On September 8, 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave "qualified health claim" status to EPA and DHA omega−3 fatty acids, stating, "supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA [omega−3] fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease". This updated and modified their health risk advice letter of 2001 (see below).
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)
Omega-3 FA most likely reduce serum triglyceride levels by modulating very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and chylomicron metabolism. There is a consistent finding in the literature that the end effect of fish oil is decreased hepatic secretion of VLDL17—the major endogenous source of triglycerides. This effect occurs most likely through multiple mechanisms, including: (1) decreased synthesis of triglycerides because these omega-3 FA may not be the preferred substrates of the enzyme diacylglycerol O-acyltransferase,18 or they may interact with nuclear transcription factors that control lipogenesis19; cellular metabolism consequently shifts toward a decrease in triglyceride synthesis and an increase in FA oxidation; and (2) the promotion of apolipoprotein B degradation in the liver through the stimulation of an autophagic process.20 This means that fewer VLDL particles can be assembled and secreted. Fish oil may also accelerate VLDL and chylomicron clearance21 by inducing lipoprotein lipase activity.22
After a large number of lab studies found that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in slowing or reversing the growth of hormonal cancers, namely prostate and breast cancer cells, animal and human epidemiological studies have been conducted to see whether this effect occurred in real-life scenarios. The evidence is somewhat conflicting in some reports, but there is some evidence to suggest breast and prostate cancers may be potentially slowed (or the risk reduced) in people who eat a lot of oily fish and possibly those who supplement with omega-3. (66, 67, 68)
Protects Vision: Our eyes' retinas are a membranous structures and the whole eye is covered in a soft double layer of membranes, making your eyes' health dependent on the liver (who knew?). The liver helps metabolize fat-soluble vitamins that feed and maintain those membranes. If you're deficient in DHA, it affects how we see by delaying the system that converts light into neural energy in the retina.
Jump up ^ Kwak SM, Myung SK, Lee YJ, Seo HG (May 2012). "Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials". Archives of Internal Medicine. 172 (9): 686–94. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.262. PMID 22493407.
Fatty predatory fish like sharks, swordfish, tilefish, and albacore tuna may be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but due to their position at the top of the food chain, these species may also accumulate toxic substances through biomagnification. For this reason, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting consumption (especially for women of childbearing age) of certain (predatory) fish species (e.g. albacore tuna, shark, king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish) due to high levels of the toxic contaminant mercury. Dioxin, PCBs and chlordane are also present. Fish oil is used as a component in aquaculture feed. More than 50 percent of the world's fish oil used in aquaculture feed is fed to farmed salmon.
Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods.
Studies have also shown that omega-3 fats are anti-arrhythmic (preventing or counteracting cardiac arrhythmia), anti-thrombotic (prevents thrombosis or a blood clot within a blood vessel), anti-atherosclerotic (preventing fatty deposits and fibrosis of the inner layer of your arteries), and anti-inflammatory (counteracting inflammation – the heat, pain, swelling, etc).
Your body also needs omega-6s, another type of fatty acid, to function properly and prevent disease. Unfortunately, these are found in much more abundance than omega-3s in the standard American diet, although your body craves a 1:1 ratio to keep inflammation low. Most modern diets contain a ratio closer to 20:1 or 30:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Studies have also found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are associated with improved survival rates for heart attack victims. A study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took a high dose of fish oil each for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation. (20)
Fish oil contains two very important omega-3 PUFAs. I’m talking about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA and EPA are sometimes called the marine omega-3s because they mainly come from fish. Some of the best fish to eat to obtain fish oil from in your diet include wild-caught salmon, herring, white fish, sardines and anchovies.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, which include EPA, DHA and ALA, which is alpha-linoleic acid. Although EPA and DHA are found to have high amounts from animal sources, ALA is found in rich concentrations in plant sources, including certain vegetable oils and flaxseeds, although fatty fish and shellfish are the best sources of EPA and DHA, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Examples of these fatty fish and shellfish include salmon, tuna, trout, crab, oysters and mussels.
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
It’s uncertain whether omega-3 fatty acid supplements are helpful for depression. Although some studies have had promising results, a 2015 evaluation of 26 studies that included more than 1,400 people concluded that if there is an effect, it may be too small to be meaningful. Other analyses have suggested that if omega-3s do have an effect, EPA may be more beneficial than DHA and that omega-3s may best be used in addition to antidepressant medication rather than in place of it.
Davidson, M. H., Stein, E. A., Bays, H. E., Maki, K. C., Doyle, R. T., Shalwitz, R. A., Ballantyne, C. M., and Ginsberg, H. N. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther 2007;29(7):1354-1367. View abstract.
There’s evidence that points to the mechanism behind the effects of fish oil on body composition, showing that fat burning at rest is increased with 6 grams/day of fish oil supplementation, and additional research suggests that higher omega-3 levels may be helpful for enhancing satiety during weight loss efforts. Other evidence suggests that fat loss may be a side-effect of the reduction in inflammation that fish oil can help with. Any way you look at it, supporting your dietary habits with 4 or more grams of fish oil per day is probably a good idea!
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.
