Flaxseed (or linseed) (Linum usitatissimum) and its oil are perhaps the most widely available botanical source of the omega−3 fatty acid ALA. Flaxseed oil consists of approximately 55% ALA, which makes it six times richer than most fish oils in omega−3 fatty acids. A portion of this is converted by the body to EPA and DHA, though the actual converted percentage may differ between men and women.
Whilst EPA and DHA are both considered to be important regulators of immunity, platelet aggregation and inflammation, their health-influencing by-products arise from very different pathways and their effects in the body differ. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes, present in all organs and most abundant in the brain and retina, playing an important structural role. EPA is present structurally only in minute quantities, always being utilised and under constant demand to be replaced. Whilst DHA provides mainly a structural role, it is becoming evident that EPA may be the dominant functional fatty acid out of the two in many areas of health and especially in inflammatory conditions.
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Consumers of oily fish should be aware of the potential presence of heavy metals and fat-soluble pollutants like PCBs and dioxins, which are known to accumulate up the food chain. After extensive review, researchers from Harvard's School of Public Health in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2006) reported that the benefits of fish intake generally far outweigh the potential risks.
16. Saito Y, Yokoyama M, Origasa H, Matsuzaki M, Matsuzawa Y, Ishikawa Y, Oikawa S, Sasaki J, Hishida H, Itakura H, et al. Effects of EPA on coronary artery disease in hypercholesterolemic patients with multiple risk factors: sub-analysis of primary prevention cases from the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS). Atherosclerosis. 2008;200:135–40. [PubMed]
Henriksen, C., Haugholt, K., Lindgren, M., Aurvag, A. K., Ronnestad, A., Gronn, M., Solberg, R., Moen, A., Nakstad, B., Berge, R. K., Smith, L., Iversen, P. O., and Drevon, C. A. Improved cognitive development among preterm infants attributable to early supplementation of human milk with docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid. Pediatrics 2008;121(6):1137-1145. View abstract.
The chemical structures of EPA and DHA are very similar and they compete for uptake and processing resources. During digestion, the triglyceride molecules in standard fish oil are broken down into a mono glycerol and two free fatty acids, small enough to be absorbed into cells of the gut lining. More often than not, DHA is the fatty acid that remains attached to the glycerol backbone, meaning in essence that DHA gets a ‘free pass’ into the gut, while the remaining free fatty acids (more often EPA) must reattach onto a glycerol molecule or risk being oxidised and used as fuel. The implication of this is that DHA levels in our cells are often concentrated at the expense of EPA after absorption when taking EPA and DHA in the standard ratio of 1.5 to 1.
ALA is an essential fatty acid, which means that you need it but you must get this fat from your diet because your body is unable to produce it. In general, omega 3 fats are a crucial component of all cell membranes, including the eye (retina) and brain as well as aiding in the process of energy production to support functions involving the heart, lungs, immune system, and hormones (endocrine system), work properly.1
Mozaffarian D, Marchioli R, Macchia A, Silletta MG, Ferrazzi P, Gardner TJ, Latini R, Libby P, Lombardi F, O'Gara PT, Page RL, Tavazzi L, Tognoni G; OPERA Investigators. Fish oil and postoperative atrial fibrillation: the Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Prevention of Post-operative Atrial Fibrillation (OPERA) randomized trial. JAMA 2012;308(19):2001-11. View abstract.
Throughout their history, the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the World Health Organization have published acceptability standards regarding contaminants in fish oil. The most stringent current standard is the International Fish Oils Standard.[non-primary source needed] Fish oils that are molecularly distilled under vacuum typically make this highest-grade; levels of contaminants are stated in parts per billion per trillion.
Children, in particular, seem to experience problems with sleep when they don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. In adults, low omega-3 levels are associated with obstructive sleep apnea. One reason for this may be that low omega-3s are linked to lower levels of melatonin, the hormone partly responsible for helping you to get to sleep in the first place.
