Fish oil’s most potent effect on atherosclerosis may be related to its potential to alter plaque inflammation, thereby stabilizing vulnerable plaques. In recent years there has been a growing body of evidence that is shifting the paradigm of how inflammation is contained and dissipated.4 In this new model, inflammation resolution is an active process mediated by lipid-derived compounds. Newly discovered families of chemical mediators, resolvins, and protectins5,6 are directly involved in blocking neutrophil migration, infiltration, and recruitment, as well as in blocking T-cell migration and promoting T-cell apoptosis.7–12 In addition, protectins can reduce tumor necrosis factor and interferon secretion.13 Interestingly, both protectins and resolvins are strictly derived from omega-3 FA. EPA is the substrate of the resolvins family and DHA can be converted to both resolvins and protectins.7 It may be that the effects of fish oil on inflammatory mediators underlie the positive findings demonstrated in several trials assessing fish oil and plaque stability.14–16
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Secondly, when we consume EPA, it inhibits the production of AA from DGLA and also competes with AA for uptake into cell membranes and can therefore lower the amount of AA in membranes by literally saturating the cell – in essence, it takes up more of the available ‘space’ and displaces AA. When there is less AA present, there is a reduced capacity for it to produce inflammatory products.
So why is an excess of DHA detrimental and an excess of EPA useful? DHA has a larger structure with two extra carbons and two extra double bonds, so it literally takes up more space in cell membranes than EPA. On the one hand, this is important because DHA plays a structural role in maintaining the fluidity of cell membranes ( essential for the normal function of proteins, channels and receptors that are also embedded in the membrane), but if a cell membrane becomes too saturated with DHA it can become too fluid, which can have a negative effect on cell function. EPA, on the other hand, is constantly utilised and always in demand.
Luo, J Rizkalla SW Vidal H Oppert JM Colas C Boussairi A Guerre-Millo M Chapuis AS Chevalier A Durand G Slama G. Moderate intake of n-3 fatty acids for 2 months has no detrimental effect on glucose metabolism and could ameliorate the lipid profile in type 2 diabetic men. Results of a controlled study. Diabetes Care. 1998;21(5):717-724. View abstract.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): This plant-based omega-3 is found in green, leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds and canola, walnut and soybean oils (although those rancid oils are not ones I generally recommend). ALA is known as a short-chain omega-3, meaning your body has to convert it into longer-chained EPA and DHA to synthesize it. This process is rather inefficient and only about one percent of the ALA you consume is converted to the long-chain version your body needs (although this percentage is slightly higher for women).
(How much omega-3 is necessary to increase one’s omega-3 index?  Studies show it can take between 1800 – 2000 mg of EPA/DHA daily to move a person’s index by 4 – 5 percentage points (12). Importantly, this is a much larger dose than you’d get swallowing one or two regular fish oil capsules and could well explain why many traditional omega-3 products fail to deliver results.)
Weak bones (osteoporosis). Research suggests that taking fish oil alone or together with calcium and evening primrose oil slows the rate of bone loss and increases bone density at the thigh bone (femur) and spine in elderly people with osteoporosis. But taking fish oil does not slow bone loss in older people with osteoarthritis in the knee but without weak bones.
Macchia, A., Levantesi, G., Franzosi, M. G., Geraci, E., Maggioni, A. P., Marfisi, R., Nicolosi, G. L., Schweiger, C., Tavazzi, L., Tognoni, G., Valagussa, F., and Marchioli, R. Left ventricular systolic dysfunction, total mortality, and sudden death in patients with myocardial infarction treated with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Eur.J.Heart Fail. 2005;7(5):904-909. View abstract.
Schilling, J., Vranjes, N., Fierz, W., Joller, H., Gyurech, D., Ludwig, E., Marathias, K., and Geroulanos, S. Clinical outcome and immunology of postoperative arginine, omega-3 fatty acids, and nucleotide-enriched enteral feeding: a randomized prospective comparison with standard enteral and low calorie/low fat i.v. solutions. Nutrition 1996;12(6):423-429. View abstract.
The absence of DHA in many pure EPA trials, and therefore lack of competition between EPA and DHA during digestion and consequently for uptake, is considered to be partly responsible for the positive outcomes. Simply put, pure EPA delivers more EPA into cells where it is needed than combined EPA & DHA blends. Consequently, oils containing DHA may not be suitable for a variety of conditions when treatment relies on increasing levels of EPA and its end products.
Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but they are less frequent now thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities. Past concerns about omega-3s increasing the risk of bleeding have been largely disproven, but caution is still advised in people taking blood thinners or who are about to undergo surgery. As mentioned, caution is needed in people with bipolar disorder to prevent cycling to mania. Because omega-3s are important to brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3 in expectant mothers, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children. Fish consumption in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on safety or optimal dosing of omega-3s in pregnancy, expectant mothers should consider omega-3 supplements judiciously.
Australian researchers published results of a study examining the effects of fish oil on weight loss in combination with diet and exercise in the May 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The results show that a combination of fish oil supplements and regular exercise can reduce body fat while also improving heart and metabolic health. The fish supplementation group had lowered triglycerides, increased HDL cholesterol and improved blood flow. Overall, adding fish oil to a current exercise program (and a overall healthy lifestyle) looks like it can decrease body fat as well as cardiovascular disease risk. (32)

Many studies show that eating fatty fish and other types of seafood as part of a healthy eating pattern helps keep your heart healthy and helps protect you from many heart problems. Getting more EPA or DHA from foods lowers triglyceride levels, for example. Omega-3 dietary supplements can also help lower triglyceride levels, but it is not clear whether omega-3 supplements protect you from most heart problems.
Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Early research shows that taking fish oil improves attention, mental function, and behavior in children 8-13 years-old with ADHD. Other research shows that taking a specific supplement containing fish oil and evening primrose oil (Eye Q, Novasel) improves mental function and behavior in children 7-12 years-old with ADHD.
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