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.
The 'essential' fatty acids were given their name when researchers found that they are essential to normal growth in young children and animals. The omega−3 fatty acid DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is found in high abundance in the human brain. It is produced by a desaturation process, but humans lack the desaturase enzyme, which acts to insert double bonds at the ω6 and ω3 position. Therefore, the ω6 and ω3 polyunsaturated fatty acids cannot be synthesized and are appropriately called essential fatty acids.
Added inactive ingredients also contribute to product safety. Eight supplements in this study contained ‘natural’ flavors such as citrus-derived additives. One product, Coromega Omega-3, also contained benzoic acid, a popular antibacterial agent linked to carcinogenic risks when combined with vitamin C. Other controversial excipients included the artificial coloring agents FD&C Blue 1 and FD&C Red 40 as well as the whitening agent titanium dioxide.
Three randomized trials assessing more than 600 patients with known malignant ventricular arrhythmia were carried out under the protection of implanted cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) therapy.41–43 In all 3 of the trials, 75% of the patients had ischemic heart disease, survived ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation and were randomized to 1 to 3 g/d of fish oil. In the first trial of its kind, 402 patients with ICDs were randomized to either a fish oil or an olive oil supplement.41 Although statistical significance was not reached, after approximately 1 year the primary end-point of time to first ICD cardioversion for ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation or death from any cause was longer in the fish oil group. This finding was not replicated in a trial of 200 patients who were randomized to either fish oil or a placebo and followed for a median of approximately 2 years.42 In fact, time to first ICD cardioversion was not changed and the incidence of recurrent ventricular tachycardia and fibrillation was more common in the group assigned to fish oil. In the largest trial, 546 patients were randomized to supplemental fish oil or a placebo and were followed for a mean period of 1 year.43 The primary outcome of the rate of ICD cardioversion or all-cause mortality was not reduced. It was concluded in a recent meta-analysis of these trials that fish oil did not have a protective effect.44
Omega 3 is a type of fat. Small amounts of omega 3 fats are essential for good health, and they can be found in the food that we eat. The main types of omega 3 fatty acids are; alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is normally found in fats from plant foods, such as nuts and seeds (walnuts and rapeseed are rich sources). EPA and DHA, collectively called long chain omega 3 fats, are naturally found in fatty fish, such as salmon and fish oils including cod liver oil.
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]
Nakamura, N., Hamazaki, T., Ohta, M., Okuda, K., Urakaze, M., Sawazaki, S., Yamazaki, K., Satoh, A., Temaru, R., Ishikura, Y., Takata, M., Kishida, M., and Kobayashi, M. Joint effects of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors and eicosapentaenoic acids on serum lipid profile and plasma fatty acid concentrations in patients with hyperlipidemia. Int J Clin Lab Res 1999;29(1):22-25. View abstract.
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. If you keep up with the latest nutrition news, you may have a pretty good sense of what they offer. But, if you're like many people, you still can't tell your omega-3s from your omega-6s -- and you sure as heck can't pronounce eicosapentaenoic acid. That's OK. Our fishing expedition turned up some interesting facts to share about omega-3 fatty acids and fish.
Kabir, M., Skurnik, G., Naour, N., Pechtner, V., Meugnier, E., Rome, S., Quignard-Boulange, A., Vidal, H., Slama, G., Clement, K., Guerre-Millo, M., and Rizkalla, S. W. Treatment for 2 mo with n 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids reduces adiposity and some atherogenic factors but does not improve insulin sensitivity in women with type 2 diabetes: a randomized controlled study. Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 2007;86(6):1670-1679. View abstract.
Stiefel, P., Ruiz-Gutierrez, V., Gajon, E., Acosta, D., Garcia-Donas, M. A., Madrazo, J., Villar, J., and Carneado, J. Sodium transport kinetics, cell membrane lipid composition, neural conduction and metabolic control in type 1 diabetic patients. Changes after a low-dose n-3 fatty acid dietary intervention. Ann Nutr Metab 1999;43(2):113-120. View abstract.
Additional side effects of fish oil supplements which have been reported include headache, short-term memory loss, depression, somatic disorders, and increased risk of colon cancer, nasopharyngitis, worsening of asthma symptoms, hemolytic anemia, decreased physical activity, increased appetite, a general uncomfortable feeling or increased blood pressure. The percentage of users that develop these side effects is not known. If these side effects become severe it is recommended that you stop using fish oil supplements.
In comparison, the omega-3s found in krill appear to be more rapidly incorporated into red blood cell phospholipids.7 This is important, because not only do scientists view the uptake of essential fatty acids in red blood cells as a biomarker for uptake into the brain,8 but additional research suggests that when omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA are bound to phospholipids as they are with krill, it increases their uptake to the brain.9 This is further supported by human clinical research, which suggests ingestion of phospholipid-bound EPA and DHA increase cognitive function scores to a greater degree compared with scores obtained when the fatty acids in the ingested oil were provided in the triglycerides storage form.10
They also found that taking more long-chain omega 3 fats (including EPA and DHA), primarily through supplements probably makes little or no difference to risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities. Long-chain omega 3 fats probably did reduce some blood fats, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol. Reducing triglycerides is likely to be protective of heart diseases, but reducing HDL has the opposite effect. The researchers collected information on harms from the studies, but information on bleeding and blood clots was very limited.
