What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
Fish oil is also used for diabetes, prediabetes, asthma, a movement and coordination disorder called dyspraxia, dyslexia, eczema, autism, obesity, weak bones (osteoporosis), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis, psoriasis, an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, gum disease, Lyme disease, sickle cell disease, and preventing weight loss caused by some cancer drugs.
In 1964 it was discovered that enzymes found in sheep tissues convert omega−6 arachidonic acid into the inflammatory agent called prostaglandin E2 which both causes the sensation of pain and expedites healing and immune response in traumatized and infected tissues. By 1979 more of what are now known as eicosanoids were discovered: thromboxanes, prostacyclins, and the leukotrienes. The eicosanoids, which have important biological functions, typically have a short active lifetime in the body, starting with synthesis from fatty acids and ending with metabolism by enzymes. If the rate of synthesis exceeds the rate of metabolism, the excess eicosanoids may, however, have deleterious effects. Researchers found that certain omega−3 fatty acids are also converted into eicosanoids, but at a much slower rate. Eicosanoids made from omega−3 fatty acids are often referred to as anti-inflammatory, but in fact they are just less inflammatory than those made from omega−6 fats. If both omega−3 and omega−6 fatty acids are present, they will "compete" to be transformed, so the ratio of long-chain omega−3:omega−6 fatty acids directly affects the type of eicosanoids that are produced.
All people need to consume omega-3 fats regularly. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females, according to the National Institutes of Health. The omega-3 family encompasses numerous fatty acids, but three primary forms are eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid. The first two forms primarily occur in fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna. The third can be found in plant oils, including flaxseed, soybean, walnut, and canola oils.
There have been conflicting results reported about EPA and DHA and their use with regard to major coronary events and their use after myocardial infarction. EPA+DHA has been associated with a reduced risk of recurrent coronary artery events and sudden cardiac death after an acute myocardial infarction (RR, 0.47; 95% CI: 0.219–0.995) and a reduction in heart failure events (adjusted HR: 0.92; 99% CI: 0.849–0.999) (34–36). A study using EPA supplementation in combination with a statin, compared with statin therapy alone, found that, after 5 y, the patients in the EPA group (n = 262) who had a history of coronary artery disease had a 19% relative reduction in major coronary events (P = 0.011). However, in patients with no history of coronary artery disease (n = 104), major coronary events were reduced by 18%, but this finding was not significant (37). This Japanese population already has a high relative intake of fish compared with other nations, and, thus, these data suggest that supplementation has cardiovascular benefits in those who already have sufficient baseline EPA+DHA levels. Another study compared patients with impaired glucose metabolism (n = 4565) with normoglycemic patients (n = 14,080). Impaired glucose metabolism patients had a significantly higher coronary artery disease HR (1.71 in the non-EPA group and 1.63 in the EPA group). The primary endpoint was any major coronary event including sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, and other nonfatal events. Treatment of impaired glucose metabolism patients with EPA showed a significantly lower major coronary event HR of 0.78 compared with the non–EPA-treated impaired glucose metabolism patients (95% CI: 0.60–0.998; P = 0.048), which demonstrates that EPA significantly suppresses major coronary events (38). When looking at the use of EPA+DHA and cardiovascular events after myocardial infarction, of 4837 patients, a major cardiovascular event occurred in 671 patients (13.9%) (39). A post hoc analysis of the data from these diabetic patients showed that rates of fatal coronary heart disease and arrhythmia-related events were lower among patients in the EPA+DHA group than among the placebo group (HR for fatal coronary heart disease: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.27–0.97; HR for arrhythmia-related events: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.24–1.11, not statistically significant) (39). Another study found that there was no significant difference in sudden cardiac death or total mortality between an EPA+DHA supplementation group and a control group in those patients treated after myocardial infarction (40). Although these last 2 studies appear to be negative in their results, it is possible that the more aggressive treatment with medications in these more recent studies could attribute to this.
Grigg, L. E., Kay, T. W., Valentine, P. A., Larkins, R., Flower, D. J., Manolas, E. G., O'Dea, K., Sinclair, A. J., Hopper, J. L., and Hunt, D. Determinants of restenosis and lack of effect of dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid on the incidence of coronary artery restenosis after angioplasty. J Am Coll Cardiol. 3-1-1989;13(3):665-672. View abstract.
