Omega-3 fatty acids get a fair amount of time in the press and a great deal of respect at this point. But do you know what omega-3s are? What omega-3 benefits could convince you to add more oily fish (or maybe a supplement) to your diet? Are omega-3 foods really that big of a deal when it comes to eating a nutrient-dense diet? Could you be deficient in these fatty acids?
A scientific review in 2014 evaluated study findings on omega-3 intake in relation to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, the most prevalent cancer among women. The review found that EPA and DHA, as well as ALA, can differentially inhibit breast tumor development. According to this review, there is solid evidence to support the use of omega-3s as “a nutritional intervention in the treatment of breast cancer to enhance conventional therapeutics, or potentially lowering effective doses.” (16) Additionally, a 2016 study found that “very high fish consumption in early adulthood to midlife may be associated with decreased risk of breast cancer.” (17)
Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then DHA, but not enough to meet all your body’s needs but the best way to assure you are getting enough heart healthy fats is to eat foods high in the omega 3 fats, and if you can’t or don’t get enough of these necessary fats in your diet, you might consider taking an omega 3 supplement to boost these needed fats. More on this later.
The evidence that fish oil consumption should be used for primary prevention of CAD is based on observational studies. The only randomized trial for primary prevention, the JELIS trial, showed a moderate relative risk reduction and was conducted in a very specific group. Nevertheless, to date, there has been no strong signal suggesting any serious adverse effects of having high DHA and EPA oils in the diet. We agree with the national guidelines that one should consume moderate amounts of fish oil— either in supplement or through the dietary intake of fatty fish with low mercury levels.
Luo, J Rizkalla SW Vidal H Oppert JM Colas C Boussairi A Guerre-Millo M Chapuis AS Chevalier A Durand G Slama G. Moderate intake of n-3 fatty acids for 2 months has no detrimental effect on glucose metabolism and could ameliorate the lipid profile in type 2 diabetic men. Results of a controlled study. Diabetes Care. 1998;21(5):717-724. View abstract.
First, all Omega-3 products are not alike. Here's what I learned about Omega-3 from my research. The "3" relates to three sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Two of them, DHA and EPA are found in marine products such as fish and krill. The third source, ALA, is from plants. So with fish oil you are getting two of the three sources at once. That makes sense to me as a good reason to take Omega-3 fish oil. You will also note below that many of the reasons we choose to take Omega-3 do not occur with plant-based products.
The evidence linking the consumption of marine omega−3 fats to a lower risk of cancer is poor. With the possible exception of breast cancer, there is insufficient evidence that supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids has an effect on different cancers. The effect of consumption on prostate cancer is not conclusive. There is a decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, but an increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer was shown with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA. In people with advanced cancer and cachexia, omega−3 fatty acids supplements may be of benefit, improving appetite, weight, and quality of life.
To improve the health of your heart, brain, skin, hair, body and much, much more, consider adding fish oil to your daily supplement regime or consume wild-caught fish daily. If you’re adverse to fish oil pills, make sure to get at least two servings of fatty fish each week to fulfill your omega-3 needs and provide your body with fish oil benefits. This is a recommendation also encouraged by the American Heart Association. (38)
Human growth and intellectual development – DHA plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy and old age. High concentrations of DHA are found in the brain and increase 300 to 500 percent in an infant’s brain during the last trimester of pregnancy. Adding DHA to a pregnant mother’s diet may be beneficial for the fetus’s brain development. Elderly people should also take EPA DHA, because as we get older, our bodies form less EPA and DHA, which may cause less mental focus and cognitive function. Taking EPA DHA also may help with mental abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In the United States, the Institute of Medicine publishes a system of Dietary Reference Intakes, which includes Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for individual nutrients, and Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDRs) for certain groups of nutrients, such as fats. When there is insufficient evidence to determine an RDA, the institute may publish an Adequate Intake (AI) instead, which has a similar meaning, but is less certain. The AI for α-linolenic acid is 1.6 grams/day for men and 1.1 grams/day for women, while the AMDR is 0.6% to 1.2% of total energy. Because the physiological potency of EPA and DHA is much greater than that of ALA, it is not possible to estimate one AMDR for all omega−3 fatty acids. Approximately 10 percent of the AMDR can be consumed as EPA and/or DHA. The Institute of Medicine has not established a RDA or AI for EPA, DHA or the combination, so there is no Daily Value (DVs are derived from RDAs), no labeling of foods or supplements as providing a DV percentage of these fatty acids per serving, and no labeling a food or supplement as an excellent source, or "High in..." As for safety, there was insufficient evidence as of 2005 to set an upper tolerable limit for omega−3 fatty acids, although the FDA has advised that adults can safely consume up to a total of 3 grams per day of combined DHA and EPA, with no more than 2 g from dietary supplements.
Some studies suggest that people who get higher amounts of omega-3s from foods and dietary supplements may have a lower risk of breast cancer and perhaps colorectal cancer. More research is needed to confirm this possible link. Whether omega-3s affect the risk of other cancers is not clear. Clinical trials to examine this possibility are in progress.
