Both omega−6 and omega−3 fatty acids are essential: humans must consume them in their diet. Omega−6 and omega−3 eighteen-carbon polyunsaturated fatty acids compete for the same metabolic enzymes, thus the omega−6:omega−3 ratio of ingested fatty acids has significant influence on the ratio and rate of production of eicosanoids, a group of hormones intimately involved in the body's inflammatory and homeostatic processes, which include the prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes, among others. Altering this ratio can change the body's metabolic and inflammatory state. In general, grass-fed animals accumulate more omega−3 than do grain-fed animals, which accumulate relatively more omega−6. Metabolites of omega−6 are more inflammatory (esp. arachidonic acid) than those of omega−3. This necessitates that omega−6 and omega−3 be consumed in a balanced proportion; healthy ratios of omega−6:omega−3, according to some authors, range from 1:1 to 1:4. Other authors believe that a ratio of 4:1 (4 times as much omega−6 as omega−3) is already healthy. Studies suggest the evolutionary human diet, rich in game animals, seafood, and other sources of omega−3, may have provided such a ratio.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a website, NIH Clinical Research Trials and You, to help people learn about clinical trials, why they matter, and how to participate. The site includes questions and answers about clinical trials, guidance on how to find clinical trials through ClinicalTrials.gov and other resources, and stories about the personal experiences of clinical trial participants. Clinical trials are necessary to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases.
We’ve written about the dose necessary to achieve measurable benefits before. However, a person’s actual omega-3 intake can be tricky to estimate. Even if you eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week, as the American Heart Association recommends (10), your fish might contain more or less omega-3s depending on the fish species, the time of year, and how you cook it. Even taking fish oil supplements isn’t always straightforward, as dose can be impacted by numerous bioavailability factors, as well as genetics, age, gender, medication-use and lifestyle.
As you likely know (and as I’ve been discussing for years), omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. They have been studied for the treatment and prevention of many diseases, several of which are related to inflammation, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. They have also been shown to be extraordinarily helpful in preventing and treating other brain conditions such as depression and other psychiatric disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and concussions.
Results In total, 1203 participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment (mean age, 43.7 years; mean female proportion, 55.0%; mean omega-3 PUFA dosage, 1605.7 mg/d) and 1037 participants without omega-3 PUFA treatment (mean age, 40.6 years; mean female proportion, 55.0%) showed an association between clinical anxiety symptoms among participants with omega-3 PUFA treatment compared with control arms (Hedges g, 0.374; 95% CI, 0.081-0.666; P = .01). Subgroup analysis showed that the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly greater in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. The anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs was significantly better than that of controls only in subgroups with a higher dosage (at least 2000 mg/d) and not in subgroups with a lower dosage (<2000 mg/d).
Why would someone foul a perfectly good box of rotini with omega 3 oils? This is based on the belief that omega 3 fatty acids reduce heart disease and vascular risk, probably through reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. This is a plausible claim, but as we see over and over again in medicine, plausibility (while nice) is insufficient as a basis for clinical claims.
Chemical structure of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega−3 fatty acid, (18:3Δ9c,12c,15c, which means a chain of 18 carbons with 3 double bonds on carbons numbered 9, 12, and 15). Although chemists count from the carbonyl carbon (blue numbering), biologists count from the n (ω) carbon (red numbering). Note that, from the n end (diagram right), the first double bond appears as the third carbon-carbon bond (line segment), hence the name "n-3". This is explained by the fact that the n end is almost never changed during physiological transformations in the human body, as it is more energy-stable, and other compounds can be synthesized from the other carbonyl end, for example in glycerides, or from double bonds in the middle of the chain.
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)
Makrides et al. (25) Double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized 2399 (n = 1197 supplemented, n = 1202 placebo; 726 children were followed up with) DHA (fish-oil capsules providing 800 mg/d DHA) Supplementation did not result in lower levels of postpartum depression in mothers or improved cognitive and language development in offspring during early childhood
"All these diseases have a common genesis in inflammation," says Joseph C. Maroon, MD, professor and vice chairman of the department of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Co-author of Fish Oil: The Natural Anti-Inflammatory, Maroon says that in large enough amountsomega-3's reduce the inflammatory process that leads to many chronic conditions.
To date, no studies have assessed mortality or nonfatal MI in diabetic patients treated with fish oil.52–54 A recent comprehensive meta-analysis analyzed the effect of fish oil supplements on metabolic parameters when added to usual care in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus or impaired glucose tolerance.54 The meta-analysis included a total of 23 small, randomized trials with over 1000 patients that were assessed for lipid and insulin resistance parameters. At a mean follow-up of approximately 9 weeks, triglyceride reduction was accomplished but no significant changes were seen in total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol, HgA1c levels, fasting glucose levels, fasting insulin, or in body weight. The largest randomized trial to date assessed approximately 400 patients with impaired glucose tolerance or insulin-dependent diabetes mel-litus, and as reflected in the larger meta-analysis, found no effect of moderate to high doses of fish oil on diabetic parameters.55 There are insufficient randomized data to comment on the combination of fish oil and specific diabetes medications and related mortality and/or morbidity.
