Only fish and breast milk contain all the members of the omega-3 family, including its two main stars, EPA and DHA. Because Americans as a rule consume far too few omega-3s from fish or fish oil, it’s no surprise that the majority of Americans have low omega-3 index levels as well. A recent study of global omega-3 index levels found that an estimated 95% of Americans (with the exception of folks from Alaska) had an omega-3 index of 4 or below, putting them in the high risk category (5, 6, 7).

(How much omega-3 is necessary to increase one’s omega-3 index?  Studies show it can take between 1800 – 2000 mg of EPA/DHA daily to move a person’s index by 4 – 5 percentage points (12). Importantly, this is a much larger dose than you’d get swallowing one or two regular fish oil capsules and could well explain why many traditional omega-3 products fail to deliver results.)

Another recent study shows that fatty fish consumption can cut the risk of eye-diabetes complications. The researches tracked the seafood consumption of about 3,600 diabetic men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 for nearly five years. The researchers found that people who regularly consumed 500 milligrams each day of omega-3 fatty acid in their diets (equal to two servings of fatty fish per week) were 48 percent less likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than those who consumed less. (23)

Smithers, L. G., Collins, C. T., Simmonds, L. A., Gibson, R. A., McPhee, A., and Makrides, M. Feeding preterm infants milk with a higher dose of docosahexaenoic acid than that used in current practice does not influence language or behavior in early childhood: a follow-up study of a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(3):628-634. View abstract.
A six week, double-blind study on fish oil supplementation for body composition showed that the group taking 4 grams/day of fish oil (contained 1600mg if EPA & 800mg of DHA) experienced a significant increase in lean body mass and significant decrease in fat mass compared to a group that took safflower oil (an omega-6 oil). The fish oil group also saw a tendency for decreases in cortisol, a hormone associated with belly fat gain when elevated.
A study published in Brain Research shows how far-reaching fish oil can be for people with diabetes. Researches found that fish oil can help reduce the risk of diabetics from developing cognitive deficit because it protects the hippocampus cells from being destroyed. The study also showed that fish oil could help reduce oxidative stress, which plays a central role in the development of diabetes complications, both microvascular and cardiovascular. (22)
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.

The studies examining the possible benefits of omega-3s continue. Researchers are looking at a range of health outcomes and the impact of a heart healthy diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids on a range of chronic disease. For instance, Dr. Hooper's team is beginning to evaluate the effects that omega-3 fats may have on diabetes, dementia, and some cancers.
Wohl, D. A., Tien, H. C., Busby, M., Cunningham, C., Macintosh, B., Napravnik, S., Danan, E., Donovan, K., Hossenipour, M., and Simpson, R. J., Jr. Randomized study of the safety and efficacy of fish oil (omega-3 fatty acid) supplementation with dietary and exercise counseling for the treatment of antiretroviral therapy-associated hypertriglyceridemia. Clin.Infect.Dis. 11-15-2005;41(10):1498-1504. View abstract.

Studies have also found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are associated with improved survival rates for heart attack victims. A study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took a high dose of fish oil each for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation. (20)
Good for you for eating healthily! Sadly, many people do not like omega-3 containing foods such as fish, and for these people, supplementation may be a good alternative to obtain omega-3. As a clinical investigator, my research focuses on study supplements, which is what I was asked to cover in this article. I’m all for healthy eating, but not everyone can afford it or wants to eat certain foods, and this is perhaps why supplements are so popular.
Several studies confirmed the benefit of omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy in terms of proper development of the brain and retina. Of the 2 most important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, DHA is the more important for proper cell membrane function and is vital to the development of the fetal brain and retina (17). During the third trimester, vast amounts of DHA accumulate in fetal tissue (20). The 2 most infiltrated fetal areas include the retina and brain, which may correlate with normal eyesight and brain function (19). A study by Judge et al. (20) found that children whose mothers had taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 29) had significantly better problem-solving skills at 9 mo old (P = 0.017) than those whose mothers had not taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy (n = 15). Another study provided a cognitive assessment of children 2.5 y after maternal EPA+DHA supplementation during pregnancy from 20 wk of gestation until delivery (n = 33) compared with children in a placebo group (n = 39). Children in the EPA + DHA–supplemented group attained significantly higher scores for eye and hand coordination [mean score, 114 (SD 10.2] than those in the placebo group [mean score, 108 (SD 11.3)] (P = 0.021, adjusted P = 0.008) (19).
Heart rate variability, a possible surrogate outcome for the risk of sudden death, was assessed in a randomized trial of myocardial infarction (MI) survivors with an ejection fraction of 40%. In the 49 patients that were randomized to either fish oil or olive oil, Holter monitor recordings showed an increase in heart rate variability in the fish oil group.31 In a larger cohort assessed in the Japan EPA Lipid Intervention Study (JELIS),32 however, no difference in heart rate variability could be attributed to fish oil.

Depression. There is inconsistent evidence on the effect of taking fish oil for depression. Some research shows that taking fish oil along with an antidepressant might help improve symptoms in some people. Other research shows that taking fish oil does not improve depression symptoms. The conflicting results may be due to the amount of EPA and DHA in the supplement or the severity of depression before treatment.
Since EPA and DHA are both essential for health and appear together in nature, many studies have attempted to treat clinical conditions with combined EPA and DHA oils, but the outcomes have been varied, contradictory and disappointing. Consequently, researchers have started to investigate the individual actions of EPA and DHA in isolation, in numerous health conditions where an omega-3 deficiency is related to symptoms or known to play a causative role. The emerging evidence shows marked differences between how these two fatty acids affect us – not just at the cellular level but also the body as a whole.
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).
Khandelwal, S., Demonty, I., Jeemon, P., Lakshmy, R., Mukherjee, R., Gupta, R., Snehi, U., Niveditha, D., Singh, Y., van der Knaap, H. C., Passi, S. J., Prabhakaran, D., and Reddy, K. S. Independent and interactive effects of plant sterols and fish oil n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on the plasma lipid profile of mildly hyperlipidaemic Indian adults. Br.J.Nutr. 2009;102(5):722-732. View abstract.
Abnormal rapid heart rhythms (ventricular arrhythmias). Population research suggests that eating a lot of fish has no effect on the risk for abnormal rapid heart rhythms. Clinical research is inconsistent. Some research shows that taking fish oil daily does not affect the risk for abnormal heart rhythms. But other research shows that taking fish oil for 11 months delays the development of the condition. However, overall, taking fish oil does not seem to reduce the risk of death in people with abnormal rapid heart rhythms.