The three types of omega−3 fatty acids involved in human physiology are α-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both commonly found in marine oils. Marine algae and phytoplankton are primary sources of omega−3 fatty acids. Common sources of plant oils containing ALA include walnut, edible seeds, clary sage seed oil, algal oil, flaxseed oil, Sacha Inchi oil, Echium oil, and hemp oil, while sources of animal omega−3 fatty acids EPA and DHA include fish, fish oils, eggs from chickens fed EPA and DHA, squid oils, and krill oil. Dietary supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids does not appear to affect the risk of death, cancer or heart disease. Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes or any vascular disease outcomes.
Hanwell, H. E., Kay, C. D., Lampe, J. W., Holub, B. J., and Duncan, A. M. Acute fish oil and soy isoflavone supplementation increase postprandial serum (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids and isoflavones but do not affect triacylglycerols or biomarkers of oxidative stress in overweight and obese hypertriglyceridemic men. J Nutr 2009;139(6):1128-1134. View abstract.
Ramakrishnan, U., Stein, A. D., Parra-Cabrera, S., Wang, M., Imhoff-Kunsch, B., Juarez-Marquez, S., Rivera, J., and Martorell, R. Effects of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy on gestational age and size at birth: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in Mexico. Food Nutr Bull 2010;31(2 Suppl):S108-S116. View abstract.
In general, most health organizations agree 250–500 milligrams of EPA and DHA combined each day is a reasonable amount to support healthy individuals. However, people with heart problems (or those with a high risk of heart disease), depression, anxiety and cancer (and possibly more conditions) may benefit from higher doses — up to 4,000 milligrams per day for some heart-related conditions. (5)
Birch, E. E., Carlson, S. E., Hoffman, D. R., Fitzgerald-Gustafson, K. M., Fu, V. L., Drover, J. R., Castaneda, Y. S., Minns, L., Wheaton, D. K., Mundy, D., Marunycz, J., and Diersen-Schade, D. A. The DIAMOND (DHA Intake And Measurement Of Neural Development) Study: a double-masked, randomized controlled clinical trial of the maturation of infant visual acuity as a function of the dietary level of docosahexaenoic acid. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(4):848-859. View abstract.
A scientific review published in 2013 looked at omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and prostate cancer prevention. Researchers concluded that there’s a great deal of evidence suggesting that omega-3s have antiproliferative effects – which means they inhibit cancer cell growth – in cancer cell lines, animal models and humans. In addition, the “direct effects on cancer cells” and indirect anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system fighting the cancer likely contribute to the ability of omega-3 fatty acids to inhibit tumor growth. (14)
There was a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs than in those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage less than 60% (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.485; 95% CI, 0.017-0.954; P = .04; Figure 4)35,49,52,54-61 but no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs and those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage of at least 60% (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.092; 95% CI, –0.102 to 0.285; P = .35) (Figure 4).33,34,36,47,48,50,51,53,60 There were no significantly different estimated effect sizes between these 2 subgroups by the interaction test (P = .13).
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 strongest evidence for a beneficial effect of omega-3 fats has to do with heart disease. These fats appear to help the heart beat at a steady clip and not veer into a dangerous or potentially fatal erratic rhythm. (1) Such arrhythmias cause most of the 500,000-plus cardiac deaths that occur each year in the United States. Omega-3 fats also lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. (1)
For those who can’t or choose not to eat fatty fish, or who have certain health issues, supplementation is a way to increase omega-3 levels. “There are some conditions that might respond well to supplementation, such as depression or cardiovascular risk factors, including elevated triglycerides,” explains Kathie Madonna Swift, MS, RDN, LDN. If you're ooking to increase your omega-3 levels, Click here for six tips to finding the right supplement.
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.
Several other analyses of the evidence have been done in the last few years (2012 or later), and like the 2018 analysis and the AHRQ report, most found little or no evidence for a protective effect of omega-3 supplements against heart disease. However, some earlier analyses suggested that omega-3s could be helpful. The difference between the newer conclusions and the older ones may reflect two changes over time:
A certain kidney disease called IgA nephropathy. Some research shows that long-term but not short-term use of fish oil can slow the loss of kidney function in high-risk patients with IgA nephropathy. Fish oil might have greater effects when taken at higher doses. Also, it might be most effective in people with IgA nephropathy who have higher levels of protein in the urine.