Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
There is also evidence that mothers who use EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding may protect their children against allergies. This may be due to the fact that fish-oil supplementation has been associated with decreased levels of body cells associated with inflammation and immune response (26). In a study about food allergy and IgE-associated eczema, the period prevalence of food allergy was lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05), and the incidence of IgE-associated eczema was also lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05) (27).
Your concerns are very valid. The quality of commercially available omega-3 preparations can vary greatly. In our clinical trials we use preparations made by reputable manufacturers with high standards. We also have the preparations analyzed by 2 independent labs to confirm omega-3 content, impurities, and degree of oxidation, prior to initiating the study. While omega-3 fatty acids–like most nutrients–are ideally obtained through dietary practice, because many people may not enjoy omega-3 containing foods, supplements may be a good option for these individuals. Anyone who is interested in using an omega-3 preparation for treating a psychiatric condition should do so preferably under the supervision of a psychiatrist.
Corresponding Author: Yutaka J. Matsuoka, MD, PhD, Division of Health Care Research, Center for Public Health Sciences, National Cancer Center Japan, 5-1-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan (firstname.lastname@example.org); Kuan-Pin Su, MD, PhD, China Medical University Hospital, No. 2, Yude Road, North District, Taichung City, Taiwan 404 (email@example.com).
After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. The evidence is somewhat conflicting in some reports, but there is some evidence to suggest breast and prostate cancers may be potentially slowed (or the risk reduced) in people who eat a lot of oily fish and possibly those who supplement with omega-3. (66, 67, 68)
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.
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)
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
Fish oil supplements vary in the amounts and ratios of DHA and EPA they contain. For example, salmon oil naturally contains more DHA than EPA; a supplement derived from algae may only contain DHA. Krill oil contains significant amounts of both EPA and DHA. Read the labels and remember whatever supplement you buy, it must have at least 600 mg of DHA.
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In comparison, the omega-3s found in krill appear to be more rapidly incorporated into red blood cell phospholipids.7 This is important, because not only do scientists view the uptake of essential fatty acids in red blood cells as a biomarker for uptake into the brain,8 but additional research suggests that when omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA are bound to phospholipids as they are with krill, it increases their uptake to the brain.9 This is further supported by human clinical research, which suggests ingestion of phospholipid-bound EPA and DHA increase cognitive function scores to a greater degree compared with scores obtained when the fatty acids in the ingested oil were provided in the triglycerides storage form.10
Weimann, A., Bastian, L., Bischoff, W. E., Grotz, M., Hansel, M., Lotz, J., Trautwein, C., Tusch, G., Schlitt, H. J., and Regel, G. Influence of arginine, omega-3 fatty acids and nucleotide-supplemented enteral support on systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multiple organ failure in patients after severe trauma. Nutrition 1998;14(2):165-172. View abstract.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found primarily in fish oil, this is the ultimate form of fatty acid in humans. Most people get far too little of this all-important fatty acid, especially since the conversion of ALA to DHA is slow and minimally yielding. Getting a daily dose of of DHA (600 to 1000 mg) from supplements is preferable to reap the health benefits. You have a choice of taking a fish oil supplement or one derived from algae or krill, a shrimp-like crustacean.
The National High Blood Pressure Education Program in the United States has cautioned against inaccurate publicity of fish oil as an effective means of lowering high blood pressure in patients suffering from hypertension. According to its report, fish oil supplements lower blood pressure in a very small way in hypertensive patients. Research conducted at the Channing Laboratory in Boston has revealed that moderate doses of fish oil supplements have little effect on the condition of high blood pressure in normotensive people.
Bell, J. G., Miller, D., MacDonald, D. J., MacKinlay, E. E., Dick, J. R., Cheseldine, S., Boyle, R. M., Graham, C., and O'Hare, A. E. The fatty acid compositions of erythrocyte and plasma polar lipids in children with autism, developmental delay or typically developing controls and the effect of fish oil intake. Br J Nutr 2010;103(8):1160-1167. View abstract.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase platelet responsiveness to subtherapeutic anticoagulation therapies, including aspirin. Recently, it was noted that patient response to aspirin for anticoagulation therapy is widely variable (45), and, thus, the number of patients with a low response to aspirin or aspirin resistance is estimated to range from <1% to 45%, depending on many variables. However, in patients with stable coronary artery disease taking low-dose aspirin, EPA+DHA supplementation has been proven to be as effective as aspirin dose escalation to 325 mg/d for anticoagulation benefits (45). The antiplatelet drug clopidogrel has also been associated with hyporesponsiveness in some patients. This could be attributed to poor patient compliance, differences in genes and platelet reactivity, variability of drug metabolism, and drug interactions. More importantly, in 1 study, patients receiving standard dual antiplatelet therapy (aspirin 75 mg/d and clopidogrel 600-mg loading dose followed by 75 mg/d) were assigned to either EPA+DHA supplementation or placebo. After 1 mo of treatment, the P2Y12 receptor reactivity index (an indicator of clopidogrel resistance) was significantly lower, by 22%, for patients taking EPA+DHA compared with patients taking placebo (P = 0.020) (46).
Three omega−3 fatty acids are important in human physiology, α-linolenic acid (18:3, n-3; ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5, n-3; EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6, n-3; DHA). These three polyunsaturates have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. As with most naturally-produced fatty acids, all double bonds are in the cis-configuration, in other words, the two hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond; and the double bonds are interrupted by methylene bridges (-CH
Abnormal rapid heart rhythms (ventricular arrhythmias). Population research suggests that eating a lot of fish has no effect on the risk for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Clinical research is inconsistent. Some research shows that taking fish oil daily does not affect the risk for abnormal heart rhythms. But other research shows that taking fish oil for 11 months delays the development of the condition. However, overall, taking fish oil does not seem to reduce the risk of death in people with abnormal rapid heart rhythms.