Human studies also confirm cognition and memory improvement with omega-3 supplementation. For example, a study showed that both fish oil and krill oil enhanced cognitive function in a group of older men by increasing oxygen delivery to their brains. Interestingly, for those taking krill oil this effect was more prominent than those taking fish oil, though both groups were significantly better than placebo.30 As we pointed out earlier, because the omega-3 DHA is bound to phospholipids in krill it may be more effectively incorporated into the critical cell membrane in brain cells.
There was no significant association between the Hedges g and mean age (k, 17; P = .51), female proportion (k, 18; P = .32), mean omega-3 PUFA dosage (k, 19; P = .307), EPA to DHA ratio (k, 17; P = .86), dropout rate in the omega-3 PUFA group (k, 18; P = .71), duration of omega-3 PUFA treatment (k, 19; P = .14), Jadad score of randomization (k, 19; P = .10), Jadad score of blindness (k, 19; P = .57), or total Jadad score (k, 19; P = .18).
Under these conditions, it may make sense to try fish oil even at higher doses than what I recommended. There is some evidence that krill oil will get the omega-3 fatty acids better into the brain in the psychiatric conditions that I listed. And there is some evidence that EPA-rich fish oils are better than DHA-rich fish oils for some of those psychiatric conditions as well. So there’s room to play around with the different possibilities if those things apply to you. But for the average case, limit the fish oil to 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined when you take it, but in all cases, go for food first, and go for fish oil only after you have exhausted those possibilities.
There’s evidence that points to the mechanism behind the effects of fish oil on body composition, showing that fat burning at rest is increased with 6 grams/day of fish oil supplementation, and additional research suggests that higher omega-3 levels may be helpful for enhancing satiety during weight loss efforts. Other evidence suggests that fat loss may be a side-effect of the reduction in inflammation that fish oil can help with. Any way you look at it, supporting your dietary habits with 4 or more grams of fish oil per day is probably a good idea!
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.
Hamazaki, K., Itomura, M., Huan, M., Nishizawa, H., Sawazaki, S., Tanouchi, M., Watanabe, S., Hamazaki, T., Terasawa, K., and Yazawa, K. Effect of omega-3 fatty acid-containing phospholipids on blood catecholamine concentrations in healthy volunteers: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. Nutrition 2005;21(6):705-710. View abstract.
Due to the anticipated heterogeneity, a random-effects meta-analysis was chosen rather than a fixed-effects meta-analysis because random-effects modeling is more stringent and incorporates an among-study variance in the calculations. The entire meta-analysis procedure was performed on the platform of Comprehensive Meta-analysis statistical software, version 3 (Biostat). Under the preliminary assumption that the scales for anxiety symptoms are heterogeneous among the recruited studies, we chose Hedges g and 95% confidence intervals to combine the effect sizes, in accordance with the manual of the Comprehensive Meta-analysis statistical software, version 3. Regarding the interpretation of effect sizes, we defined Hedges g values 0 or higher as a better association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms of omega-3 PUFAs than in controls. For each analysis, a 2-tailed P value less than .05 was considered to indicate statistical significance. When more than 1 anxiety scale was used in a study, we chose the one with the most informative data (ie, mean and standard deviation [SD] before and after treatment). We entered the primary outcome provided in the included articles or obtained from the original authors. As for the variance imputation, we mainly chose the mean and SD before and after treatment. Later, we entered the mean and SD and calculated the effect sizes based on the software option, standardized by post score SD. In the case of studies with 2 active treatment arms, we merged the 2 active treatment arms into 1 group. If these 2 active treatment arms belonged to different subgroups (ie, different PUFA dosage subgroups), we kept them separate. Regarding the numbers of participants counted, we chose intention-to-treat as our priority. If there were insufficient data in the intention to treat group (ie, some studies only provided the changes in anxiety severity in those participants completing trials), we chose instead the per-protocol numbers of participants.
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.
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.
However, the researchers do have some good news. They concluded that omega 3 fatty acids do appear to reduce the type of blood cholesterol known as triglycerides, but that supplements probably are not useful for preventing or improving heart and circulatory problems. And, upping your intake of plant-based omega 3s high in ALA (ie, walnuts, flaxseed and flax oil, chia seeds) may help your heart somewhat.2
The Cochrane researchers found that increasing long-chain omega 3 provides little if any benefit on most outcomes that they looked at. They found high certainty evidence that long-chain omega 3 fats had little or no meaningful effect on the risk of death from any cause. The risk of death from any cause was 8.8% in people who had increased their intake of omega 3 fats, compared with 9% in people in the control groups.
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.