An animal study involving the omega-3 ETA discovered that subjects experienced a drop in overall inflammation similar to that caused by NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), but without the dangerous gastrointestinal side effects. The study authors also pointed out that eicosapentaenoic acid seems to be even more potent than the conventional omega-3s found in fish oil supplements (EPA/DHA). (56)
Increased EPA levels in the blood and cell membranes effectively regulates inflammatory pathways and reduces total inflammatory ‘load’, so for any inflammatory conditions or concerns, we recommend a phase of pure EPA supplementation for at least 3-6 months. Pre-loading the body with pure EPA (without the opposing actions of DHA for uptake and utilisation) ensures constant replenishment of EPA ’supplies’ to support its high rate of turnover. Since DHA levels remain fairly stable and much lower daily amounts are required, DHA levels can be supported continually through dietary intake, or increased to 250 mg daily in later stages of treatment through supplementation.
Dioxins and PCBs may be carcinogenic at low levels of exposure over time. These substances are identified and measured in one of two categories, dioxin-like PCBs and total PCBs. While the U.S. FDA has not set a limit for PCBs in supplements, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED) has established a guideline allowing for no more than 3 picograms of dioxin-like PCBs per gram of fish oil. In 2012, samples from 35 fish oil supplements were tested for PCBs. Trace amounts of PCBs were found in all samples, and two samples exceeded the GOED‘s limit. Although trace amounts of PCBs contribute to overall PCB exposure, Consumerlab.com claims the amounts reported by tests it ordered on fish oil supplements are far below those found in a single typical serving of fish.
About the only exception are wild-caught Alaskan salmon and very small fish like sardines. The highest concentrations of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish like tuna, sea bass, and marlin. You may need to be especially cautious of canned tuna as well, as independent testing by the Mercury Policy Project found that the average mercury concentration in canned tuna is far over the "safe limits" of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
And in osteoarthritis, when a DHA/EPA formulation was added to chondroitin sulfate, people experienced more complete relief of symptoms such as stiffness and pain. One study found a significant increase in walking speed in people who supplemented with fish oil versus those who did not.79,80 As with the beneficial results seen in people with bone loss, these positive findings may have been the result of the decreased inflammatory destruction of joint cartilage.81
The hypotriglyceridemic effect of fish oil is well established and is related to both dose and baseline triglyceride level. Patients with triglycerides <90 mg/dL will be negligibly affected unless very high doses of omega-3 FA are used.67,68 However, in patients with triglycerides >200 mg/dL, who are treated with 4 g/d of fish oil, a 30% reduction in triglycerides is expected.17,69 For patients with triglycerides >500 mg/dL who are at risk for pancreatitis, the National Cholesterol Education Program Adult Treatment Panel III guidelines recommend using fish oil supplements as an adjunctive therapy to fibrates and nicotinic acid.70 Lovaza capsules have been shown to be effective, safe, and comparable to gemfibrozil in treating triglycerides at this range.71,72 The official label recommendation for Lovaza is for patients with triglycerides >500 mg/dL.73
When it comes to fat, there's one type you don’t want to cut back on: omega-3 fatty acids. Two crucial ones -- EPA and DHA -- are primarily found in certain fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), another omega-3 fatty acid, is found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds. Not only does your body need these fatty acids to function, but also they deliver some big health benefits.
In a study published after the AHRQ report, scientists in Denmark gave high-dose fish oil supplements or placebos to 736 pregnant women during the third trimester of pregnancy. Children born to mothers who had taken fish oil were less likely to develop asthma or persistent wheezing in early childhood, and this was most noticeable in children whose mothers had low blood levels of EPA and DHA before they started to take the supplements. However, other studies that evaluated the effects of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy on childhood asthma risk have had inconsistent results.
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."
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.
In total, 19 articles with 19 data sets revealed the main results of the meta-analysis, namely that there was a significantly better association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 19; Hedges g, 0.374; 95% CI, 0.081-0.666; P = .01; Figure 2), with significant heterogeneity (Cochran Q, 178.820; df, 18; I2, 89.934%; P < .001) but no significant publication bias via Egger regression (t, 1.736; df, 17; P = .10) or inspection of the funnel plot (eFigure 2 in the Supplement). According to the trim-and-fill test, there was no need for adjustment for publication bias. The meta-analysis results remained significant after removal of any one of the included studies, which indicated that the significant results are not owing to any single study.
The question is whether the observed cardiovascular benefits often found among fish eaters is due solely to the oils in fish or to some other characteristics of seafood or to still other factors common to those who eat lots of fish, like eating less meat or pursuing a healthier lifestyle over all. Whatever the answer, it does not seem to be fish oil supplements.
