It seems that infancy and childhood are some of the most important periods of time in a person’s life to get plenty omega-3s in their diet, probably because of the amount of long-chain fatty acids found in the brain and retina. It’s crucial for developing babies and children to get a good amount of DHA and EPA so their brains and eyes develop fully and properly. (78)
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.
Although there are no randomized data on fish oil consumption and protection from sudden death, observational studies have linked omega-3 FA with the prevention of sudden death. In a population-based, case-control study of sudden cardiac death victims, the mean red blood cell membrane omega-3 FA level of the lowest quartile, when compared with the mean level of the third quartile, was associated with a relative risk reduction of 70%.33 A similar finding was appreciated in a nested, prospective, case-control study of the Physician Health Study cohort of 22,000 healthy males. In the 119 patients that succumbed to sudden death, baseline omega-3 FA blood levels were significantly lower than in matched controls.34 Finally, in an analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study, a cohort study of 84,688 women, an inverse association was shown between fish consumption and CAD-related death. The investigators concluded that the reduction in CAD deaths was likely due to a reduction in sudden deaths, as there was no difference in the rate of MI when comparing high and low fish consumption.35
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:
Funding/Support: The work was supported in part by grant 17H04253, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; grant 30-A-17 from the National Cancer Center Research and Development Fund; grants MOST106-2314-B-039-027-MY, 106-2314-B-038-049, 106-2314-B-039-031, 106-2314-B-039-035, 104-2314-B-039-022-MY2, and 104-2314-B-039-050-MY3 from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan; grant HRI-EX105-10528NI from the National Health Research Institutes, Taiwan; and grants CRS-106-063, DMR-107-202, and DMR-107-204 from the China Medical University, Taiwan.
To avoid fish oil supplements containing mercury or other harmful contaminants, purchase supplements from a reputable source that clearly tests for these health-hazardous contaminants in its products. These tests should be ideally conducted by a third-party, and a certificate of analysis should indicate the levels of purity from environmental toxins.
EPA and DHA stand for eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid respectively. These fatty acids are omega-3 fats, which are found in cold water fish. EPA DHA are highly unsaturated fats because they contain six and five double bonds on their long structural chains. These polyunsaturated fats play a very important role with the function of our bodies.
Gerber, J. G., Kitch, D. W., Fichtenbaum, C. J., Zackin, R. A., Charles, S., Hogg, E., Acosta, E. P., Connick, E., Wohl, D., Kojic, E. M., Benson, C. A., and Aberg, J. A. Fish oil and fenofibrate for the treatment of hypertriglyceridemia in HIV-infected subjects on antiretroviral therapy: results of ACTG A5186. J.Acquir.Immune.Defic.Syndr. 4-1-2008;47(4):459-466. View abstract.
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).
Several large trials have evaluated the effect of fish or fish oils on heart disease. In the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardio (known as the GISSI Prevention Trial), heart attack survivors who took a 1-gram capsule of omega-3 fats every day for three years were less likely to have a repeat heart attack, stroke, or die of sudden death than those who took a placebo. (2) Notably, the risk of sudden cardiac death was reduced by about 50 percent. In the more recent Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS), participants who took EPA plus a cholesterol-lowering statin were less likely to have a major coronary event (sudden cardiac death, fatal or nonfatal heart attack, unstable angina, or a procedure to open or bypass a narrowed or blocked coronary artery) than those who took a statin alone. (3)
Guallar, E., Aro, A., Jimenez, F. J., Martin-Moreno, J. M., Salminen, I., van't Veer, P., Kardinaal, A. F., Gomez-Aracena, J., Martin, B. C., Kohlmeier, L., Kark, J. D., Mazaev, V. P., Ringstad, J., Guillen, J., Riemersma, R. A., Huttunen, J. K., Thamm, M., and Kok, F. J. Omega-3 fatty acids in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction: the EURAMIC study. Arterioscler.Thromb.Vasc.Biol 1999;19(4):1111-1118. View abstract.
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.
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).
