Good for you for eating healthily! Sadly, many people do not like omega-3 containing foods such as fish, and for these people, supplementation may be a good alternative to obtain omega-3. As a clinical investigator, my research focuses on study supplements, which is what I was asked to cover in this article. I’m all for healthy eating, but not everyone can afford it or wants to eat certain foods, and this is perhaps why supplements are so popular.
If we want to deliver the benefits associated with EPA therapeutically, it is essential to optimise digestion and uptake. If we take EPA and DHA in their natural 1.5:1 ratio, it’s an uphill struggle for EPA because we know that DHA is more effectively absorbed and assimilated into cells. Delivering the benefits of EPA (for example, for cognitive function, mood and depression, inflammation regulation, heart health, skin health and so on), requires doses of EPA in excess of DHA, which determines the type of benefits obtained and the degree of the beneficial outcomes. The higher the ratio of EPA to DHA (meaning higher doses of EPA in relation to DHA), the more likely that EPA will be digested and absorbed, ready to meet the body’s high demands for this important nutrient.
The evidence linking the consumption of marine omega−3 fats to a lower risk of cancer is poor. With the possible exception of breast cancer, there is insufficient evidence that supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids has an effect on different cancers. The effect of consumption on prostate cancer is not conclusive. There is a decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, but an increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer was shown with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA. In people with advanced cancer and cachexia, omega−3 fatty acids supplements may be of benefit, improving appetite, weight, and quality of life.
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.
Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then DHA, but not enough to meet all your body’s needs but the best way to assure you are getting enough heart healthy fats is to eat foods high in the omega 3 fats, and if you can’t or don’t get enough of these necessary fats in your diet, you might consider taking an omega 3 supplement to boost these needed fats. More on this later.
Omega-3s are important components of the membranes that surround each cell in your body. DHA levels are especially high in retina (eye), brain, and sperm cells. Omega-3s also provide calories to give your body energy and have many functions in your heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system, and endocrine system (the network of hormone-producing glands).
To avoid fish oil supplements containing mercury or other harmful contaminants, purchase supplements from a reputable source that clearly tests for these health-hazardous contaminants in its products. These tests should be ideally conducted by a third-party, and a certificate of analysis should indicate the levels of purity from environmental toxins.
Your best way to achieve a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 is by getting your fish oil from wild-caught fish like salmon. However, I still think it is beneficial for some to supplement with a high-quality omega-3 fish oil or cod liver oil. Plus, cold water fish are frequently contaminated with mercury and pesticide residues, making it very difficult to safely achieve recommended levels.
Anxiety, the most commonly experienced psychiatric symptom, is a psychological state derived from inappropriate or exaggerated fear leading to distress or impairment. The lifetime prevalence of any anxiety disorder is reported to be approximately 1 in 3.1 Anxiety is often comorbid with depressive disorders2 and is associated with lower health-related quality of life3 and increased risk of all-cause mortality.4 Treatment options include psychological treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and pharmacological treatments, mainly with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.5 Individuals with anxiety and related disorders tend to be more concerned about the potential adverse effects of pharmacological treatments (eg, sedation or drug dependence) and may be reluctant to engage in psychological treatments that can be time-consuming and costly, as well as sometimes limited in availability.6 Thus, evidence-based and safer treatments are required, especially for anxious patients with comorbid medical conditions.
In later life, cognitive function and brain deterioration may become a concern. Once again, maintaining high levels of EPA has been shown to lower the risk of developing and worsening cognitive decline and dementia. If, however, you know someone who already has a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, their brain has already been damaged and needs structural support. At this point, DHA becomes important again and taking a high-EPA product that contains 250mg of DHA also is important to prevent further loss of brain tissue.
Because patients with depression experience rapid shrinking of their hippocampus, many strategies for relieving depression focus on increasing new brain cell growth in that specific area of the brain.23 There’s now evidence that increasing omega-3 intake, especially DHA, may be an effective way of treating or preventing depression, partly by protecting the hippocampus from further shrinkage.23
Omega−3 fatty acids are important for normal metabolism. Mammals are unable to synthesize omega−3 fatty acids, but can obtain the shorter-chain omega−3 fatty acid ALA (18 carbons and 3 double bonds) through diet and use it to form the more important long-chain omega−3 fatty acids, EPA (20 carbons and 5 double bonds) and then from EPA, the most crucial, DHA (22 carbons and 6 double bonds). The ability to make the longer-chain omega−3 fatty acids from ALA may be impaired in aging. In foods exposed to air, unsaturated fatty acids are vulnerable to oxidation and rancidity.
