It can be challenging to get the appropriate intake of EPA and DHA through diet alone, even though EPA and DHA are produced by water plants such as algae and are prevalent in marine animals. A shorter chain omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (ALA),6 is a prominent component of our diet as it is found in many land plants that are commonly eaten, but it does not provide the health benefits seen with EPA and DHA. Although it is possible for the body to convert ALA to EPA and DHA by enlongase and desaturase enzymes, research suggests that only a small amount can be synthesized in the body from this process (8). For example, 1 study suggested that only ∼2 to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA or DHA (9), and other studies found even less: Goyens et al. (10) found an ALA conversion of ∼7% for EPA, but only 0.013% for DHA; Hussein et al. (11) found an ALA conversion of only 0.3% for EPA and <0.01% for DHA.
Cancer. Research on the effects of fish oil in preventing cancer has produced conflicting results. Some population research suggests that eating fish or having higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil is linked to a lower risk of different cancers, including oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer, rectal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer. But other research suggests that eating fish does not reduce the risk of cancer.
Increased consumption of omega 3 fats is widely promoted globally because of a common belief that that it will protect against heart disease. There is more than one possible mechanism for how they might help prevent heart disease, including reducing blood pressure or reducing cholesterol. Omega 3 fats are readily available as over-the-counter supplements and they are widely bought and used.
Fish oil is oil derived from the tissues of oily fish. Fish oils contain the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), precursors of certain eicosanoids that are known to reduce inflammation in the body, and have other health benefits, such as treating hypertriglyceridemia, although claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes have not been supported. Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids have been studied in a wide variety of other conditions, such as clinical depression, anxiety, cancer, and macular degeneration, yet benefits in these conditions have not been verified.
Recent studies have shown that the consumption of fish oil (or, more specifically, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) can improve fertility in both men and women. DHA, which is a byproduct of omega-3 fatty acids, plays a key role in the mobility of sperm and health of sperm in men. Low blood levels of DHA have been linked to decreased fertility. Animal studies have found that the DHA in fish is vital to changing dysfunctional round-headed sperm into strong swimmers with cone-shaped heads packed with egg-opening proteins. (29)
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.
A 2012 study involved children from 6 to 12 years of age with ADHD who were being treated with methylphenidate and standard behavior therapy for more than six months. The parents of these children reported no improvement in behavior and academic learning using these standard treatments. The researchers randomly gave some of the children an omega-3 and omega-6 acid supplementation or a placebo. They found “statistically significant improvement” for the omega group in the following categories: restlessness, aggressiveness, completing work and academic performance. (5)
For preventing and reversing the progression of hardening of the arteries after angioplasty: 6 grams of fish oil daily starting one month before angioplasty and continuing for one months after, followed by 3 grams daily for 6 months thereafter has been used. Also, 15 grams of fish oil has been taken daily for 3 weeks before angioplasty and for 6 months thereafter.
Second, quality matters. It is important to purchase fish oil from a reputable manufacturer that follows Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and takes the necessary steps to purify the oil. In choosing a brand like Nature Made®, the #1 Pharmacist Recommended Omega-3/Fish Oil Brand*, you can rest assured knowing Nature Made has a strong commitment to making quality supplements so you can experience the benefits of fish oil.
Fortier, M., Tremblay-Mercier, J., Plourde, M., Chouinard-Watkins, R., Vandal, M., Pifferi, F., Freemantle, E., and Cunnane, S. C. Higher plasma n-3 fatty acid status in the moderately healthy elderly in southern Quebec: higher fish intake or aging-related change in n-3 fatty acid metabolism? Prostaglandins Leukot.Essent.Fatty Acids 2010;82(4-6):277-280. View abstract.
In a 2009 joint study by the USDA and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, grass-fed beef was compared with grain-finished beef. The researchers found that grass-finished beef is higher in moisture content, 42.5% lower total lipid content, 54% lower in total fatty acids, 54% higher in beta-carotene, 288% higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium, 193% higher in total omega−3s, 117% higher in CLA (cis-9, trans-11 octadecenoic acid, a cojugated linoleic acid, which is a potential cancer fighter), 90% higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA), lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease, and has a healthier ratio of omega−6 to omega−3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84). Protein and cholesterol content were equal.
To reap all the omega-3 benefits, it may be difficult for some people to eat the required amounts of oily fish, particularly with the well-known dangers of farmed fish, which are more readily available to most Americans. That’s why some people consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement in addition to a well-rounded diet. I’ll discuss supplements in a moment, though.
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Some high-quality omega-3 supplements will have lower amounts than EPA/DHA but accompany them with digestive enzymes. While it looks counterintuitive on a nutrition label, this is often done because there is debate about how much of the omega-3’s you actually absorb from supplements when taken alone. By coupling omega-3’s with a digestive enzyme blend, you are likely able to absorb more of the nutrient without having to consume as many grams.