A 2009 metastudy found that patients taking omega-3 supplements with a higher EPA:DHA ratio experienced fewer depressive symptoms. The studies provided evidence that EPA may be more efficacious than DHA in treating depression. However, this metastudy concluded that due to the identified limitations of the included studies, larger, randomized trials are needed to confirm these findings.
The results of several small studies had suggested that taking omega-3 supplements might help relieve symptoms of dry eye disease. However, a 2018 NIH-sponsored study that tested omega-3 supplements for a full year in a larger group (535 study participants) with moderate-to-severe dry eye disease found that the supplements were no more helpful than a placebo (an inactive substance).
Three omega−3 fatty acids are important in human physiology, α-linolenic acid (18:3, n-3; ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5, n-3; EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6, n-3; DHA). These three polyunsaturates have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. As with most naturally-produced fatty acids, all double bonds are in the cis-configuration, in other words, the two hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond; and the double bonds are interrupted by methylene bridges (-CH
ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning that your body can’t make it, so you must get it from the foods and beverages you consume. Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, but only in very small amounts. Therefore, getting EPA and DHA from foods (and dietary supplements if you take them) is the only practical way to increase levels of these omega-3 fatty acids in your body.
EPA and DHA are vital nutrients and may be taken to maintain healthy function of the following: brain and retina: DHA is a building block of tissue in the brain and retina of the eye. It helps with forming neural transmitters, such as phosphatidylserine, which is important for brain function. DHA is found in the retina of the eye and taking DHA may be necessary for maintaining healthy levels of DHA for normal eye function.
The conversion of ALA to EPA and further to DHA in humans has been reported to be limited, but varies with individuals. Women have higher ALA-to-DHA conversion efficiency than men, which is presumed to be due to the lower rate of use of dietary ALA for beta-oxidation. One preliminary study showed that EPA can be increased by lowering the amount of dietary linoleic acid, and DHA can be increased by elevating intake of dietary ALA.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Lipids and Glycemic Control in Type II Diabetes and the Metabolic Syndrome and on Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Renal Disease, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, and Osteoporosis. AHRQ Publication No. 04-E012-1; 2004. Available at: https://archive.ahrq.gov/downloads/pub/evidence/pdf/o3lipid/o3lipid.pdf. (Accessed February 7, 2017).
To evaluate the potential placebo effect, we made further subgrouping analyses. In the subgroups of studies using placebo controls, the omega-3 PUFAs still revealed a consistent positive anxiolytic association with anxiety symptoms. These phenomena meant that the anxiolytic effect of omega-3 PUFAs is probably not entirely owing to the placebo effect.
For patients without documented CAD, the American Heart Association 2006 Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations advise the consumption of at least 2 servings of fish per week, preferably fatty fish high in DHA and EPA.65 The guidelines also recommend a daily fish intake equivalent to 1 g/d of EPA and DHA for secondary prevention of CAD. Fish oil supplements containing EPA and DHA are suggested as an alternative to fatty fish consumption for secondary prevention.
The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in these omega-3s. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA. Good sources of these are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.
The number of presenters and the amount of information stuffed into an action-packed few days at times felt overwhelming, even for two dedicated omega-3 enthusiasts like us. But one important message did hit home: The omega-3 index could be a helpful indicator of various health risks, and we should all be paying closer attention to this measurement.
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.
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.
Finally, in order for AA to be converted into inflammatory products it must be released from phospholipids (part of the cell membrane) using the enzyme phospholipase A2 and then converted by the enzyme cyclooxygenase. EPA utilises both of these enzymes, so if EPA levels are increased in the diet, it attracts enzyme away from AA to EPA – again giving rise to anti-inflammatory products instead of inflammatory ones.
Given the wide-ranging importance and benefits of marine omega-3 fatty acids, it is important to eat fish or other seafood one to two times per week, particularly fatty (dark meat) fish that are richer in EPA and DHA. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant and nursing mothers. From the third trimester until the second year of life, a developing child needs a steady supply of DHA to form the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Many women shy away from eating fish because of concerns that mercury and other possible contaminants might harm their babies, (9) yet the evidence for harm from lack of omega-3 fats is far more consistent, and a balance of benefit vs. risk is easily obtained. (To learn more about the controversy over contaminants in fatty fish, read Fish: Friend or Foe.)
To reach the required dose of EPA for treating certain conditions such as depression, CVD or CFS/ME you would need to take approximately 1-2 grams of ‘free EPA’ daily. Even with a concentrated omega-3 fish oil supplement, offering 180 mg excess EPA over DHA, this would require 10-20 capsules daily – significant in terms of volume and cost, and not efficient in terms of uptake in the body as our capacity for fat absorption is limited. The most effective and efficient way to ensure high EPA uptake in the body rapidly is to supplement with pure EPA for a minimum of 3-6 months.
