What makes omega-3 fats special? They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
Lok CE, Moist L, Hemmelgarn BR, Tonelli M, Vazquez MA, Dorval M, Oliver M, Donnelly S, Allon M, Stanley K; Fish Oil Inhibition of Stenosis in Hemodialysis Grafts (FISH) Study Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation on graft patency and cardiovascular events among patients with new synthetic arteriovenous hemodialysis grafts: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2012;307(17):1809-16. View abstract.
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.
The differing actions of EPA and DHA, together with their competitive uptake, help to explain why studies that attempt to use standard fish oil therapeutically (where DHA and EPA are combined, in a natural ratio of approximately 1.5:1) are either less beneficial than expected, or even completely ineffective. Standard EPA/DHA fish oils are more suitable for everyday wellbeing, to compensate for a lack of fish in the diet and to meet a suggested intake.
When it comes to omega-3 benefits, there are rarely nutrients that pack this many positive health outcomes into one compound. The most commonly known benefit of omega-3s is a reduced risk of heart disease, but that’s not the only studied plus of getting lots of omega-3s in your diet — from fetal development to retinal function to weight management (and a lot more in between), these acids support and promote optimal health for anyone. (1)
It’s no surprise that fish — particularly cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies — are rich in omega-3s. It’s called fish oil for a reason, right? Mackerel, for instance, may have more than 3300 mg of omega-3 per serving — that’s more than 6 times the recommended per day dose for healthy adults. Not a huge fish connoisseur? Try some of the quick, simple recipes in Cooking with Fish Like a Pro, an accessible collection of fish recipes to suit every palate.
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.
A 2008 meta-study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal found fish oil supplementation did not demonstrate any preventative benefit to cardiac patients with ventricular arrhythmias. A 2012 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, covering 20 studies and 68,680 patients, found that Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplementation did not reduce the chance of death, cardiac death, heart attack or stroke.
Most brands of fish oil have been proven safe, free of detectable traces of mercury, and do not contain unsafe levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a toxin and pollutant believed to pose various health threats. To avoid contaminants in an unrefined supplement, it's best to choose a fish-oil supplement made from small, oily fish like anchovy, sardines or menhaden.
Brain function and vision rely on dietary intake of DHA to support a broad range of cell membrane properties, particularly in grey matter, which is rich in membranes. A major structural component of the mammalian brain, DHA is the most abundant omega−3 fatty acid in the brain. It is under study as a candidate essential nutrient with roles in neurodevelopment, cognition, and neurodegenerative disorders.
Some studies reported better psychomotor development at 30 months of age in infants whose mothers received fish oil supplements for the first four months of lactation. In addition, five-year-old children whose mothers received modest algae based docosahexaenoic acid supplementation for the first 4 months of breastfeeding performed better on a test of sustained attention. This suggests that docosahexaenoic acid intake during early infancy confers long-term benefits on specific aspects of neurodevelopment.
The competition between EPA and DHA during digestion and absorption and the fact that DHA appears to ‘block’ the therapeutic actions of EPA can therefore be an issue if we are looking to optimise the benefits associated with EPA (Martins 2009; Bloch & Qawasmi et al, 2011; Sublette et al, 2011). High dose, high concentration and high ratio EPA supplements increase the effectiveness in depression studies, and pure EPA-only is optimal. Depression is also a condition with an inflammatory basis, so this is likely another significant reason for EPA being the key player – its antagonistic relationship with the inflammatory omega-3 AA (arachidonic acid) is very effective at reducing inflammation.
Fish oil is FDA approved to lower triglycerides levels, but it is also used for many other conditions. It is most often used for conditions related to the heart and blood system. Some people use fish oil to lower blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Fish oil has also been used for preventing heart disease or stroke, as well as for clogged arteries, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, bypass surgery, heart failure, rapid heartbeat, preventing blood clots, and high blood pressure after a heart transplant.