Thusgaard, M., Christensen, J. H., Morn, B., Andersen, T. S., Vige, R., Arildsen, H., Schmidt, E. B., and Nielsen, H. Effect of fish oil (n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids) on plasma lipids, lipoproteins and inflammatory markers in HIV-infected patients treated with antiretroviral therapy: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Scand.J.Infect.Dis. 2009;41(10):760-766. View abstract.
The omega-3 index is also important because it is inversely related to one’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio — another important measurement (3). A lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio (meaning, you consume a balanced amount of these two fatty acid families) is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease, to name a few (4). Of course, most people get far too much omega-6 and too little omega-3, thanks to the plethora of highly processed foods in the Western diet.
For those who do not eat seafood, another way exists for you to get a healthy dose of EPA and DHA each day. Fish oil supplements, which are rich in EPA and DHA, can be made from a variety of fish, with the most common ones being halibut, tuna, salmon, cod liver, mackerel and herring. On average, one 3.5 ounce serving of fatty fish contains about 1 gram of omega-3s, which can be obtained through fish oil supplements, according to MedlinePlus.
The randomized trials assessing the efficacy of fish oil supplementation on secondary prevention of CAD lend further evidence to the findings that fish oil may protect from sudden cardiac death.36 The Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART),37 one of the first randomized trials of fish oil in CAD, has been interpreted as potential support for fish oil’s role in sudden death reduction because the primary outcome of all-cause mortality occurred within 2 months of the trial’s onset.38 After such a short time span, it was believed that atherosclerosis would not be altered and therefore another mechanism was reducing mortality. This was further supported by the fact that nonfatal MIs were not reduced. Although the actual modes of death other than CAD-related deaths were not documented, it has been postulated to be secondary to a reduction in sudden death.39 The Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardico-Prevenzione40 (GISSI-Prevenzione) trial, a larger randomized trial of fish oil in CAD, has also been interpreted as evidence for fish oil’s protection against sudden death. Sudden death, however, was not a primary end point. Rather, the reduction in fatal events was driven by a reduction in cardiovascular death, which included coronary death, cardiac death, and sudden death.
It’s no surprise that fish — particularly cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies — are rich in omega-3s. It’s called fish oil for a reason, right? Mackerel, for instance, may have more than 3300 mg of omega-3 per serving — that’s more than 6 times the recommended per day dose for healthy adults. Not a huge fish connoisseur? Try some of the quick, simple recipes in Cooking with Fish Like a Pro, an accessible collection of fish recipes to suit every palate.
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.
Keep in mind that APA found in plant-based foods takes a lot of energy for your body to convert to EPA and DHA. I understand that many people following a vegan diet struggle with the concept of fish oil or eating fish, but animal products contain the necessary omega-3 fatty acids to allow your body to absorb and synthesize what you take in. However, there are plant-based options — you’ll just need more APA because of the way your body processes the medium-chain fatty acid.
Many people focus on the dosage of fish oil to take, like 1000 mg or 1200 mg, but it is the omega-3s that matter. This is where the benefits of fish oil are found. The two types of omega-3 fatty acids to focus on are EPA and DHA. These omega-3s are naturally found in oily fish like salmon, halibut, sardines and anchovies, and are the very reason why fish oil supplements have received such high praise.
EPA is the precursor to DHA in the body and can be converted to DHA with the enzyme delta-6 desaturase, but this process is inefficient in many people (much like the inefficiency of short-chain omega-3s to long-chain). For those individuals taking pure EPA products as well as those taking our EPA-rich products, we still recommend eating oily fish at least once each week to provide a natural source of DHA. Fish provides a unique nutritional package, supplying the diet with important amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and antioxidants, including vitamins and minerals needed to process fats, so eating fish will also support the natural enzyme-dependent EPA to DHA conversion.
Most vegan omega-3 supplements are made from seaweed, one of very few plant sources of both EPA and DHA. If you’d rather skip the pills, the real thing provides omega-3s as well as vitamin K, vitamin C, niacin, folate, and choline. Seaweed can be eaten raw (look for it at your local organic or Asian market) or dried — try Annie Chun’s Organic Seaweed Snack, which comes in individual packs and is available in several delicious flavors.
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.
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.