Children require DHA for growth and development, and the brain, CNS and retina rely heavily on the adequate supply of DHA during growth in the womb. Thus women should emphasise DHA in their diets when they become pregnant and continue to take this until they cease breastfeeding. Children continue to need DHA up until the age they start school, so if children under the age of five are taking an omega-3 supplement, it should contain DHA. The exception is for children with developmental problems – where pure EPA or high EPA omega-3 has been shown to be most effective for supporting cognitive function. We would still recommend, where possible, naturally derived sources of omega-3 such as oily fish to support a balanced EPA and DHA intake.
Even healthy oils form trans fats when heated. Each oil has a different temperature at which it forms its own trans fats. Generally, when the oil begins to smoke is when trans fats are formed. Did this study consider how and at what temperatures the fish were cooked? Are some of the suppliments heated before being made into capsules? Did it also consider that many types of fish have dangerous levels of mercury?
Marine and freshwater fish oil vary in contents of arachidonic acid, EPA and DHA. The various species range from lean to fatty and their oil content in the tissues has been shown to vary from 0.7% to 15.5%. They also differ in their effects on organ lipids. Studies have revealed that there is no relation between total fish intake or estimated omega−3 fatty acid intake from all fish, and serum omega−3 fatty acid concentrations. Only fatty fish intake, particularly salmonid, and estimated EPA + DHA intake from fatty fish has been observed to be significantly associated with increase in serum EPA + DHA.
Bell, J. G., Miller, D., MacDonald, D. J., MacKinlay, E. E., Dick, J. R., Cheseldine, S., Boyle, R. M., Graham, C., and O'Hare, A. E. The fatty acid compositions of erythrocyte and plasma polar lipids in children with autism, developmental delay or typically developing controls and the effect of fish oil intake. Br J Nutr 2010;103(8):1160-1167. View abstract.
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.
A study published in Brain Research shows how far-reaching fish oil can be for people with diabetes. Researches found that fish oil can help reduce the risk of diabetics from developing cognitive deficit because it protects the hippocampus cells from being destroyed. The study also showed that fish oil could help reduce oxidative stress, which plays a central role in the development of diabetes complications, both microvascular and cardiovascular. (22)
A six week, double-blind study on fish oil supplementation for body composition showed that the group taking 4 grams/day of fish oil (contained 1600mg if EPA & 800mg of DHA) experienced a significant increase in lean body mass and significant decrease in fat mass compared to a group that took safflower oil (an omega-6 oil). The fish oil group also saw a tendency for decreases in cortisol, a hormone associated with belly fat gain when elevated.
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA): This plant-based omega-3 is found in green, leafy vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds and canola, walnut and soybean oils (although those rancid oils are not ones I generally recommend). ALA is known as a short-chain omega-3, meaning your body has to convert it into longer-chained EPA and DHA to synthesize it. This process is rather inefficient and only about one percent of the ALA you consume is converted to the long-chain version your body needs (although this percentage is slightly higher for women).
So for those people who will not eat liver, cod liver oil on a daily basis can be a very good way of getting that. And you do benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids, and with the cod liver oil, it may even be unimportant to eat fish if you’re getting the cod liver oil, although it’s still better to focus on the fish, the egg yolks, and just add some of the cod liver oil.
Haberka, M., Mizia-Stec, K., Mizia, M., Janowska, J., Gieszczyk, K., Chmiel, A., Zahorska-Markiewicz, B., and Gasior, Z. N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids early supplementation improves ultrasound indices of endothelial function, but not through NO inhibitors in patients with acute myocardial infarction: N-3 PUFA supplementation in acute myocardial infarction. Clin.Nutr. 2011;30(1):79-85. View abstract.
LCn3s are long chain fatty acids from fish, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is plant-based omega 3-alpha‐linolenic acid. Fatty acids are essentially chains of carbon atoms with an OOH group at one end. The available binding sites on the carbon atoms are filled with hydrogen atoms. If every binding site is occupied with a hydrogen, that is a saturated fatty acid. If instead of hydrogen atoms there is a double bond between two adjacent carbon atoms, that is an unsaturated fatty acid. If there are multiple double bonds, that is polyunsaturated. Omega 3 fatty acids are unsaturated, with a double bond between the third and fourth carbon atoms from the end opposite the OOH group.
Secondary prevention fish oil studies demonstrate a significant reduction in MI. But unfortunately, both the observational and randomized trials were conducted in an era before the widespread use of HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors, and therefore, the incremental benefit is still unknown. Nevertheless, in patients receiving antiplatelet and anticoagulant therapy in addition to fish oil supplementation (even at doses as high as 4 g per day), no serious adverse complications have been reported.
Abnormal rapid heart rhythms (ventricular arrhythmias). Population research suggests that eating a lot of fish has no effect on the risk for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Clinical research is inconsistent. Some research shows that taking fish oil daily does not affect the risk for abnormal heart rhythms. But other research shows that taking fish oil for 11 months delays the development of the condition. However, overall, taking fish oil does not seem to reduce the risk of death in people with abnormal rapid heart rhythms.