EPA DHA, because as we get older, our bodies form less EPA and DHA, which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Taking EPA DHA also may help with mental abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
As a result, we depend on our diet to get the necessary Omega-3 fatty acids into our bodies. These two fatty acids work together in human health. DHA helps with cell membrane structure and assists in normal growth and development. While both EPA and DHA participate in key pathways of the immune system where they control key processes that support our health. Together they provide a number of important health benefits throughout our lifetime.
To reach the required dose of EPA for treating certain conditions such as depression, CVD or CFS/ME you would need to take approximately 1-2 grams of ‘free EPA’ daily. Even with a concentrated omega-3 fish oil supplement, offering 180 mg excess EPA over DHA, this would require 10-20 capsules daily – significant in terms of volume and cost, and not efficient in terms of uptake in the body as our capacity for fat absorption is limited. The most effective and efficient way to ensure high EPA uptake in the body rapidly is to supplement with pure EPA for a minimum of 3-6 months.
Another small study had all volunteers consume the same exact control diet and substituted fish oil for visible fats (things like butter and cream). The volunteers consumed six grams of fish oil each day for three weeks. They found that body fat mass decreased with the intake of fish oil. The researchers conclude that dietary fish oil reduces body fat and stimulates the use of fatty acids for the production of energy in healthy adults. (33a)
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]
Bo and I worked with Dr. Harris many years ago to measure the impact of eating one Omega Cookie® daily on the study participants’ omega-3 index levels, and we recently ran into him at ISFFAL. At the conference, we remeasured our omega-3 index and omega-6/omega-3 ratios, and a few weeks later, we got our results in the mail. For the two of us, it was exciting to get another concrete measure of how our daily omega-3 consumption impacted our scores. For the record, we take one vial of Omega Restore™ per night and frequently sneak an Omega Heaven® or Omega Cookie during the day.
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.
Several large trials have evaluated the effect of fish or fish oils on heart disease. In the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardio (known as the GISSI Prevention Trial), heart attack survivors who took a 1-gram capsule of omega-3 fats every day for three years were less likely to have a repeat heart attack, stroke, or die of sudden death than those who took a placebo. (2) Notably, the risk of sudden cardiac death was reduced by about 50 percent. In the more recent Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS), participants who took EPA plus a cholesterol-lowering statin were less likely to have a major coronary event (sudden cardiac death, fatal or nonfatal heart attack, unstable angina, or a procedure to open or bypass a narrowed or blocked coronary artery) than those who took a statin alone. (3)
Tanaka, K., Ishikawa, Y., Yokoyama, M., Origasa, H., Matsuzaki, M., Saito, Y., Matsuzawa, Y., Sasaki, J., Oikawa, S., Hishida, H., Itakura, H., Kita, T., Kitabatake, A., Nakaya, N., Sakata, T., Shimada, K., and Shirato, K. Reduction in the recurrence of stroke by eicosapentaenoic acid for hypercholesterolemic patients: subanalysis of the JELIS trial. Stroke 2008;39(7):2052-2058. View abstract.
The strongest evidence for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease. These fats appear to help the heart beat at a steady clip and not veer into a dangerous or potentially fatal erratic rhythm. (1) Such arrhythmias cause most of the 500,000-plus cardiac deaths that occur each year in the United States. Omega-3 fats also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. (1)
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).
Children: Fish oil is POSSIBLY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Fish oil has been used safely through feeding tubes in infants for up to 9 months. But young children should not eat more than two ounces of fish per week. Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when consumed from dietary sources in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury. Eating contaminated fish frequently can cause brain damage, mental retardation, blindness and seizures in children.
Jump up ^ Naliwaiko, K.; Araújo, R.L.F.; Da Fonseca, R.V.; Castilho, J.C.; Andreatini, R.; Bellissimo, M.I.; Oliveira, B.H.; Martins, E.F.; Curi, R.; Fernandes, L.C.; Ferraz, A.C. (2004). "Effects of Fish Oil on the Central Nervous System: A New Potential Antidepressant?". Nutritional Neuroscience. 7 (2): 91–99. doi:10.1080/10284150410001704525. PMID 15279495.
The FDA product label on Lovaza warns of potential bleeding complications with the coadministration of anticoagulants. This warning is based on observational studies that suggested a prolonged bleeding time in populations ingesting high levels of fish oil77 and on in vitro studies that demonstrated an effect on pro-thrombotic mediators such as a reduction in thromboxane A2 production78 and platelet activation factor.79 The same trend, however, has not been clearly demonstrated in measurements of clotting times or in factors of fibrinolysis.80 In addition, in randomized clinical trials of patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty, endarterectomy and diagnostic angiography, no adverse bleeding related events have been demonstrated.81 For example, in a trial of 500 patients randomized to pretreatment with 6.9 g of DHA and EPA preparation 2 weeks before balloon percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (where all the patients received 325 mg/d of aspirin and heparin bolus periprocedure), no difference was seen in bleeding complications.82 Similar results were seen in a trial of 610 patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery, randomized to either placebo or 4 g/d of fish oil and then further randomized to aspirin or warfarin (dosed to an international normalized ratio [INR] goal of 2.5–4.2). At 1 year, the number of bleeding complications was not increased.15 The effect of fish oil on INR values has not been studied extensively, but a small, randomized trial showed that fish oil did not alter the Coumadin dosing regimen.83 There is very little evidence that a lower target INR is necessary in patients receiving chronic warfarin therapy and fish oil.
For dry eye: Fish oil supplements providing EPA 360-1680 mg and DHA 240-560 mg have been used for 4-12 weeks. Some people used the specific product (PRN Dry Eye Omega Benefits softgels). A specific combination product containing EPA 450 mg, DHA 300 mg, and flaxseed oil 1000 mg (TheraTears Nutrition, Advanced Nutrition Research; Caruso’s Natural Health UltraMAX fish oil, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) has been used once daily for 90 days.