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."
There have been numerous clinical trials looking mainly at death, stroke, and cardiac outcomes related to omega 3 consumption, either in food or in supplements. Now the Cochrane Library has published the largest systematic review of these studies to date. Unfortunately, the review shows little benefit from consuming omega 3 fatty acid. This is a fairly extensive review with good statistical power:
Abnormal cholesterol or fat levels in the blood (dyslipidemia). There is conflicting evidence about the effects of fish oil on cholesterol and fat levels in the blood. Some research shows that taking fish oil can lower triglyceride levels, low density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol, and increase high density lipoprotein (HDL or "good") cholesterol in people with abnormal cholesterol levels. However, other research shows that taking fish oil daily does not have this effect.
The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in these omega-3s. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA. Good sources of these are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
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A six week, double-blind study on fish oil supplementation for body composition showed that the group taking 4 grams/day of fish oil (contained 1600mg if EPA & 800mg of DHA) experienced a significant increase in lean body mass and significant decrease in fat mass compared to a group that took safflower oil (an omega-6 oil). The fish oil group also saw a tendency for decreases in cortisol, a hormone associated with belly fat gain when elevated.
Some people who are hypersensitive to fish or have a known allergy to fish products may have a negative reaction to fatty acids which were derived from fish. Some fish oil tablets are also produced with alpha-linolenic acids which come from nuts, which may aggravate those which have an allergy to these products. In many cases these allergies will manifest themselves as a skin rash, but the symptoms could be more severe depending on the severity of your allergies. People with this concern will need to avoid using these products.
Between the ages of five and 65, the majority of the body’s needs can be met by using EPA-rich oils and eating fish, marine products, organic greens and pastured animal products. EPA levels are under constant demand and low EPA levels in adolescents and adults correlates strongly with development of mental health issues, including depression, dyslexia and dyspraxia, heart problems, joint and bone conditions, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as MS and Parkinson’s. EPA also protects our genes and cell cycle, as well as helping to keep our stress response regulated, so an adequate supply of EPA throughout adult life can help prevent a range of chronic illness.
Henneicke-von Zepelin, H. H., Mrowietz, U., Farber, L., Bruck-Borchers, K., Schober, C., Huber, J., Lutz, G., Kohnen, R., Christophers, E., and Welzel, D. Highly purified omega-3-polyunsaturated fatty acids for topical treatment of psoriasis. Results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled multicentre study. Br J Dermatol 1993;129(6):713-717. View abstract.
For preventing and reversing the progression of hardening of the arteries after angioplasty: 6 grams of fish oil daily starting one month before angioplasty and continuing for one months after, followed by 3 grams daily for 6 months thereafter has been used. Also, 15 grams of fish oil has been taken daily for 3 weeks before angioplasty and for 6 months thereafter.
Norris, J. M., Yin, X., Lamb, M. M., Barriga, K., Seifert, J., Hoffman, M., Orton, H. D., Baron, A. E., Clare-Salzler, M., Chase, H. P., Szabo, N. J., Erlich, H., Eisenbarth, G. S., and Rewers, M. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and islet autoimmunity in children at increased risk for type 1 diabetes. JAMA 9-26-2007;298(12):1420-1428. View abstract.
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.