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.
I now suspect that those thousands of gel-covered capsules I’ve swallowed over the years may have done little more than enrich the pockets of supplement producers and sellers. A number of extensive analyses have been conducted, some supporting and others refuting the value of fish oils to the cardiovascular system, along with studies of other purported health benefits that also have had mixed results.
Arsenault, L. N., Matthan, N., Scott, T. M., Dallal, G., Lichtenstein, A. H., Folstein, M. F., Rosenberg, I., and Tucker, K. L. Validity of estimated dietary eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid intakes determined by interviewer-administered food frequency questionnaire among older adults with mild-to-moderate cognitive impairment or dementia. Am J Epidemiol 7-1-2009;170(1):95-103. View abstract.
People should get most of their nutrients from food, advises the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Foods contain vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and other substances that benefit health. In some cases, fortified foods and dietary supplements may provide nutrients that otherwise may be consumed in less-than-recommended amounts. For more information about building your own healthy eating pattern, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov. MyPlate offers messages, resources, and tools to help you make the choices that are right for you, based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Many studies documenting the benefits of omega-3s have been conducted with supplemental daily dosages between 2 and 5 grams of EPA and DHA, more than you could get in 2 servings of fish a week. But that doesn't mean eating fish is an exercise in futility. Many studies document its benefits. For example, a 2003 National Eye Institute study showed that 60- to 80-year-olds eating fish more than twice a week were half as likely to develop macular degeneration as those who ate no fish at all.
RA causes chronic pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints. Some clinical trials have shown that taking omega-3 supplements may help manage RA when taken together with standard RA medications and other treatments. For example, people with RA who take omega-3 supplements may need less pain-relief medication, but it is not clear if the supplements reduce joint pain, swelling, or morning stiffness.
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 most extensive data of the effect of fish oil on lipoprotein subfractions are based on trials performed before the widespread use of statins. This data were aggregated over a decade ago in a meta-analysis of 16 randomized trials including over 1500 patients.17 In this analysis, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) was increased by an average of 5% and high-density lipoprotein was marginally changed. Although a shift toward less atherogenic, larger and more buoyant LDL particle composition has been shown,74 this has been offset by the observation that the number of apolipoprotein B 100 particles increases and may be more susceptible to oxidation.75 Increased conversion of remnant particles (intermediate density lipoprotein) to LDL has also been observed.76
Muñoz MA, Liu W, Delaney JA, Brown E, Mugavero MJ, Mathews WC, Napravnik S, Willig JH, Eron JJ, Hunt PW, Kahn JO, Saag MS, Kitahata MM, Crane HM. Comparative effectiveness of fish oil versus fenofibrate, gemfibrozil, and atorvastatin on lowering triglyceride levels among HIV-infected patients in routine clinical care. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2013;64(3):254-60. View abstract.
To date, no studies have assessed mortality or nonfatal MI in diabetic patients treated with fish oil.52–54 A recent comprehensive meta-analysis analyzed the effect of fish oil supplements on metabolic parameters when added to usual care in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus or impaired glucose tolerance.54 The meta-analysis included a total of 23 small, randomized trials with over 1000 patients that were assessed for lipid and insulin resistance parameters. At a mean follow-up of approximately 9 weeks, triglyceride reduction was accomplished but no significant changes were seen in total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol, HgA1c levels, fasting glucose levels, fasting insulin, or in body weight. The largest randomized trial to date assessed approximately 400 patients with impaired glucose tolerance or insulin-dependent diabetes mel-litus, and as reflected in the larger meta-analysis, found no effect of moderate to high doses of fish oil on diabetic parameters.55 There are insufficient randomized data to comment on the combination of fish oil and specific diabetes medications and related mortality and/or morbidity.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has made recommendations for EPA and DHA due to their cardiovascular benefits: individuals with no history of coronary heart disease or myocardial infarction should consume oily fish two times per week; and "Treatment is reasonable" for those having been diagnosed with coronary heart disease. For the latter the AHA does not recommend a specific amount of EPA + DHA, although it notes that most trials were at or close to 1000 mg/day. The benefit appears to be on the order of a 9% decrease in relative risk. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approved a claim "EPA and DHA contributes to the normal function of the heart" for products that contain at least 250 mg EPA + DHA. The report did not address the issue of people with pre-existing heart disease. The World Health Organization recommends regular fish consumption (1-2 servings per week, equivalent to 200 to 500 mg/day EPA + DHA) as protective against coronary heart disease and ischaemic stroke.
The way that fish oil does that is to interfere with carbohydrate metabolism, and in insulin-resistant people or in people with specific genetic differences that might predispose them to having very high triglycerides, you do benefit from interfering that pathway with the fish oil, but I would actually try a low-carbohydrate diet in a lot of those situations to see if that helps with lowering triglycerides, or in the case of insulin resistance, I would try to address the insulin resistance at its root cause.
Increased consumption of omega 3 fats is widely promoted globally because of a common belief that that it will protect against heart disease. There is more than one possible mechanism for how they might help prevent heart disease, including reducing blood pressure or reducing cholesterol. Omega 3 fats are readily available as over-the-counter supplements and they are widely bought and used.
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.
The systematic review suggests that eating more ALA through food or supplements probably has little or no effect on cardiovascular deaths or deaths from any cause. However, eating more ALA probably reduces the risk of heart irregularities from 3.3 to 2.6%. The review team found that reductions in cardiovascular events with ALA were so small that about 1000 people would need to increase consumption of ALA for one of them to benefit. Similar results were found for cardiovascular death. They did not find enough data from the studies to be able to measure the risk of bleeding or blood clots from using ALA.
Dangour, A. D., Allen, E., Elbourne, D., Fasey, N., Fletcher, A. E., Hardy, P., Holder, G. E., Knight, R., Letley, L., Richards, M., and Uauy, R. Effect of 2-y n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on cognitive function in older people: a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial. Am.J.Clin.Nutr. 2010;91(6):1725-1732. View abstract.
Widenhorn-Müller K, Schwanda S, Scholz E, Spitzer M, Bode H. Effect of supplementation with long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on behavior and cognition in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): a randomized placebo-controlled intervention trial. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2014;91(1-2):49-60. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2014.04.004PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Fish oil contamination even among “molecularly distilled” brands and those aimed at children is a widespread problem. One study in California tested 10 common brands and found PCBs — toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans — in all of them. Some had 70 times the PCBs of other ones and 240x the toxicity. In another study, researchers tested 13 over-the-counter children’s dietary supplements containing fish oil for PCBs. PCBs were detected in all products. Our family takes algae-derived omega-3 (DHA/EPA) capsules, which are bioequivalent to fish oil capsules. Algae are actually the source where fish get their omega-3 content, so we skip the contaminated middle man (or, fish, in this case) and the neurotoxins that come with them given how polluted our oceans are now. I highly recommend parents do their research on what studies show about fish oil contamination and not just trust the labels, as well as consider algae-derived omega-3 capsules as more healthful bioequivalent to fish oil.
High triglycerides. Most research shows that fish oil from supplements and food sources can reduce triglyceride levels. The effects of fish oil appear to be the greatest in people who have very high triglyceride levels. Also the amount of fish oil consumed seems to directly affect how much triglyceride levels are reduced. Some fish oil supplements including Lovaza, Omtryg, and Epanova have been approved by the FDA to lower triglycerides.