Fish oil supplements in our study averaged 473.3mg EPA + 243.1mg DHA in a single serving. These average values were stretched by outliers on both extremes of the spectrum. Nature Made Cod Liver Oil (50mg EPA/serving) and Schiff MegaRed Krill Oil (29mg DHA/serving) recorded category lows for the two omega-3 fatty acids. Ocean Blue Professional Omega-3 (1260mg EPA/serving) and Dr. Tobias Optimum Omega-3 Fish Oil (600mg DHA/serving), on the other hand, recorded category highs for EPA and DHA content.
Nielsen, A. A., Jorgensen, L. G., Nielsen, J. N., Eivindson, M., Gronbaek, H., Vind, I., Hougaard, D. M., Skogstrand, K., Jensen, S., Munkholm, P., Brandslund, I., and Hey, H. Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit an increase of proinflammatory cytokines in patients with active Crohn's disease compared with omega-6 fatty acids. Aliment.Pharmacol.Ther. 2005;22(11-12):1121-1128. View abstract.
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.
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.
In a U.K. study, children of mothers who ate more than 12 ounces a week actually scored better on tests of verbal I.Q., social behavior, and development and communication than children of mothers who ate none. In the Seychelles Islands, where people average 12 fish meals -- not ounces -- a week, there are no reports of links between mercury exposure and poor outcomes in children. These studies suggest that eating less than 12 ounces of fish each week could do more harm to a child's developing neurological system than mercury poisoning.
The Department of Ecology of the State of Washington has ranked various seafood based on its EPA and DHA concentrations. The highest-ranking seafood is mackerel, excluding King mackerel, that has a concentration of 1,790 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per 100 grams, followed by salmon at 1,590; bluefin tuna has between 1173 and 1504 milligrams; sardines contain 980 milligrams; albacore tuna has 862 milligrams; bass has 640 milligrams; tuna has 630 milligrams; trout and swordfish have 580 milligrams; and walleye has 530 milligrams. Other seafood, which includes sea bass, clams, lobster, scallops, catfish, cod, pollock, crayfish and scallops contains between 200 and 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per 100 grams. Breaded fish products rank lowest on the list with only 0.26 milligram per 100 grams.
The DART study, published in 1989, was the first randomized trial to show the efficacy of fish oil on CAD.37 In the trial, 2033 post-MI patients were randomized to receive 3 types of diets: a diet that was either high in cereal fiber, polyunsaturated fat, or fish oil. The fish oil group consumed 200 to 400 g/wk of fatty fish (2 portions of fish per week) or 0.5 g/d of Maxepa fish oil supplement. At 2 years, the primary end point of all-cause mortality was reduced by 29% in the fish oil group, whereas no improvement was seen in the other dietary advice groups.
Yamagishi, K., Iso, H., Date, C., Fukui, M., Wakai, K., Kikuchi, S., Inaba, Y., Tanabe, N., and Tamakoshi, A. Fish, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and mortality from cardiovascular diseases in a nationwide community-based cohort of Japanese men and women the JACC (Japan Collaborative Cohort Study for Evaluation of Cancer Risk) Study. J.Am.Coll.Cardiol. 9-16-2008;52(12):988-996. View abstract.
Human diet has changed rapidly in recent centuries resulting in a reported increased diet of omega−6 in comparison to omega−3. The rapid evolution of human diet away from a 1:1 omega−3 and omega−6 ratio, such as during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, has presumably been too fast for humans to have adapted to biological profiles adept at balancing omega−3 and omega−6 ratios of 1:1. This is commonly believed to be the reason why modern diets are correlated with many inflammatory disorders. While omega−3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may be beneficial in preventing heart disease in humans, the level of omega−6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (and, therefore, the ratio) does not matter.
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.
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.
Dr. Holub has provided the questions and answers for several emails he has received over the years regarding omega-3 fatty acids for health. If you have a question regarding omega-3, it is likely that Dr. Holub has answered it either here in this section, or elsewhere on the site (e.g. check the scientific overview section for general questions regarding omega-3). To quickly find your answer, please use our search bar located in the top right section of this page. After searching our site, and you still cannot find the answer to your question, we invite you to ask Dr. Holub a question here.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are no official guidelines for the proper amount of omega-3s you should consume each day. However, most organization agree that at least 2 servings of a 3.5 ounce serving of fish (preferably oily) each week is a good start. That equals about 500 milligrams of EPA/DHA each day. For treating disease, up to 4,000 milligrams per day is recommended by various studies, although values do vary. (96) It’s why a pescatarian diet can have such health protective effects.
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.
Weak bones (osteoporosis). Research suggests that taking fish oil alone or together with calcium and evening primrose oil slows the rate of bone loss and increases bone density at the thigh bone (femur) and spine in elderly people with osteoporosis. But taking fish oil does not slow bone loss in older people with osteoarthritis in the knee but without weak bones.