This constant sweeping motion of DHA also causes the breakup of lipid rafts in membranes (8). Disruption of these islands of relatively solid lipids makes it more difficult for cancer cells to continue to survive and more difficult for inflammatory cytokines to initiate the signaling responses to turn on inflammatory genes (9). In addition, the greater spatial characteristics of DHA increase the size of LDL particles to a greater extent compared to EPA. As a result, DHA helps reduce the entry of these enlarged LDL particles into the muscle cells that line the artery thus reducing the likelihood of developing atherosclerotic lesions (10). Thus the increased spatial territory swept out by DHA is good news for making certain areas of membranes more fluid or lipoprotein particles larger, even though it reduces the benefits of DHA in competing with AA for key enzymes important in the development of cellular inflammation.
for canned sardines i noticed the omega 3 EPA/DHA levels (written on the can) varied between the different company brands (sometimes by a lot!) , and also, the EPA/DHA amounts varied depending on what was added in the can with the sardines (sunflower oil, olive oil, brine, spring water, etc --- little note: there's more fat in the oily fish, than found in the brine/spring water)
Omega-3s have been studied for other conditions, with either inconclusive or negative results. These conditions include allergies, atopic eczema (an allergic skin condition), cystic fibrosis, diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis), intermittent claudication (a circulatory problem), nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and osteoporosis.
There is, however, significant difficulty in interpreting the literature due to participant recall and systematic differences in diets. There is also controversy as to the efficacy of omega−3, with many meta-analysis papers finding heterogeneity among results which can be explained mostly by publication bias. A significant correlation between shorter treatment trials was associated with increased omega−3 efficacy for treating depressed symptoms further implicating bias in publication.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to play a role in atherosclerosis and peripheral arterial disease (PAD). It is thought that both EPA and DHA improve plaque stability, decrease endothelial activation, and improve vascular permeability, thereby decreasing the chance of experiencing a cardiovascular event (41). It was found that EPA supplementation is associated with significantly higher amounts of EPA in the carotid plaque than placebo (P < 0.0001), which may lead to decreased plaque inflammation and increased stability (42). PAD, a manifestation of atherosclerosis, is characterized by buildup of plaque in the arteries of the leg and can eventually lead to complete blockage of the arteries. EPA+DHA supplementation has been shown to improve endothelial function in patients with PAD by decreasing plasma levels of soluble thrombomodulin from a median value of 33.0 μg/L to 17.0 μg/L (P = 0.04) and improve brachial artery flow–mediated dilation from 6.7% to 10.0% (P = 0.02) (43). Patients who had PAD and were supplemented with EPA experienced a significantly lower major coronary event HR than those who did not take EPA (HR: 0.44; 95% CI: 0.19–0.97; P = 0.041) (44).
Recently another Omega-3 fatty acid, DPA (Docosapentaenoic Acid) has been discussed more frequently in the scientific community, as a new and very potent Omega-3 fatty acid. Previously thought to work in through EPA and DHA we are now learning it has very distinct functions in the body. All three of these polyunsaturated fats play an important role in the functioning of our bodies.
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.
Joensen, A. M., Schmidt, E. B., Dethlefsen, C., Johnsen, S. P., Tjonneland, A., Rasmussen, L. H., and Overvad, K. Dietary intake of total marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid and docosapentaenoic acid and the risk of acute coronary syndrome - a cohort study. Br J Nutr 2010;103(4):602-607. View abstract.
At SelfHacked, it’s our goal to offer our readers all the tools possible to get optimally healthy. When I was struggling with chronic health issues I felt stuck because I didn’t have any tools to help me get better. I had to spend literally thousands of hours trying to read through studies on pubmed to figure out how the body worked and how to fix it.
I now suspect that those thousands of gel-covered capsules I’ve swallowed over the years may have done little more than enrich the pockets of supplement producers and sellers. A number of extensive analyses have been conducted, some supporting and others refuting the value of fish oils to the cardiovascular system, along with studies of other purported health benefits that also have had mixed results.
Damage to the kidneys caused the drug cyclosporine. Cyclosporine is a medication that reduces the chance of organ rejection after an organ transplant. Taking fish oil seems to prevent kidney damage in people taking this drug. Fish oil also seems to improve kidney function during the recovery phase following the rejection of a transplanted organ in people taking cyclosporine.