Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.
Both omega−6 and omega−3 fatty acids are essential: humans must consume them in their diet. Omega−6 and omega−3 eighteen-carbon polyunsaturated fatty acids compete for the same metabolic enzymes, thus the omega−6:omega−3 ratio of ingested fatty acids has significant influence on the ratio and rate of production of eicosanoids, a group of hormones intimately involved in the body's inflammatory and homeostatic processes, which include the prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes, among others. Altering this ratio can change the body's metabolic and inflammatory state. In general, grass-fed animals accumulate more omega−3 than do grain-fed animals, which accumulate relatively more omega−6. Metabolites of omega−6 are more inflammatory (esp. arachidonic acid) than those of omega−3. This necessitates that omega−6 and omega−3 be consumed in a balanced proportion; healthy ratios of omega−6:omega−3, according to some authors, range from 1:1 to 1:4. Other authors believe that a ratio of 4:1 (4 times as much omega−6 as omega−3) is already healthy. Studies suggest the evolutionary human diet, rich in game animals, seafood, and other sources of omega−3, may have provided such a ratio.
The reason why fish oil could increase a man’s risk of prostate cancer is IMBALANCE. Like I said earlier, omega-6 fatty acids aren’t bad for you. In fact, if your diet contains too many omega-3 fatty acids, your immune system wouldn’t work very well because omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are meant to work in a system of checks and balances. Omega-3 fatty acids suppress inflammation, and omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation, which actually supports your body’s natural system of defense like activating your white blood cells.
Between the ages of five and 65, the majority of the body’s needs can be met by using EPA-rich oils and eating fish, marine products, organic greens and pastured animal products. EPA levels are under constant demand and low EPA levels in adolescents and adults correlates strongly with development of mental health issues, including depression, dyslexia and dyspraxia, heart problems, joint and bone conditions, as well as neurodegenerative diseases such as MS and Parkinson’s. EPA also protects our genes and cell cycle, as well as helping to keep our stress response regulated, so an adequate supply of EPA throughout adult life can help prevent a range of chronic illness.
“This idea has since been pretty discredited; we really don’t know if the Eskimos got heart disease or not,” said Malden C. Nesheim, emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell University, who chaired an Institute of Medicine committee assessing the risks and benefits of seafood in the early 2000s. “I’ve been an omega-3 skeptic since doing this study.”
All people need to consume omega-3 fats regularly. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females, according to the National Institutes of Health. The omega-3 family encompasses numerous fatty acids, but three primary forms are eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid. The first two forms primarily occur in fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna. The third can be found in plant oils, including flaxseed, soybean, walnut, and canola oils.
Fish oil seems to be a subject of controversy. Some people swear by it, and there are thousands of clinical trials out now trying to study what the latest and greatest thing about the supplement is. The Natural Standard does a really good job collecting and gathering data for those who are interested in delving through what fish oil may or may not be doing to us. Definitive answers, however, may take a little while to get.
Fish oil supplements are available as liquids or capsules. Some capsules are enteric-coated to pass through the stomach before dissolving in the small intestine, thus helping prevent indigestion and "fish burps". Poorly manufactured enteric-coated products have the potential to release ingredients too early. ConsumerLab.com, a for-profit supplement testing company, reported that 1 of the 24 enteric-coated fish oil supplements it evaluated released ingredients prematurely.
Among the 16 studies comparing the effect of omega-3 PUFA treatment with that of the placebo,33,34,36,47-49,51-53,55-61 the main results revealed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 16; Hedges g, 0.372; 95% CI, 0.032-0.712; P = .03; eFigure 3 in the Supplement). The meta-analysis of the subgroup focusing on non–placebo-controlled trials also showed a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in patients receiving omega-3 PUFA treatment than in those not receiving it (k, 3; Hedges g, 0.399; 95% CI, 0.154-0.643; P = .001).35,50,54
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.
Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need each day, but suggestions range from a fish oil dosage of 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily depending on whom you ask. How easy is it to get these recommended amounts? To give you an idea, there are more than 500 milligrams of total omega-3s in one can of tuna fish and one small serving of wild-caught salmon.
Bergmann, R. L., Haschke-Becher, E., Klassen-Wigger, P., Bergmann, K. E., Richter, R., Dudenhausen, J. W., Grathwohl, D., and Haschke, F. Supplementation with 200 mg/day docosahexaenoic acid from mid-pregnancy through lactation improves the docosahexaenoic acid status of mothers with a habitually low fish intake and of their infants. Ann Nutr Metab 2008;52(2):157-166. View abstract.
Not surprising, there are some areas in which both EPA and DHA appear to be equally beneficial. As an example, both are equally effective in reducing triglyceride levels (10). This is probably due to the relatively equivalent activation of the gene transcription factor (PPAR alpha) that causes the enhanced synthesis of the enzymes that oxidize fats in lipoprotein particles. There is also apparently equal activation of the anti-inflammatory gene transcription factor PPAR-gamma (11). Both seem to be equally effective in making powerful anti-inflammatory eicosanoids known as resolvins (12). Finally, although both have no effect on total cholesterol levels, DHA can increase the size of LDL particle to a greater extent than can EPA (10).
Gajos, G., Zalewski, J., Rostoff, P., Nessler, J., Piwowarska, W., & Undas, A. (2011, May 26). Reduced thrombin formation and altered fibrin clot properties induced by polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids on top of dual antiplatelet therapy in patients undergoing percutaneous coronary intervention (OMEGA-PCI Clot). Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 111.228593. Retrieved from http://atvb.ahajournals.org/content/early/2011/05/26/ATVBAHA.111.228593.abstract
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)
“Lipid peroxidation induced by DHA enrichment modifies paracellular permeability in Caco-2 cells: protective role of taurine.” We conclude that hydrogen peroxide and peroxynitrite may be involved in the DHA-induced increase in paracellular permeability and that the protective role of taurine may be in part related to its capacity to counteract the effects of hydrogen peroxide.
Kremer, J. M., Lawrence, D. A., Petrillo, G. F., Litts, L. L., Mullaly, P. M., Rynes, R. I., Stocker, R. P., Parhami, N., Greenstein, N. S., Fuchs, B. R., and . Effects of high-dose fish oil on rheumatoid arthritis after stopping nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs. Clinical and immune correlates. Arthritis Rheum. 1995;38(8):1107-1114. View abstract.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found abundantly in fish oil, are increasingly being used in the management of cardiovascular disease. It is clear that fish oil, in clinically used doses (typically 4 g/d of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) reduce high triglycerides. However, the role of omega-3 fatty acids in reducing mortality, sudden death, arrhythmias, myocardial infarction, and heart failure has not yet been established. This review will focus on the current clinical uses of fish oil and provide an update on their effects on triglycerides, coronary artery disease, heart failure, and arrhythmia. We will explore the dietary sources of fish oil as compared with drug therapy, and discuss the use of fish oil products in combination with other commonly used lipid-lowering agents. We will examine the underlying mechanism of fish oil’s action on triglyceride reduction, plaque stability, and effect in diabetes, and review the newly discovered anti-inflammatory effects of fish oil. Finally, we will examine the limitations of current data and suggest recommendations for fish oil use.
Scaly, itchy skin (eczema). Research shows that fish oil does not improve eczema. Most research also shows that taking fish oil during pregnancy doesn't PREVENT eczema in the child. Giving fish oil to an infant also doesn't seem to prevent eczema in children. But children who eat fish at least once weekly from the age of 1-2 years seem to have a lower risk of developing eczema.