“This idea has since been pretty discredited; we really don’t know if the Eskimos got heart disease or not,” said Malden C. Nesheim, emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell University, who chaired an Institute of Medicine committee assessing the risks and benefits of seafood in the early 2000s. “I’ve been an omega-3 skeptic since doing this study.”
In addition to depression, chronic stress leads to loss of volume of the hippocampus—and also causes enlargement of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates anxiety and anger.24 When rats were supplemented with omega-3s during exposure to stress, they showed lower corticosterone levels (a marker of stress), and improved learning on a maze—indicating that the omega-3s helped preserve memory and reduce anxiety.24
However, in both observational studies and controlled clinical trials, eating fish was shown to foster optimal development of a baby’s brain and nervous system, prompting advice that pregnant women and nursing mothers eat more fish rich in omega-3s while avoiding species that may contain mercury or other contaminants like PCBs sometimes found in freshwater fish.
Although results from studies regarding the disease processes of AD seem to be promising, there are conflicting data regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acids in terms of cognitive function. Neuropsychiatric symptoms accompany AD from early stages and tend to increase with the progression of the disease (55). An analysis of 174 patients randomized to a placebo group or to a group with mild to moderate AD (MMSE score ≥15) treated with daily DHA (1.7 g) and EPA (0.6 g) found that at 6 mo, the decline in cognitive function did not differ between the groups. Yet, in a subgroup with very mild cognitive dysfunction (n = 32, MMSE score >27), they observed a significant reduction in the MMSE decline rate in the DHA+EPA-supplemented group compared with the placebo group (47). Another study that looked at DHA supplementation in individuals with mild to moderate AD used the Alzheimer's Disease Assessment Scale–Cognitive subscale, which evaluates cognitive function on a 70-point scale in terms of memory, attention, language, orientation, and praxis. This study found that DHA supplementation had no beneficial effect on cognition during the 18-mo trial period for the DHA group vs. placebo (56).
A 2008 meta-study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found fish oil supplementation did not demonstrate any preventative benefit to cardiac patients with ventricular arrhythmias. A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, covering 20 studies and 68,680 patients, found that Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplementation did not reduce the chance of death, cardiac death, heart attack or stroke.
Humans are unable to place double bonds beyond position 9 on long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA), making the omega-3 FA synthesized in plants and in marine microalgae essential elements to the human diet.1 Fish contain high levels of 2 omega-3 FA, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; C20:5 n-3), and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]; C22:6 n-3)2,3 (Fig. 1). Many claims about the role of these omega-3 FA have been made in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. For instance, fish oil is seen as having a therapeutic role in coronary artery disease (CAD), heart failure, fatal and nonfatal arrhythmias, as well as offering an alternative or adjunct to the standard therapy for hypertriglyceridemia and diabetes. This review will highlight the potential mechanisms of fish oil on cardiovascular disease and provide an update of clinical trial results. The established uses in the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia and sources of omega-3 FA—both dietary and drug therapy—will be iterated, along with its potential application in combination with standard hypolipidemic agents. Finally, the limitations of current data will be addressed, as well as suggested recommendations for clinical use.
If, however, we want to target the actions and benefits of either fat for more intensive support or clinical use, we need to alter the natural 1.5:1 EPA:DHA ratio found in most omega-3 sources such as fish oil – which is when concentrated supplements are especially useful. Certain forms of omega-3 called ethyl-ester and re-esterified triglyceride give nature a helping hand – allowing us to achieve targeted ratios of specific fatty acids at high concentration and physiologically active doses.
Heart rate variability, a possible surrogate outcome for the risk of sudden death, was assessed in a randomized trial of myocardial infarction (MI) survivors with an ejection fraction of 40%. In the 49 patients that were randomized to either fish oil or olive oil, Holter monitor recordings showed an increase in heart rate variability in the fish oil group.31 In a larger cohort assessed in the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS),32 however, no difference in heart rate variability could be attributed to fish oil.
"Fish is still the mainstay of the diet in many parts of the world where there is very little heart disease," he says. "I think when you replace higher fat foods and highly processed foods with fish there is going to be some benefit.'' So it may be that by substituting fish for red meats, bacon and luncheon meats, and similar high-fat foods, you are making a change that will lead to improving your health outcomes, he says.