There have been numerous clinical trials looking mainly at death, stroke, and cardiac outcomes related to omega 3 consumption, either in food or in supplements. Now the Cochrane Library has published the largest systematic review of these studies to date. Unfortunately, the review shows little benefit from consuming omega 3 fatty acid. This is a fairly extensive review with good statistical power:
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)
The #1 Pharmacist Recommended Omega-3/Fish Oil brand,* Nature Made fish oil supply comes from deep ocean waters, not farm-raised fish. State-of-the-art purification processes remove mercury and ensure high levels of fish oil purity and concentration, guaranteed to pass the stringent standards of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 Voluntary Monograph.‡
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
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.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to increase platelet responsiveness to subtherapeutic anticoagulation therapies, including aspirin. Recently, it was noted that patient response to aspirin for anticoagulation therapy is widely variable (45), and, thus, the number of patients with a low response to aspirin or aspirin resistance is estimated to range from <1% to 45%, depending on many variables. However, in patients with stable coronary artery disease taking low-dose aspirin, EPA+DHA supplementation has been proven to be as effective as aspirin dose escalation to 325 mg/d for anticoagulation benefits (45). The antiplatelet drug clopidogrel has also been associated with hyporesponsiveness in some patients. This could be attributed to poor patient compliance, differences in genes and platelet reactivity, variability of drug metabolism, and drug interactions. More importantly, in 1 study, patients receiving standard dual antiplatelet therapy (aspirin 75 mg/d and clopidogrel 600-mg loading dose followed by 75 mg/d) were assigned to either EPA+DHA supplementation or placebo. After 1 mo of treatment, the P2Y12 receptor reactivity index (an indicator of clopidogrel resistance) was significantly lower, by 22%, for patients taking EPA+DHA compared with patients taking placebo (P = 0.020) (46).
Most Americans take in far more of another essential fat—omega-6 fats—than they do omega-3 fats. Some experts have raised the hypothesis that this higher intake of omega-6 fats could pose problems, cardiovascular and otherwise, but this has not been supported by evidence in humans. (4) In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, for example, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats wasn’t linked with risk of heart disease because both of these were beneficial. (5) Many other studies and trials in humans also support cardiovascular benefits of omega-6 fats. Although there is no question that many Americans could benefit from increasing their intake of omega-3 fats, there is evidence that omega-6 fats also positively influence cardiovascular risk factors and reduce heart disease.
AD is a devastating disease for which there are limited treatment options and no cure. Memory loss is an early indicator of the disease, which is progressive, and leads to the inability of the patient to care for him- or herself and eventually to death (47). Currently, the number of individuals with AD is estimated to be 26.6 million and is expected to increase to 106.2 million by 2050 (48). There have been many studies conducted regarding the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and AD (Table 2). DHA is present in large amounts in neuron membrane phospholipids, where it is involved in proper function of the nervous system, which is why it is thought to play a role in AD (49). A case-control study consisting of 148 patients with cognitive impairment [Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) score <24] and 45 control patients (MMSE score ≥24) showed that serum cholesteryl ester-EPA and -DHA levels were significantly lower (P < 0.05 and P < 0.001, respectively) in all MMSE score quartiles of patients with AD compared with control values (49). Another study found that a diet characterized by higher intakes of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salad dressing, nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables, fruits, dark and green leafy vegetables), and a lower intake of foods low in omega-3 fatty acids (high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat, butter) was strongly associated with a lower AD risk (50). Image analysis of brain sections of an aged AD mouse model showed that overall plaque burden was significantly reduced by 40.3% in mice with a diet enriched with DHA (P < 0.05) compared with placebo. The largest reductions (40–50%) were seen in brain regions that are thought to be involved with AD, the hippocampus and parietal cortex (51). A central event in AD is thought to be the activation of multiple inflammatory cells in the brain. Release of IL-1B, IL-6, and TNF α from microglia cells may lead to dysfunction of the neurons in the brain (52). In 1 study, AD patients treated with EPA+DHA supplementation increased their plasma concentrations of EPA and DHA, which were associated with reduced release of inflammatory factors IL-1B, IL-6, and granulocyte colony–stimulating factor from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (53).
This under-the-radar grain is a nutritional powerhouse — and one of the most potent sources of the omega-3 alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA). Sprinkle flaxseeds over your morning oatmeal for a pleasant nutty flavor, or blend them into fruit smoothies to satisfy a picky palate. Need more ideas? Check out The Flaxseed Recipe Book, an easy-to-follow guide for adding flaxseeds to your favorite soups, salads, and main courses.
Those foods provide enormous amounts of other nutrients that are good for you. nSo it is way better to eat those foods than to take fish oil. With that said, some people find it very difficult to get vitamin A or vitamin D, and particularly for vitamin A, cod liver oil may be a very important source of that vitamin. Cod liver oil is a form of fish oil that happens to be high in the fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin A is best found in liver. It’s better in my opinion to eat liver once a week, but there are a lot of people out there who are not going to eat liver once a week. So if you are using cod liver oil to get the vitamins that you can’t get from food—and I should point out that vitamin A can also be derived from plant foods, but many people genetically or for other reasons don’t derive it very well from plant foods.
Pay attention to the quality of fish oil when purchasing it. It is obtained from almost all fishes – fresh water, farm, ocean, deep sea and shallow sea fish. All these fishes can be contaminated with toxic compounds such as mercury, arsenic, lead, forms of calcium, furans, dioxins, PCBs, and methylmercury, and can negatively affect the human body. Therefore, the fish oil used must be pure. Many companies sell ultra refined or distilled fish oil, but you should always check if the standards have been followed and research on the company or the product before adding it to your diet.
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.
Despite this one study, you should still consider eating fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.
According to the Cardiovascular Research Institute in Maastricht in Netherlands, “Epidemiological studies show that replacing fat with carbohydrates may even be worse [than the Western-type high-fat diet] and that various polyunsaturated fatty acids (FA) have beneficial rather than detrimental effects on CVD (cardiovascular disease) outcome.” This includes fish-oil fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties, which can help prevent and reverse a plethora of cardiovascular diseases. (19)
Fish oils seem to help reduce some fat levels in the blood. These fats are called triglycerides. Birth control pills might decrease the effectiveness of fish oils by reducing these fat levels in the blood.