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).
Why would someone foul a perfectly good box of rotini with omega 3 oils? This is based on the belief that omega 3 fatty acids reduce heart disease and vascular risk, probably through reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. This is a plausible claim, but as we see over and over again in medicine, plausibility (while nice) is insufficient as a basis for clinical claims.
Excessive amounts of chemicals. Using excessive amounts of fish products such as shark, farm raised salmon or mackerel can be dangerous. These products may be exposed to excessive amounts of chemicals such as mercury which can build up in the body and cause negative effects. While it is healthy to consume fish, it is important to seek out quality sources to avoid exposure to these chemicals. Using a supplement to get high levels of omega-3s into your system is also recommended because these products are produced in such a way that they will not expose you to unsafe chemicals.
Schilling, J., Vranjes, N., Fierz, W., Joller, H., Gyurech, D., Ludwig, E., Marathias, K., and Geroulanos, S. Clinical outcome and immunology of postoperative arginine, omega-3 fatty acids, and nucleotide-enriched enteral feeding: a randomized prospective comparison with standard enteral and low calorie/low fat i.v. solutions. Nutrition 1996;12(6):423-429. View abstract.
There is also evidence that mothers who use EPA and DHA supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding may protect their children against allergies. This may be due to the fact that fish-oil supplementation has been associated with decreased levels of body cells associated with inflammation and immune response (26). In a study about food allergy and IgE-associated eczema, the period prevalence of food allergy was lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05), and the incidence of IgE-associated eczema was also lower in the maternal EPA+DHA supplementation group compared to placebo (P < 0.05) (27).
As always with such trials, you can never prove zero benefit (or zero risk), but an essentially negative trial or meta-analysis sets statistical limits on the size of any remaining plausible effect. What we can now say with a fairly high degree of confidence is that any health benefit from consuming omega-3 fatty acids is tiny, probably too small to warrant supplementing (or adding it to pasta).
Children: Fish oil is POSSIBLY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Fish oil has been used safely through feeding tubes in infants for up to 9 months. But young children should not eat more than two ounces of fish per week. Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when consumed from dietary sources in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury. Eating contaminated fish frequently can cause brain damage, mental retardation, blindness and seizures in children.
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 Lyon Diet Heart Study, performed shortly after the DART study, was a prospective trial of 607 survivors of MI who were randomized to either a Mediterranean diet or a regular Western diet.49 At a mean follow-up of 27 months, the primary end point of death from cardiovascular causes and nonfatal deaths had a 73% relative risk reduction—a positive effect that continued at follow up assessment at a mean of 46 months.50 FA analysis of plasma lipids showed that in the patients randomized to a Mediterranean diet, there was a higher concentration of alpha-linolenic acid as well as EPA. Fish, however, was consumed in similar amounts by both the Western and Mediterranean diet groups. The higher blood level of EPA in the Mediterranean diet arm was attributed to its synthesis from alpha-linolenic acid, which was 60-times higher than the plasma concentration of EPA. In addition, the risk reduction that occurred in this trial could not be attributed to one particular diet intervention because as the consumption of fruits and vegetables increased, the consumption of monounsaturated fat increased, while saturated fat and cholesterol were decreased.
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.
In some cases, fish oil pills may cause loose stools, nausea, diarrhea, and decreased appetite, fat in the stools, vomiting or constipation. These side effects can be minimized by taking a fish oil capsule that is coated, which is designed to help eliminate the "fish burps" many users complain about. Starting with low doses of the supplement and working up to a full dose can also help minimize side effects. You can also pair fish oil supplements with meals so that they enter your body more slowly, minimizing the risk of side effects occurring.
After just seven days, those supplementing with krill had their CRP levels reduced by 19.3%, while in the placebo group, CRP levels rose by 15.7%. Even more impressive, the krill benefit was long-lasting. The krill group’s CRP levels continued to fall by 29.7% at 14 days, and 30.9% at 30 days. More importantly from the patients’ points of view, the krill oil supplement reduced pain scores by 28.9%, reduced stiffness by 20.3%, and reduced functional impairment by 22.8%.
Henneicke-von Zepelin, H. H., Mrowietz, U., Farber, L., Bruck-Borchers, K., Schober, C., Huber, J., Lutz, G., Kohnen, R., Christophers, E., and Welzel, D. Highly purified omega-3-polyunsaturated fatty acids for topical treatment of psoriasis. Results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled multicentre study. Br J Dermatol 1993;129(6):713-717. View abstract.
Children: Fish oil is POSSIBLY SAFE when taken by mouth appropriately. Fish oil has been used safely through feeding tubes in infants for up to 9 months. But young children should not eat more than two ounces of fish per week. Fish oil is also POSSIBLY SAFE when given in the vein by a health care professional to infants who cannot take food by mouth. Fish oil is POSSIBLY UNSAFE when consumed from dietary sources in large amounts. Fatty fish contain toxins such as mercury. Eating contaminated fish frequently can cause brain damage, mental retardation, blindness and seizures in children.