Cast about for healthy canned tuna. Think all tuna is created equal? Think again. Choose canned light tuna instead of tuna steaks or albacore tuna. It tends to have less mercury. Albacore may contain three times the mercury of chunk light tuna. Check fish guides for the latest information about foods low in toxins but high in omega-3. Two good online sources are:
We’ve already seen that fish oil can help with depression-like symptoms in rats, but what about people? A study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience evaluated the effects of fish oil supplementation on prefrontal metabolite concentrations in adolescents with major depressive disorder. Researchers found that there was a 40 percent decrease in major depression disorder symptoms in addition to marked improvements in amino acid and nutrition content in the brain, specifically, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. (21)
If a chicken eats a diet heavy in omega-3s — such as flaxseed and other nutrient-dense grains — its eggs will be fortified with higher levels of those healthy fatty acids. If you can afford a little extra expense, look for omega-3-enriched eggs from humanely raised chickens that roam free and forage for insects and plants, which give the eggs even further nutrients and health benefits.
The biggest cause of omega-3 deficiency is the overconsumption of foods high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 comes from things like fried foods, fast foods and boxed foods that contain vegetables oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. When you consume too much omega-6, it can decrease your body’s ability to metabolize healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (36)
Excessive amounts of chemicals. Using excessive amounts of fish products such as shark, farm raised salmon or mackerel can be dangerous. These products may be exposed to excessive amounts of chemicals such as mercury which can build up in the body and cause negative effects. While it is healthy to consume fish, it is important to seek out quality sources to avoid exposure to these chemicals. Using a supplement to get high levels of omega-3s into your system is also recommended because these products are produced in such a way that they will not expose you to unsafe chemicals.
Fish oil therapy is efficacious and safe for patients with severe to moderate hypertriglyceridemia. Combination therapy with HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors is also efficacious and has not been associated with any serious adverse reactions. Fish oil therapy added to fenofibrate in patients with severe hypertriglyceridemia is also effective and safe. Accordingly, it may be a safe and effective adjunct in the pharmacotherapy of the mixed lipid disorder that is frequently encountered in patients with the metabolic syndrome and/or type II diabetes mellitus.
Could you be deficient in omega-3s? The University of Maryland Medical Center says that the symptoms “include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor circulation.” They also warn against a poor omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, cautioning readers that it may be “associated with worsening inflammation over time.” (6)
Smithers, L. G., Collins, C. T., Simmonds, L. A., Gibson, R. A., McPhee, A., and Makrides, M. Feeding preterm infants milk with a higher dose of docosahexaenoic acid than that used in current practice does not influence language or behavior in early childhood: a follow-up study of a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(3):628-634. View abstract.
Basil — a flavorful and easy-to-find herb — is a strong source of omega-3 fatty acids. Since basil is used primarily as a seasoning, however, you likely won’t get a full day’s supply of omega-3 from a standard serving. For best results, use whole basil leaves, and add them toward the end of your meal’s cooking time to preserve the plant’s nutrients. In addition to delivering omega-3s, basil teas like Buddha Tea’s Organic Holy Basil Tea also promote calm and reduce cell inflammation.
Because of the preliminary state of knowledge on the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety, we decided to include as many studies as possible and not to set further limitations on specific characteristics, such as length of study, diagnosis, omega-3 PUFA dosage, omega-3 PUFA preparation (EPA to DHA ratio), rated anxiety coding scale, or type of control. Therefore, we chose to make the inclusion criteria as broad as possible to avoid missing any potentially eligible studies. The inclusion criteria included clinical trials in humans (randomized or nonrandomized), studies investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms, and formal published articles in peer-reviewed journals. The clinical trials could be placebo controlled or non–placebo controlled. The target participants could include healthy volunteers, patients with psychiatric illness, and patients with physical illnesses other than psychiatric illnesses. The exclusion criteria included case reports or series, animal studies or review articles, and studies not investigating the effects of omega-3 PUFA treatment on anxiety symptoms. We did not set any language limitation to increase the number of eligible articles. Figure 1 shows the literature search and screening protocol.
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.
Here is a brief on omega-3 fatty acids: There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, namely alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). All three are important for the body. Vegetable sources, including flaxseed oil, soybean oil, hemp oil, canola oil, walnut oil, rapeseed, perilla, chia, and tofu are rich in ALA. The human body has the ability to convert ALA to DHA and EPA, though there are certain limitations to this conversion.
Katzman MA, Bleau P, Blier P, et al; Canadian Anxiety Guidelines Initiative Group on behalf of the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada/Association Canadienne des troubles anxieux and McGill University. Canadian clinical practice guidelines for the management of anxiety, posttraumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorders. BMC Psychiatry. 2014;14(suppl 1):S1. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-S1-S1PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
One reason omega-3 fatty acids may be so beneficial to this many aspects of health could be that they help decrease system-wide inflammation. (49, 50, 51, 52, 53) Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and is related to the development of nearly every major illness, so by eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet, you give your body its best chance to fight disease like it was designed to do.
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.