Chemical structure of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega−3 fatty acid, (18:3Δ9c,12c,15c, which means a chain of 18 carbons with 3 double bonds on carbons numbered 9, 12, and 15). Although chemists count from the carbonyl carbon (blue numbering), biologists count from the n (ω) carbon (red numbering). Note that, from the n end (diagram right), the first double bond appears as the third carbon-carbon bond (line segment), hence the name "n-3". This is explained by the fact that the n end is almost never changed during physiological transformations in the human body, as it is more energy-stable, and other compounds can be synthesized from the other carbonyl end, for example in glycerides, or from double bonds in the middle of the chain.
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 later life, cognitive function and brain deterioration may become a concern. Once again, maintaining high levels of EPA has been shown to lower the risk of developing and worsening cognitive decline and dementia. If, however, you know someone who already has a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s, their brain has already been damaged and needs structural support. At this point, DHA becomes important again and taking a high-EPA product that contains 250mg of DHA also is important to prevent further loss of brain tissue.
EPA is the precursor to DHA in the body and can be converted to DHA with the enzyme delta-6 desaturase, but this process is inefficient in many people (much like the inefficiency of short-chain omega-3s to long-chain). For those individuals taking pure EPA products as well as those taking our EPA-rich products, we still recommend eating oily fish at least once each week to provide a natural source of DHA. Fish provides a unique nutritional package, supplying the diet with important amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and antioxidants, including vitamins and minerals needed to process fats, so eating fish will also support the natural enzyme-dependent EPA to DHA conversion.
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.
One day I was cooking pasta when the kitchen started to fill with the odor of fish. I happen to hate fish, so this was not a pleasant experience. It was also a mystery, since I never cook fish. A little detective work discovered that the offensive odor was coming from the pasta. Apparently I didn’t notice the “Now with Omega 3” label on the box when I purchased it. My daughter and I still refer to this as the “fish pasta incident”.
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.)
Cardiovascular disease is the cause of 38% of all deaths in the United States, many of which are preventable (28). Chronic inflammation is thought to be the cause of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease (29). EPA and DHA are thought to have antiinflammatory effects and a role in oxidative stress (30) and to improve cellular function through changes in gene expression (31). In a study that used human blood samples, EPA+DHA intake changed the expression of 1040 genes and resulted in a decreased expression of genes involved in inflammatory and atherogenesis-related pathways, such as nuclear transcription factor κB signaling, eicosanoid synthesis, scavenger receptor activity, adipogenesis, and hypoxia signaling (31). Circulating markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), TNF α, and some ILs (IL-6, IL-1), correlate with an increased probability of experiencing a cardiovascular event (32). Inflammatory markers such as IL-6 trigger CRP to be synthesized by the liver, and elevated levels of CRP are associated with an increased risk of the development of cardiovascular disease (33). A study of 89 patients showed that those treated with EPA+DHA had a significant reduction in high-sensitivity CRP (66.7%, P < 0.01) (33). The same study also showed a significant reduction in heat shock protein 27 antibody titers (57.69%, P < 0.05), which have been shown to be overexpressed in heart muscle cells after a return of blood flow after a period of ischemia (ischemia-reperfusion injury) and may potentially have a cardioprotective effect (33).
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)
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.
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).
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
The chemical structure of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Eicosapentaenoic acid consists of 20 carbons (C20) with 5 double bonds, and the last unsaturated carbon is located third from the methyl end (n-3). Do-cosahexaenoic acid consists of 22 carbons (C22) with 6 double bonds, and also with the3 last unsaturated carbon located third from the methyl end (n-3). Adapted with permission from Frishman et al, eds. Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapeutics. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2003.3
The European Journal of Neuroscience published a study in 2013 showing that fish oil reversed all anxiety-like and depression-like behavior changes induced in rats. This is an interesting study because it stresses the importance of supplementing with fish oil at “critical periods of brain development.” (10) This is exactly why I recommend giving fish oil to our kids from early on to help them so they won’t develop anxiety or depression later in life.
A lot of the benefit of fish oil seems to come from the omega-3 fatty acids that it contains. Interestingly, the body does not produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. Nor can the body make omega-3 fatty acids from omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in the Western diet. A lot of research has been done on EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 acids that are often included in fish oil supplements.