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).
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.
Maximizing the benefits you get from omega-3s is highly dependent on how they are absorbed and transported throughout your body. Although these fatty acids are water soluble, they cannot be easily transported into your blood in their free form. Therefore, they need to be packaged in lipoprotein vehicles for them to be better absorbed into your bloodstream.
Fish oil is a commonly used dietary supplement, with sales in the U.S. alone reaching $976 million in 2009. Problems of quality have been identified in periodic tests by independent researchers of marketed supplements containing fish oil and other marine oils. These problems include contamination, inaccurate listing of EPA and DHA levels, spoilage and formulation issues.
Dry eye disease occurs when tears don’t provide enough moisture, causing eye discomfort and vision problems. Some studies show that getting more omega-3s from foods or supplements—mainly EPA and DHA—helps relieve symptoms of dry eye disease. But a large, recent study found that the symptoms of people with dry eye disease who took fish oil supplements of 2,000 mg EPA plus 1,000 mg DHA daily for 1 year did not improve any more than those who took a placebo (a dummy pill). More research on the effects of omega-3s on dry eye disease is needed.
Some studies reported better psychomotor development at 30 months of age in infants whose mothers received fish oil supplements for the first four months of lactation. In addition, five-year-old children whose mothers received modest algae based docosahexaenoic acid supplementation for the first 4 months of breastfeeding performed better on a test of sustained attention. This suggests that docosahexaenoic acid intake during early infancy confers long-term benefits on specific aspects of neurodevelopment.
EPA, which is eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA, which is docosahexaenoic acid, are two types of omega-3 fatty acids that are most commonly found in seafood. These polyunsaturated fats are known to have preventative health benefits and have been studied for their role in treating certain chronic conditions. In addition to dietary sources, certain supplements such as fish oil, are also rich in EPA and DHA.
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.
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.
Fish oil has the ability to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) due to its high concentration of fatty acids. For children suffering from hyperactivity, dyslexia, dyspraxia, inability to complete tasks, emotional instability, wavering attitude, poor coordination, short attention span, short-term memory weakness, low concentration, tendency to interrupt others, recklessness, hastiness, impetuosity, impulsiveness, low IQ, or learning disorders, fish oil is a proven remedy. Research conducted at the University of South Australia and CSIRO has shown that when children suffering from ADHD were given doses of fish oil and evening primrose capsules for 15 weeks, they showed significant improvements in their behavior. Since, human brain consists of about 60% fats, especially essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, it helps to improve the functions of the brain.
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
This fact sheet by the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific product or service, or recommendation from an organization or professional society, does not represent an endorsement by ODS of that product, service, or expert advice.
First difference is in the area of omega-6 fatty acid metabolism. Whereas EPA is the inhibitor of the enzyme (D5D) that directly produces AA, DHA is an inhibitor of another key enzyme delta-6-desaturase (D6D) that produces the first metabolite from linoleic acid known as gamma linolenic acid or GLA (6). However, this is not exactly an advantage. Even though reduction of GLA will eventually decrease AA production, it also has the more immediate effect of reducing the production of the next metabolite known as dihomo gamma linolenic acid or DGLA. This can be a disaster as a great number of powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids are derived from DGLA. This is why if you use high-dose DHA it is essential to add back trace amounts of GLA to maintain sufficient levels of DGLA to continue to produce anti-inflammatory eicosanoids.
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.
Meta-analyses (research that combines and analyzes results of multiple studies) generally suggest that the omega-3s are effective, but the findings are not unanimous because of variability between doses, ratios of EPA to DHA, and other study design issues. The most effective preparations appear to have at least 60% EPA relative to DHA. While DHA is thought to be less effective as an antidepressant, it may have protective effects against suicide. Recent work at Massachusetts General Hospital and Emory University suggests that depressed individuals who are overweight and have elevated inflammatory activity may be particularly good candidates for EPA treatment.
A lot of the benefit of fish oil seems to come from the omega-3 fatty acids that it contains. Interestingly, the body does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. Nor can the body make omega-3 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in the Western diet. A lot of research has been done on EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 acids that are often included in fish oil supplements.