A 2009 metastudy found that patients taking omega-3 supplements with a higher EPA:DHA ratio experienced fewer depressive symptoms. The studies provided evidence that EPA may be more efficacious than DHA in treating depression. However, this metastudy concluded that due to the identified limitations of the included studies, larger, randomized trials are needed to confirm these findings.
Ramakrishnan, U., Stein, A. D., Parra-Cabrera, S., Wang, M., Imhoff-Kunsch, B., Juarez-Marquez, S., Rivera, J., and Martorell, R. Effects of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy on gestational age and size at birth: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in Mexico. Food Nutr Bull 2010;31(2 Suppl):S108-S116. View abstract.
In addition to depression, chronic stress leads to loss of volume of the hippocampus—and also causes enlargement of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates anxiety and anger.24 When rats were supplemented with omega-3s during exposure to stress, they showed lower corticosterone levels (a marker of stress), and improved learning on a maze—indicating that the omega-3s helped preserve memory and reduce anxiety.24
Bianconi, L., Calo, L., Mennuni, M., Santini, L., Morosetti, P., Azzolini, P., Barbato, G., Biscione, F., Romano, P., and Santini, M. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for the prevention of arrhythmia recurrence after electrical cardioversion of chronic persistent atrial fibrillation: a randomized, double-blind, multicentre study. Europace. 2011;13(2):174-181. View abstract.
Fish oil supplements came under scrutiny in 2006, when the Food Standards Agency in the UK and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland reported PCB levels that exceeded the European maximum limits in several fish oil brands, which required temporary withdrawal of these brands. To address the concern over contaminated fish oil supplements, the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) Program, a third-party testing and accreditation program for fish oil products, was created by Nutrasource Diagnostics Inc. in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Omega-3s have been studied in various mood disorders, such as postpartum depression, with some promising results. In bipolar disorder (manic depression), the omega-3s may be most effective for the depressed phase rather than the manic phase of the illness. The omega-3s have also been proposed to alleviate or prevent other psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and attention deficit disorder. However, there is still not enough evidence to recommend the omega-3s in these conditions.
In fact, dietary fat intake has been among the most widely studied dietary risk factors for breast and prostate cancers. Two studies from 2002 explain how omega-3 can protect against breast cancer. BRCA1 (breast cancer gene 1) and BRCA2 (breast cancer gene 2) are two tumor suppressor genes that, when functioning normally, help repair DNA damage, a process that also prevents tumor development.
This constant sweeping motion of DHA also causes the breakup of lipid rafts in membranes (8). Disruption of these islands of relatively solid lipids makes it more difficult for cancer cells to continue to survive and more difficult for inflammatory cytokines to initiate the signaling responses to turn on inflammatory genes (9). In addition, the greater spatial characteristics of DHA increase the size of LDL particles to a greater extent compared to EPA. As a result, DHA helps reduce the entry of these enlarged LDL particles into the muscle cells that line the artery thus reducing the likelihood of developing atherosclerotic lesions (10). Thus the increased spatial territory swept out by DHA is good news for making certain areas of membranes more fluid or lipoprotein particles larger, even though it reduces the benefits of DHA in competing with AA for key enzymes important in the development of cellular inflammation.
Dyerberg, J., Eskesen, D. C., Andersen, P. W., Astrup, A., Buemann, B., Christensen, J. H., Clausen, P., Rasmussen, B. F., Schmidt, E. B., Tholstrup, T., Toft, E., Toubro, S., and Stender, S. Effects of trans- and n-3 unsaturated fatty acids on cardiovascular risk markers in healthy males. An 8 weeks dietary intervention study. Eur.J.Clin.Nutr. 2004;58(7):1062-1070. View abstract.
This under-the-radar grain is a nutritional powerhouse — and one of the most potent sources of the omega-3 alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA). Sprinkle flaxseeds over your morning oatmeal for a pleasant nutty flavor, or blend them into fruit smoothies to satisfy a picky palate. Need more ideas? Check out The Flaxseed Recipe Book, an easy-to-follow guide for adding flaxseeds to your favorite soups, salads, and main courses.
Soy can get a bad rap — and may indeed cause problems for people with certain food sensitivities — but this delicious bean is one of the most powerful (and versatile) ways to add omega-3 to your diet. Whole soybeans (known as edamame) are a favorite protein-packed snack for vegetarians; more processed forms (including tofu, soy milk, and soybean-based cooking oil) make soy infinitely more accessible. For some ideas, check out the 1998 classic, The Whole Soy Cookbook, which outlines how to cook with soy-based products ranging from miso to tempeh and beyond.
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.
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.
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.
Heart disease. Eating fish can be effective for keeping people with healthy hearts free of heart disease. People who already have heart disease might also be able to lower their risk of dying from heart disease by eating fish. The picture is less clear for fish oil supplements. For people who already take heart medications such as a "statin" and those who already eat a decent amount of fish, adding on fish oil might not offer any additional benefit.